It remains a great mystery why Scotland, a small, impoverished country on the western extremity of Europe, should, in the 18th century, have given Europe some of its greatest philosophers, scientists and men of letters. It was a truly remarkable phenomenon. Adam Smith, the founder of economics; David Hume, arguably the greatest philosopher of his time; Robert Adam, whose architectural achievements are all around us - all lived, worked and conversed with each other in and around Edinburgh.
They were not alone. James Watt, the inventor of the steam engine; James Hutton, the founder of modern geology; Sir Walter Scott, whose novels captivated Europe, and dozens of other original minds, transformed Scotland's reputation. No longer was it seen as a backward, ignorant and superstitious country. Instead, it became, for a generation, the intellectual powerhouse of Europe.
Why this should have happened was unclear. Scotland had endured a violent history over the centuries. The Reformation had introduced a strict Calvinist doctrine that discouraged original thought and preached predestination. Since 1707, Scotland had even ceased to be an independent country, with its parliament abolished and its government transferred to London. These would not seem to have been the ingredients for a cultural renaissance.
But with The Scottish Enlightenment, Arthur Herman, an American academic, has produced a sparkling book that seeks to unravel the mystery, and offers the explanation that this unpromising background may have actually been ideal. He argues his case with an impressive accumulation of evidence.
The most important factor was the Kirk. However unintentionally, its requirements unlocked the creative and intellectual genius of the Scottish people. Because the Church of Scotland has no priests and no bishops, encouraging mass literacy was held to be imperative, so that ordinary folk could read the word of God in their Bibles. To achieve that end, the Kirk encouraged and enabled a school in every parish. The consequence was startling, by the standards of the time. Herman records that, by 1720, male literacy was around 55 per cent; by 1750, it may have been 75 per cent. In England, a much wealthier country, the comparable figure was 53 per cent. This literacy led to the creation of public libraries, the first in Europe. In the late 18th century, the library in Inner- peffray, in Perthshire, was lending books to farmers, tailors and household servants, whose sons progressed to attend Scotland's ancient universities. It is significant that Scotland had had four such institutions since the 16th century, while England, a much larger country, made do with Oxford and Cambridge until the 19th.
It may also have been a blessing in disguise that Scotland's kings travelled to London in 1603 and that its parliament followed them in 1707. One should not underestimate the consequences. Because the Crown and much of the nobility had decamped south, Scotland's middle-class professionals assumed a social and national status that would otherwise have been denied to them for many generations. They did not have political power, but the lawyers, clergymen, professors and businessmen became the cream of Scottish society. The professions and the middle classes have usually been the engineers of progress and change. In Scotland, the Act of Union accelerated the process.
The result was an explosion of creativity. In 1790, there were 16 publishing houses in Edinburgh, a city with a population of just 70,000. Herman argues persuasively that the Union liberated Scots and enabled them to make an extraordinary contribution not just to the United Kingdom, but to Europe as a whole.
He is undoubtedly correct, but he somewhat spoils his case by amiable exaggeration. Not content with recording the impressive achievements of Hume, Smith and many others, he insists that, but for their Scottish predecessors, much of the genius of England and the rest of Europe at the time would not have been realised. Thus he avers that Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire "would be unimaginable without its Scottish school predecessors". Is that what Gibbon believed?
It may be true that Voltaire did say: "It is to Scotland that we look for our idea of civilisation", but did he really mean it? One fears that Herman might even claim Machiavelli as a Scot, given the first syllable of his family name.
But these considerations aside, Herman's basic thesis is sound. Contemporary critics of the Union and modern nationalists like to present the events of 1707 as a disaster for Scotland. The opposite is true. Through the Union with England, Scots ceased to be parochial; they had access to England's overseas territories, their sons and daughters played a proud and disproportionate part in the British empire that blossomed over the succeeding 200 years.
The lesson for Scotland today could not be clearer. The new parliament at Holyrood can be a creative force; it could be a means of greater democratic legitimacy. On that the jury is still out. But it could also be parochial; it could make Scotland preoccupied with itself. It could reduce rather than broaden Scotland's links with the rest of Europe. The challenge for all Scots is to ensure that does not happen.
One final gem that emerges from Herman's book may be highly relevant to the New Statesman. A splendid product of the Scottish Enlightenment was the Edinburgh Review, which appeared in 1802 and "for more than a century was the most politically influential, the most intellectually exciting and the wittiest reading matter in the English-speaking world". The publishers of the New Statesman might like to know that, in Herman's view, "the key to its success and impact was due to its publisher who insisted that the editors pay their reviewers generously". As an occasional reviewer for the New Statesman, I merely record this observation without further comment.
Malcolm Rifkind was foreign secretary from 1995-97