Unlike certain other historians and classicists, I’m not proposing to offer my ha’penny worth on the Scottish Question, for all that it would probably do temporary wonders for my visitor stats. Rather, I run the risk of annoying people on both sides by declining, and/or being unable, to choose. I can see merits in the arguments of both sides, as well as serious flaws; I can feel something of the emotional and cultural charge of both; I have been inspired and energised, in quite contradictory ways, by passionate voices on both sides; and I am all too aware of how far my own situation and interests influence my evaluation of the debate – which is to say that, if I were living in Scotland and so actually had a vote, I suspect I would still be undecided, even at this late stage, but in rather different ways from my current uncertainty. It is, one might say, the stance of the typical historian; congenitally incapable of not seeing how complicated, ambiguous and uncertain everything is.
What I did want to comment on was a remark in one of the letters in the Grauniad this morning, addressing the article on Scotland and its relation with the Tories by Tom Devine.
Tom Devine seems to show that while historians are good at analysing the past, they are no better than the rest of us in making political judgements about the present or the future.
Well, yes. Of course there are some interpretations of, say, Thucydides’ methodological comments in I.22 about the usefulness of his history which imply that events repeat themselves so we can learn from them, but I’m not convinced. I would argue rather that the tendency for patterns to recur in history is what allows us to draw on knowledge of the past as a means (but not a complete means) of making sense of the present and make wise decisions for the unknown and unknowable future; it helps us to understand our situation, without which we can’t hope to decide properly, but it doesn’t predict the outcome of our decisions. What history tells us – certainly what Thucydides’ history tells us – is that there are countless moments of decision, bifurcations, points where events could develop in quite different directions; we’re conscious of some of them, whereas others are recognised only in retrospect, when we seek to make sense of what’s happened. The characters in Thucydides who are most confident in predicting the outcome of decisions and actions are those who are most often then proved wrong by actual events; one key message is that humans rarely have a good understanding of their own situation, but plough on regardless.
To be fair to Devine, his article did not claim to predict the future in any serious manner: it emphasises the uncertainty of the referendum outcome, and the incalculability of its consequences (especially in the case of a Yes vote). The sense that he is claiming something more is at least in part a product of the title, ‘How history turned against Tory-voting Scotland’, which tempts the reader to interpret his careful summary account of Scottish politics over the last century as an inevitable development, the workings of History in a Hegelian manner – the work of a sub-editor rather than the man himself, one suspects. Of course Devine draws his own conclusions from this account about the bankruptcy of the old Union – and of course one could always tell a different story about the same period, perhaps less focused on party politics and more on broader issues of culture and identity (cf. Linda Colley’s article today), from which different conclusions might be drawn.
The debate is partly all about such competing narratives, and the identities they both reflect and work to construct. It’s also about the fundamental uncertainty of human affairs, and humans’ inability to deal with this very well. Each side claims to offer certainty and predictability in contrast to the risks represented by the opposition; this is most obvious with the depressingly if understandably negative No campaign (I’m surprised they haven’t been quoting Thucydides on ‘hope, danger’s comforter’ non-stop), but in fact the Yes campaign offers not so much a choice between exciting but cloudy future versus dull status quo, as a choice between the certainty that an independent Scotland can make it and the unknown risks of what the Westminster politicians will visit on the Scots next. What is both exciting and scarey is that neither camp can really make such promises; whatever the outcome tomorrow, things will change, unpredictably as ever.
At which point, of course, they will generally come to seem a matter of destiny and inexorable History.