The 1970s saw the crystallisation of an idea that had been forming in Scotland for some time, namely that socialism could profitably be harnessed to a developing Scottish political identity. The Scottish socialist historian James D. Young produced a number of challenging essays on Red Clydesider John Maclean, and his The Rousing of the Scottish Working Class ably illustrated the links between Scottish radicalism and the struggle for independence’.
Tom Nairn sent me an unsolicited reply to an article I had published in The Scotsman ‘The Making of the Inarticulate Scot’ in 1978, and he freely admitted suffering from inarticulacy.
In the 1980s and 1990s, The Rousing of the Scottish Working Class was still being discussed by historians and literary critics. Christopher A. Whatley used his essay ‘An uninflammable People?’ in The Manufacture of Scottish History (1992) to demonise my first book on Scottish history.’ As an outcome of the Scottish national question becoming critical after 1979, MacDonald Daly and Colin Troop, two Scottish historians researching Scottish history at the University of Oxford, published an article in The Times Higher Educational Supplement in which they highlighted the reasons why The Rousing of the Scottish Working Class was important in 1989. In a part of their article, they wrote:
In material terms, the cultural surrender to England undoubtedly improved the daily lot of the Scottish people, as James D. Young acknowledges in the opening chapter of his The Rousing of the Scottish Working Class. But, as Young also demonstrates, there was a profound continuity between the authoritarianism of the Scottish philosophers’ coup and social ills of women’s oppression, cultural dependency, inarticulacy and our internationally high levels of crime, ill-health and alcoholism — which would bedevil the lives of Scottish working people in subsequent centuries.
The questions I first raised in 1979 have refused to go away.
Despite or because it was the most controversial book on modern Scottish history written by a professional historian in the twentieth century, The Rousing of the Scottish Working Class was coloured by chock-a-block hitherto hidden historical facts questioning the constant and uncritical support for the Union of Parliaments of 1707 Notwithstanding the vicious criticism of The Rousing of the Scottish Working Class, it was by the standards of the time used to measure the commercial success of a book on history a best-seller. It sold nine thousand copies; and it is still discussed, though more favourable now than it was thirty years ago. In 1995 a long piece entitled ‘Scottish Radicalism: How So? In the 1790s and 1819-20’ appeared on the internet.”
An American historian, who put this essay on the internet, summarised the dispute and quoted T. C. Smout’s assertions that the Scottish people were uninflammable, tame and docile. In discussing the whole range of views provoked by The Rousing of the Scottish Working Class, the anonymous American said: ‘Countering the older arguments are those of historians like James D. Young and Christopher Whatley, the former taking a more revisionist, nationalist stance and the later taking a more moderate approach’ The American wrote:
The opinions of historians on the importance of the 1790s and 1819-20 varies widely, from those who scoff at them, such as T. C. Smout and Bruce Lenman, to the revisionists that find them of the utmost importance, such as James D. Young.
The function of the historian, argued E. H. Carr in What Is History? (1961), is to understand the past as ‘the key to understanding the present’ And history, for him, was neither simply the biography of ‘great men’, nor exclusively the impersonal account of ideas and movements: ‘people do not cease to be people, or individuals because we do not know their names’. Since Carr wrote in the early 1960s there has been a great deal of work on modern Scottish history, notably on the period since the 1603 Union of Crowns and the 1707 Union of Parliaments. My own approach to history has always been a holistic one, and Scotland needs honest history more than doctrine or dogma.
After 1979 I discovered two very important documents — the pamphlet by James Thomson Callender, ‘The Political Progress of Britain’ and The Autobiography of a Glasgow Unfortunate’ by George Donald —highlighting the hard historical fact that many of the Scottish plebeian or ‘working-class’ radicals in the 1790s and early nineteenth century repudiated the Union of 1707 and the inequalities created by rapid and forced industrialisation from the top down. The importance of those documents cannot be exaggerated, and they will compel Unionist historians to look at Scottish history in a new way. But I have always been an ‘internal exile’ as I explained to Kevin Williamson when he interviewed me in late 2007 for the new radical newspaper Bella Caledonia.
Moreover, in 1995 I was made a Fellow of the Hungarian Academy of Science; and the Royal Literary Fund awarded me an annual pension for life in recognition of my distinguished contribution to literature. But I remain a very critical and self-critical historian: an outsider in the Scottish world of professional Unionist historians, particularly Professor Tom Devine, who has denied that the Clearances actually happened and displayed contempt for the popular movements portrayed in The Rousing of the Scottish Working Class has been appointed by the Scottish National Party government to draw up plans for introducing Scottish history into the secondary schools. — James D. Young