The end of affair. The Crown is a tacky heritage centre, Toryism is extinct and Blairism likely to become little more than the wake of Great Britain. Tom Nairn on our disunited kingdom

The Scottish Nation 1700-2000

T M Devine <em>The Penguin Press, 696pp, £25 </em>

ISBN 071399351

Not so long ago the "end of history" for Scots lay in 1707. After that came only folklore and footnotes. Now that dusty half-life is ended, and I suspect Scotland is better served by its historians than England. A generation of revisionists has prepared the intellectual terrain for the return of Scottish government. Professor T M Devine's new book is the latest contribution to their achievement and one of the finest.

T C Smout, William Ferguson, Christopher Harvie, Michael Lynch, Michael Fry - since the 1970s, all these writers have rearranged the Scottish landscape and done so in a way invariably related to a rapidly changing present. Though their political points of attack were very different, all have been motivated by the great changes around them. None has stood apart from the polemics accompanying the collapse or decay of the British parties in Scotland, Thatcherism, Europe and the rise of nationalism. They were driven to reappraise their country's past by an anguished involvement in its present - chronicling the great landslide that has occurred, as it were, even while debating formerly remote issues such as the Union, the reformation or the early days of Labourism. One of the best things about Devine's narrative is the way it recapitulates and comments on many of these debates. It sums up the arguments and ideas of an honourable tradition, as well as supplying the ascertainable facts and figures.

The 1707 Act of Union between Scotland and England is no relic. As well as being what there is of a British written constitution - still absent from new Labour's "big picture" for the next century - it was reiterated in the recent Scotland Act 1998, tucked away among "other provisions": "Clause 37. The Union with Scotland Act 1706 and the Union with England Act 1707 have effect subject to this Act." After the Scottish election, in her temporary role as "mother of the House", the SNP's Margaret Ewing opened proceedings by declaring the Scottish Parliament "reconvened". Some attacked her for wilfully romantic archaism.

Nothing could be farther from the political truth. She was contravening a clause of the very British act that allowed her to be there in the first place. The point was that 1707's child, the British Union Parliament in Westminster, now exercises only a de facto authority in Scotland. One of the original treaty partners is setting up in business again. The implication is that everything ought now to be renegotiated. And sooner or later it is sure to be, between the modern representatives of those founding parties. The latter will be joined in this process by Wales and Northern Ireland, the populations that were incorporated without benefit of state or treaty rights.

In an Anglo-British perspective such interpretations appear terribly literal. But that also is part of the point. From now on, it is the literal and the written juridical that are likely to prevail. By contrast, the conventional and the taken-for-granted (as among like-minded chaps) already belong in the nostalgia museum of imperial times. There no longer exists a British class capable of sustaining such state theatre. Instead, what we suffer is the pretend-class of new Labourism, straining to compensate through rhetoric and "message" for what it lacks in natural authority.

Unlike so many countries over the two centuries that followed, Scotland was never colonised or "assimilated". A few nationalists may have affected a posture of victimisation, but most of them know perfectly well how unjustified it is. Devine lists the attributes that ensured that "the Scots were not simply parasitical upon their more advanced English neighbours, but made vitally important contributions of their own - education, an energetic governing elite and the institutions of a distinct civil society". Yet what he describes so well are in truth the attributes of a state.

The older Scotland was a state-nation, never a "nation-state" in the sense rendered canonical by modern nationalism. Neither ethnically nor linguistically united, it had been hammered together by six centuries of armed resistance. It has unfortunately become common to perceive William Wallace and his successors as forerunners of contemporary "national liberation". They were in fact successfully reasserting the Staatsrecht of a European polity older than England's, partly by appealing (as in the 1320 Declaration of Arbroath) to Europe-wide norms and alliances. It has always been a mistake to think that the removal of a separate Scottish government equalled the abolition of its state. The latter is one of the hardiest cases in Europe, as well as the oldest. And as we can now see, it has not only survived the encasement of "Britain" but will long outlive it.

If "Britain" is nearing its end it must be because the conditions of the trade-off have gone and will not reappear again. In each generation since 1700 there have been structural ways to keep it going. Devine describes these very amply: militarism, empire, conjoined industrialisation and then - towards the end of the day - the welfare state. Using tenaciously preserved institutional resources, the Scots made each of these tides "their own" in the sense both of material advantage and (usually) grafting on some native form or extension. The exchange of gifts was constant, but also unequal. It was England that gained most, and that also was in the nature of Britain. Over the same long period, the more significant country was given the minimum platform it needed for great-power status and economic dominance.

That platform did not include Ireland. Devine heads a Scottish and Irish Studies centre, and this contrast is one of his main concerns. He will undoubtedly be criticised for not saying enough in his new work about industry and economics. Much more of his attention goes to the countryside, to the agrarian revolution and its effects - notably its effects on the Scottish Lowlands. This bias has a very valuable consequence, however: it helps explain the peculiar character of 20th-century nationalism in Scotland and why it has differed so utterly from Ireland's.

There had been no Irish state, which meant that clannic society was exposed to the new English Leviathan of the Tudors and their 17th-century successors. From such elemental conflict there was no chance of a "bargain" like the Scottish one emerging. In Ireland the dominant force simply had too much going for it and could be resisted only by forging the "identity" basis for a new state: militant Catholicism and ethno-linguistic revivalism. These rested on the precise opposite of Scotland's highly successful "agrarian revolution" - the preservation (even the recreation) of a small-holding culture, which in time turned into de Valera's "Free State" of the 1920s and 1930s.

Devine recounts the story of the Scottish agrarian transformation at length, counterposing it to the history of both the Highlands and also (very usefully) that of "Highlandism", the counterfeit identity that helped the Scots weather the "age of nationalism" (in which, if truth be told, they never felt much at home). The ex-state elite got rid of its peasantry in Scotland. Hence it was a native class that removed the usual basis for ethnic-nationalist ideology, in diametric contrast to other repressed nationalities. After that, an equally indigenous industrial elite was able to father Lowland manufacturing in the service of a Scots-English empire. This model urbanisation process took place at the same time as Ireland's equally exemplary political nationalism - a "model" in a different sense, for Eastern Europe and then for anti-colonial struggles. These two peripheral populations shared a single "ethnic" inheritance, as well as the problem of England. And yet they have "modernised" along entirely different trajectories - and ended up fairly like one another at the start of the 21st century. Can there be any more impressive illustration of how little ethnos counts for - or of just how much the state and state tradition matters?

Devine is a fair-minded man, comprehensive and "catholic" in the best sense. Avoiding the mythologies and grudges of a nationalist perspective so carefully, however, means that he is likely to find his new story being misread by the British-Unionist faithful. They are grasping at all available straws these days. Hence the mildest understanding for anything British risks translation into UK Independence Party imbecility, or worse. The Sunday Times reviewer Niall Ferguson, for example, saw the book as a vindication of just how good Britain had been for the Scots and therefore of how unwise they would be to discard it. He even thinks today's cabinet is "the culmination of three centuries' penetration of English government".

Were proof needed that "Britain" must now be saved from its own worshippers, here we have it. The British umbrella state is falling to pieces around our ears. But "Britain" in the civil-society sense of those common cultures and values assembled during the Union - from the Automobile Association to Zeus.co.uk on the Internet - seems to be surviving mounting political absurdity about as well as can be expected. It is now unlikely to benefit from a new United Kingdom constitution. The archipelago's ancien regime found this quite beyond it. But the appearance of other new governments need not disrupt such institutions and standards, or the mass of personal and familial relationships that now sustain them. On the contrary, I suspect Ewing was right: the only way to preserve what counts about this "Britain" will be through the rise of alternative polities and new elites less encumbered by the dead generations of an epoch now dying on its feet.

As for the Scots in government, far from being the culmination of a secular takeover bid, it was, writes Devine, "in the 1980s that talented Scots such as John Smith, Gordon Brown, Robin Cook, Donald Dewar, George Robertson and others came to the fore in the Labour Party". They "held the necessary ground" (in Smith's words) after near-collapse under Michael Foot and have been subsequently rewarded. Labour was forced through a period of Welsh and Scottish leadership because it had almost gone under in England. This made devolution a certainty when it eventually returned to office. But it also meant that peripheral hegemony would be brief: it is the delayed after-effect of a single conjuncture now past. The underlying causes that made English society relinquish Labourism have not changed. Under Blair they have, if anything, accelerated and will soon find new expression.

Not that this will discourage the Labour and other old-British rearguards from combat. There has long been a recognisable stratum of Scots, in particular, which will have no other Britain than its own and is now going to any lengths to save it from what it sees as desecration or worse. In government and outside it - in journalism, universities, trade unions and other institutions - this clique has come to identify its own ambiguities and achieved status with civilisation as such, and imagines that England and Scotland cannot do without them.

Devine's commanding panorama of the historical gift-machinery is so convincing partly because it is history. I read his book at the same time as Andrew O'Hagan's Booker-shortlisted novel Our Fathers. Also written from a Catholic angle, this is a darkly impressive gravestone set upon the last age of British Scotland: the post-second world war Labour Party's attempt at a socialist rehousing of its northern faithful. I can't imagine what the Booker jury made of it, but to me it seems an even more telling Scottish document than James Kelman's How Late it Was, How Late. When the high-rises crumbled and manufacturing closed down and the party deserted even the cause of public ownership, a molecular change took place in the old Union relationship. At the very moment when it was winning unprecedented influence in London, this state-minded bourgeoisie began inexorably to shift its ground at home. After Thatcher - who made it plain England now expected the dissolution of her northern dependency - there was simply nothing left for it either to receive or to give. "Home Rule" is its initial line of retreat.

At the moment it is trying hard to render the line habitable. But as The Scottish Nation shows, conditions are now set hopelessly against this. Empire and the workshop of the world are dwindling recollections; in spite of Tony Blair's exertions over Kosovo, great-power standing will follow them into oblivion; the crown has turned into a tacky heritage centre; Toryism is extinct in Scotland; and "Blairism" is far more likely to become the wake of Great Britain than its triumphant rebirth. In short, Britain itself has now become the "slippery slope". Trying to make devolution permanent on such a terrain is useless, and I don't think anyone who follows Devine's majestic analysis with due care and attention is likely to think otherwise. The British Union was one of history's great acts, and he has recounted it from the point of view of one of the junior accomplices. Such an act simply cannot be followed or emulated via the gimcrack improvisations of the Scotland Act or the "bright ideas" of the Blairite plumbers.

Tom Nairn's "After Britain" (Granta) is published in January