Does Scotland need another biography?
As it happens, yes it does. Kenneth Roy’s The Broken Journey: A Life of Scotland 1979-99 is the second part of a planned trilogy about modern Scotland. A sequel to his 2014 title The Invisible Spirit: A Life of Post-War Scotland 1945–75, it’s already a much more compelling anthology entry.
What Roy’s book immediately exposes is the historical amnesia about Scotland’s social history from this era. The Thatcher story dominated the 1980s as did the journey to devolution and the Scottish Parliament throughout the 1990s. As such, there is a distressing ignorance, particularly among young people today, about how health, justice and life in general operated before devolution.
The Broken Journey presents a fascinating solution. Roy focusses on vignettes of social, judicial and political failure and moments of cultural self-awareness which are striking, harrowing and unfamiliarly dysfunctional. From the oil boom in the Shetlands to the hilarity of Scotland’s Argentinian World Cup bid, Roy guides the reader from promise to the devastating loss of the Piper Alpha disaster, the Lockerbie bombing and the Dunblane massacre and back again. The work is more a reckoning ground for the country’s cultural narrative than a traditional chronology. Reading the fine details, the people and the procedure of well-known horrors like Dunblane pulls at the heart strings, makes the blood boil and leaves the reader with an irrepressible feeling that there is more to history than dates.
The conclusion is subtle. Roy’s careful to predicate his work with the admission that he, of course, not only lived through the period but was also a journalist involved in some of what he describes. As such the narrative is a compelling exemplar of living history; going beyond the nostalgic indulgence of watching a 90s Edinburgh in Trainspotting and instead delves into the crux of what made Scotland tick in these years.
Modern Scottish history is an enigma to the younger generation accustomed to a simpler telling of famous flashpoints: the Scottish Wars of Independence, William Wallace or the Second World War to say nothing of literature and culture. There is a black hole of understanding about the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, the disproportionate involvement of Scots in the British Empire or the entirety of its governance in the 18th – 20th centuries, to name but a few pieces.
Roy has been candid enough to acknowledge that The Broken Journey bears the stylistic structure of the original but moves into the realm of personal, but never too polemical, hues. Where Roy succeeds is by embracing Michel Foucault’s warning against placing epochal significance on one person or the sovereign of the land as to where power rests. Scotland in these years was much more than a ‘period’ and the book goes to great pains to create a cross-section about ‘real’ life.
That’s extremely important given today’s politics. So much of Scotland’s past is used as a resource to fuel arguments, on both sides, of the constitutional debate that it’s rare to find a rhizomatic reading of history concerned with how well the system worked. How the Scottish justice, health, education systems operated with and through the Scotland Office; its ministers and its instruments and scope of its power in Scotland make for a fascinating read and serves an accessible index of political parties and policies still asking for your vote today.
Immediately the work of Tom Devine springs to mind. Devine’s titles, The Scottish Nation: A Modern History and more recently, Independence or Union: Scotland’s Past and Scotland’s Present are excellent academic compendiums made user-friendly, but they remain chronicles more than a social story. Roy has adopted the opposite approach. No page seethes through an ideological paradigm, and although blame occasionally gets dropped at the pre-devolution door, the book is free of sullen cliche despite the advocations of the author.
Roy’s emphasis on remedying Scottish injustices is admirable but, perhaps give too much of a false sense of widespread cronyism and institutional failure. Nevertheless, there are very few living histories about contemporary Scotland that have attempted to narrate, beyond sketch, the feelings of a country in the face of such tragedies as the Dunblane School massacre. He is never so crass to proclaim the times have changed that much, but his evidential compilation is at once moving and authoritative.
The Broken Journey is atavistic and incredibly forward looking. Social histories have long been less attractive than political or period accounts. The Scottish history market is now saturated by titles focussing on some lay to claim from people participating, witnessing or influencing the debate on Scottish independence. What has been missing is a book which has all the hallmarks of journalistic investigation and a flair for story-telling.
Roy has a third volume under his hat, and it must be presumed that it will contain the same candour of his two previous successful volumes. The Broken Journey offers an invaluable popular reading of Scottish modernity, as well as a necessary and welcome addition to the pantheon of Scottish historical analysis.