In the first part of his review of the year, Professor Sir Tom Devine assesses the impact of the two great stories of 2020, Covid-19 and our exit from the European Union


AS we look back at the year 2020, there can be little doubt that the coronavirus pandemic has domi nated all our lives.

My own family had a scare at the very beginning of the crisis as my eldest daughter, who is the mother of two lovely young boys, began to display symptoms of Covid-19. Fortunately, she recovered fully and did not have to be hospitalised.

I have not been employed at the University of Edinburgh since 2015. However, I receive frequent messages from my former colleagues about the impact of the pandemic on morale. Several of them are having a challenging time because of the online methods that have had to be introduced in order that teaching can be maintained. Being a technophobe who still drafts his books and articles in longhand, those challenges could probably have been too much to bear.

Retirement would rapidly have become a seductive option but fortunately, however, I got there first, a few years before the pandemic started to wreak havoc. In fact, I have been able to present a number of public online lectures to audiences both at home and abroad this year. But this has only been possible because of the vital support of my children and grandchildren who all seem expert in the new electronic technology. They have helped me to deliver presentations which audiences may well have recognised as models of personal technical virtuosity: if only they knew the truth.

When Covid-19 is viewed in historical context, two previous global catastrophes come to mind. The first was the Black Death of the mid-14th century, a bubonic plague pandemic which endured from around 1346 until 1353. The calamity was caused by a combination of two factors, an invasion of ship-borne infected rats into Europe from the east, followed by a spread from human to human via body lice and other infectious agents.

Recent research has suggested that the basic origins of this very nasty variant of bubonic plague were Chinese, an interesting similarity to what is believed to be the source of modern coronavirus. The disease spread along the trade routes from China to Italy and then across Eurasia and Northern Africa. Medieval society had very little understanding of how diseases spread or of hygiene generally, so the Black Death lasted for around seven terrible years.

Though there is only limited hard international information from the period, scholars estimate that between 75 million to 200 million people died of the pandemic, most of them buried in enormous mass graves. It was a horrendous catastrophe with huge consequences not only for life but for the political and economic history of the world in the longer term.

Covid-19 death rates to date in 2020 number around 1.7 million across the globe. All these deaths are individual tragedies for loved ones, friends and families, but they do not compare numerically to the much grimmer mortality harvest of the Black Death. That disaster was not only exacerbated by lack of medical knowledge at the time but by prevailing religious belief. Muslims in particular but also some Christian communities believed the catastrophe to be righteous justice from God for the grievous sins committed by humanity. It followed that any attempt to alleviate or constrain the suffering was a gross affront to divine wrath which would surely ensure eternal damnation for the guilty.

“Spanish Flu” was a more recent global crisis. It is given the name because near the end of the First World War, when the influenza pandemic was first identified, Spain was not a combatant nation and its press was not as rigorously controlled or subject to censorship as countries still engaged in that long international conflict.

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As the pandemic first erupted, it was therefore not surprising that the first country to publicise the impact on rising death rates was Spain and the Iberian peninsula more generally. At first the rampant spread of the disease throughout the rest of Europe was not made public to the same extent as news coverage was suppressed under wartime press restrictions.

Influenza first weakened the body which then became vulnerable to other illnesses which triggered a massive increase in mortality rates especially among the poor, malnourished and the soldiers living together in the hard and exposed conditions of the trenches.

Current estimates suggest a range of 17 to 50 million deaths before the pandemic began to decline. Around one-third of the global population at the time, or around 500 million people, may have been affected to a greater or lesser extent before conditions in the stricken countries improved.

With the coming of Covid-19 in 2020 the world has had to deal with the impact of the first major global pandemic for around 100 years, bringing in its wake death, sickness, economic havoc and an unprecedented impact on everyday life. It will bring little comfort to the bereaved, the unemployed and those who have lost businesses this year that compared to the flu pandemic of 1918-22 and the Black Death of medieval times, the mortality consequences of Covid have been much less severe than in those terrible historic catastrophes. As this is written, nearly 77 million cases of the disease have been recorded worldwide and around 1.7 million people have died as a result.

Some have argued that the remarkable revolution in air and car travel of the last half-century or so has speeded national and international human interactions and so powered the global spread of Covid. But modernity has also brought huge benefits in terms of health care, disease management and the wealth to at least alleviate some of the worst economic effects of the pandemic.

Now with the discovery of several vaccines in a remarkably short space of time, modern science has begun to develop the means to provide protection against the scourge. If the vaccines work as effectively as suggested, this pandemic will be brought to an end much faster than any in the past, an extraordinary triumph by any standards. As we mourn the dead, confront economic hardships in the future and continue to face constraints on liberty, we should remember that we have got off a great deal more lightly than our ancestors ever did when they were hit by such horrendous crises of death and disease.

How will history judge our leaders and their conduct during the pandemic? Only over time with the benefit of greater perspective and access to the records of governments will historians be able to begin the task of rigorous evaluation over leadership performance.

It has to be recognised, however, that mistakes and shortcomings have been predictable as political leaders and their advisers confront unprecedented challenges and an elusive, chameleon-like and dangerous enemy which is now in mutation in several countries. Equally, however, even at this stage, it is clear that some governments have performed more creditably than others.

Yet, posterity will probably judge the great heroes of the pandemic, with very few exceptions, not to be the politicians but scientists, doctors, nurses, researchers and staff in both hospitals and care homes who have been in the front line during the battle with many risking their lives on a daily basis in the process. I would also want to acknowledge those in the supply chain, mainly people paid minimum wage, like delivery drivers and supermarket workers who have worked through lockdown to keep food and other supplies available. The shortage of foodstuffs etc doesn’t bear thinking about. It may well be that 2020 may well go down in history as the year of the expert.

Michael Gove reportedly claimed a few years ago that the general public had had their fill of “experts”. If they did, they probably thank God today that some of the best minds in the UK are engaged in the continuing campaign against the disease. “Follow the science” has now become the new slogan of the political class.


I VOTED Remain in 2016 for the future of my children, grandchildren and their descendants. therefore believe that Brexit is a collective act of national self-harm on the part of the citizens of the United Kingdom.

My academic colleagues in European universities think so, too. They are bewildered and uncomprehending but at the same time very gratified that Scotland emphatically voted against Brexit. Most of them are either Anglophiles or Scotophiles or both and like anyone who is involved in cultural or intellectual activity outside these islands they usually have a high regard for the impact of the Scots, English, Irish and Welsh on many aspects of world civilisation in the past. They are also conscious of our country’s long connections with Europe.

Due largely to extensive migrations at every level of society – intellectuals, clerics, soldiers, traders, farmers and peasants – the bonds between Scotland and Europe between the 12th century and the late 17th century were much stronger than they were with England.

Essentially I see Scotland as a global nation fashioned by many generations of emigration and external connections. I tried to demonstrate this global identity and experience in one of my books, To The Ends of the Earth: Scotland’s Global Diaspora 1750-2010 (apologies for the explicit plug!).

In that volume I showed how the migration routes from Scotland in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries were not just to the British Empire but to every corner of the world. That is one reason why Brexit seems such a sadness for Scotland both in an economic and cultural sense because it loosens our ties with one of our most ancient relationships to the European continent. That is also why I take hope from the fact that the movement for Scottish independence is now intimately linked to the project to rejoin Europe as soon as possible after national self-determination has been achieved.

Yet, even when Brexit was confirmed by the UK vote in 2016 and the Scottish vote recorded as overwhelmingly against, the opinion polls north of the Border on the constitutional question failed to budge. There was little evidence of any retribution being exacted on Westminster for what one commentator called “the Scots being wrenched out of Europe by the English”. Indeed, it was only in late spring and early summer this year that the influence of Brexit really began to be noted by pollsters.

Psephologists now suggest that the remarkable rise in the pro-independence vote during 2020 was largely due to the response to Brexit. After a slow burn, it finally did make a deep and possibly even a decisive impact on Scottish opinion on independence. Many of the new supporters were drawn from the ranks of those who had voted No in 2014 but Remain in 2016. Brexit became a fait accompli last January and has been followed by very protracted and well-publicised negotiations over a trade deal between the UK and Europe with agreement between the two sides taking until last week. All that gave the break with Europe a fresh salience and reality.

I also sense a general alienation growing in this moderately left-leaning country that Scotland and England seem to be moving in different political directions over the long term. The support of so many former Labour constituencies in the North of England and the Midlands for Johnson’s right-wing Tory party in the last General Election helped to crystallise that feeling north of the Border.

There is also the perception that the Scottish Government has performed competently and shown more grip than Westminster during the Covid crisis. Whether later investigation will confirm whether this view is based on factual reality matters little at present. The polls confirm that most Scots believe that the First Minister and her team have done a good job in challenging circumstances. That in turn has helped boost the pro-independence vote over the last few months, especially since the UK’s feckless Prime Minister, the SNP’s most accomplished recruiter, continues to demonstrate incompetence on a daily basis for all to see.