Our Precious Union

by Paul Henderson Scott - 18:56 on 10 November 2022


“A historical iniquity”

The Imposition of the Union

still in bed with an elephant by paul henderson scottNo event in our history in the last 300 years has had more profound effects on Scotland than the Union of 1707, but there is deep misunderstanding of what it was and how it happened. For over 100 years Unionist propaganda has been trying hard to persuade us that it was an arrangement which Scotland wanted at the time for the sake of access to the English and colonial markets. Constant repetition has persuaded many people to believe this, but it is the opposite of the truth. The “incorporating” Union was forced on Scotland to serve English political and strategic purposes.

John Clerk of Penicuik was one of the members of the Scottish Parliament who voted for the Union. He afterwards wrote a book about it in Latin of which a translation has just been published by the Scottish History Society. He says that not even 1% of the Scottish people were in favour of the Union, but it was English policy “either to destroy us or force us into union”. The Scots had to accept that “you cannot force your will on those stronger than yourself”.

In defiance of the historical evidence, Unionists still try to push the same old line. Ian Lang wrote in a newspaper article a few months ago: “In 1707 Scotland sought and won full participation in the UK Parliament.” Distortion could hardly go further. In a recent debate in Glasgow University, George Robertson made a slightly less extravagant claim that “the Union rests and has always rested on consent”.

The theory that the Scots agreed to the Union for reasons of trade has also become part of accepted wisdom. It was evolved in the middle of the 19th century by two historians, Macaulay and Burton, who wanted to find an explanation for the Scottish sacrifice of their independence. The modern English historian who has made an extensive study of the matter, P. W. J. Reilly, concluded that trade “hardly entered” into the real motives. In fact, from the Scottish point of view, considerations of trade weighed more heavily against the Union than for it. Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun and the merchant interest argued that the Treaty would be harmful to Scottish trade, that imports from England would destroy manufacturing industry in Scotland and that duties designed for English conditions would put impossible burdens on the Scottish economy. They were right. All the evidence is that the Scottish economy was seriously damaged by the Union. It took about 50 years to recover and then largely because of Scottish initiatives in new technologies in manufacturing and agriculture.

In any case such considerations had very little influence. The terms of the Union were dictated by the English

Government and Scottish wishes and Scottish opinion were ignored. The Treaty was ratified by the Scottish Parliament after three months debate by a majority of 110 to 69, but the Parliament was not representative or subject to popular election. Contemporary sources on both sides of the question agree that the Union was massively unpopular.

Scotland at the start of the 18th century was weak and vulnerable, largely as a result of the Union of the Crowns in 1603. At that time and for the century which followed the monarch had actual, and not merely theoretical, power. This power was exercised through and on the advice of English ministers and in the interests of England. Scotland was still nominally independent but it had lost its international identity, control over foreign and trade policy and even the right to appoint the members of its own government. England’s foreign wars damaged Scottish trade. Although Scotland contributed men and money, it was forgotten in the peace settlements and left virtually defenceless at home.

The Revolution of 1688-9 restored a degree of freedom to the Scottish Parliament. It could debate and decide as it pleased, but its Acts were still subject to royal assent and the officers of state (or, as we should now say, ministers) who sat in it, directed its debates and administered the government, were appointed and instructed by London.

Not content with these powers, the English government exercised other influences through patronage and bribery. The most remarkable coup of all was the recruitment of the Duke of Hamilton. He acted as the leader of the opposition in the Parliament of 1703 to 1707, and as such was cheered whenever he appeared in the streets of Edinburgh; but he repeatedly frustrated his own side. There is convincing evidence that he too was in the pay of the English government. Bribery was not only pervasive, but well targeted.

The disadvantages of this system of remote control were brought into sharp focus by the failure of the Darien scheme in 1700. As King of Scotland, William gave assent to the Scottish trading company. As King of England, he did his best to undermine it. English shareholders withdrew and English diplomatic pressure discouraged other European investment. In a great burst of patriotic fervour, the entire capital was subscribed in Scotland, amounting to about half of the money in circulation and the entire assets of many people. The venture collapsed, partly because it was ill-conceived and partly because of English hostility. To add to the misery, several years of bad summers and poor harvests caused actual starvation.

At the beginning of the 18th century there was general agreement in Scotland that indirect control from London was intolerable. An opportunity to escape from the joint monarchy, which was the source of the problem, arose in 1700 when the last of Queen Anne’s children died. There was now no obvious or automatic successor to the throne. The English Parliament, without any consultation with Scotland, passed an Act of Succession in 1701, offering the throne to Sophia, Electress of Hanover, and her descendants. Not for the last time, they seem to have forgotten about Scotland, which was now free to make its own decision about the Succession. This was the situation which faced the Scottish Parliament summoned in 1703. The instructions from London to the Commissioner, Queensberry, were to obtain acceptance of the Hanoverian Succession and the supply of money. This would have meant, of course, the preservation of indirect control. The Scottish Parliament had other ideas. Following Andrew Fletcher’s analysis they passed the Act of Security, which provided either for the choice of a separate Successor or the transfer of all power from the throne to Parliament.

The English Government did not react until the Scottish Parliament showed its determination by passing the same Act again in 1704. England was confronted with what they saw as a threat to a vital national interest, the loss of control over Scotland. Early in 1705 the English Parliament passed an Act calling for negotiation of a union with Scotland and the application of sanctions if Scotland did not accept the same Succession by 25th December.

The Scottish Parliament were perfectly ready to discuss union, which up to that time had generally meant any form of alliance or association and which did not imply the loss of a separate Parliament. During the debate on this Hamilton performed what he afterwards called his “signal service” to the Court. One evening, after most of his supporters had left the House, he suddenly proposed that the appointment of the Scottish Commissioners should be left to the Queen. The Government seized this opportunity and it was so decided. This meant in effect that both teams of negotiators were appointed by the Queen’s English ministers. Those on the Scottish side were the Officers of State and some of their friends and protégés, with only one exception, Lockhart of Carnwath. Under these circumstances genuine negotiation was not to be expected.

There is no need to speculate about the nature of the discussions in London in the summer of 1706 because we have information from the official minutes and from accounts in the letters and memoirs of some of the participants. Even before the formal talks started, Mar, the Secretary of State, wrote to Carstares in Edinburgh: “They (the English) think all the notions about federal unions and forms a mere jest and chimera. I write this freely to you, though it is not fit this should be known in Scotland, for fear of discouraging people, and making them despair of the treaty. You see what we are to treat of is not in our choice, and that we see the inconveniences of treating an incorporating union only.”

These inconveniences were exactly what followed. The Scots made a token effort to preserve their separate Parliament, but the English would not hear of it and the Scots gave way at once. That was the pattern throughout. At intervals of a few days, meetings were held at which written proposals were accepted with very little discussion. The Scottish Officers of State were accustomed to acting on English instructions, as their letters abundantly show. In this manner, the business was conducted with speed and ease.

It was one thing to dictate terms in London; it was another to persuade the Scottish Parliament to accept them. Much of the Treaty consists of measures clearly designed to appeal to the self-interest of the classes represented in Parliament: the guarantees of the Scottish legal system, the heritable jurisdictions and the rights and privileges of the royal burghs.

These particular clauses were proposed by the Scots, but accepted with an alacrity which shows agreement in advance.

Above all there was the ingenious Equivalent, a sum of £398,085, 10 shillings. It was said to be compensation to the Scots for accepting a share in the English National Debt, but also to the shareholders for the abolition of the Darien company. In any case it was to be repaid by the Scots through Excise Duty. “In fact,” as Walter Scott wrote, “the Parliament of Scotland was bribed with the public money belonging to their own country. In this way, Scotland herself was made to pay the price given to her legislators for the sacrifice of her independence.”

In addition there was an increase in straightforward bribery. When Lockhart was a member of the British Parliament in 1711 he was a member of a commission to enquire into public accounts. He discovered records of the secret disbursement of £20,000 through the Earl of Glasgow in 1706. Two letters have survived in which Glasgow confirms this and says that if it had become known at the time, “the Union had certainly broken”. Behind all this was the ultimate persuader, discreet but real military intimidation. In 1703 the English Lord Treasurer, Godolphin, made an unmistakable threat in a letter to the Scottish Chancellor, Seafield, in which he reminded him of the great increase in the wealth and power of England. During the debate on the Treaty in the Scottish Parliament in 1706, English troops were moved to the Border.

The English Government thus achieved the Union of 1707 by means of a remarkably sophisticated and elaborate operation. It involved spying, infiltration and propaganda (in which the skilful and tireless Daniel Defoe was engaged); the threat of economic sanctions and of military force; systematic bribery and seductive appeals to the self-interest of the few men who had to be won over. It may seem like an excessive effort to win a few votes in the Scottish Parliament, but great issues were at stake. The English aim was the final achievement of a centuries-old objective, to bring Scotland under their control and remove a potential threat to their northern border.

To Scotland it meant the loss of the independence defended against heavy odds for more than 300 years. The law, the church, the burghs and education continued as before; but they were all subject to interference by the new Parliament of Great Britain. In this Scotland, with about the same representation as Cornwall, was in an impotent minority. According to the Treaty, the Parliaments of both England and Scotland were abolished and replaced by this new creation. In practice, only the Parliament of Scotland disappeared, but that of England continued with the addition of the few Scottish members. In the words of Tom Scott, it was “a historical iniquity with no right but might behind it”.

From: ‘Still in Bed with an Elephant’. Paul Henderson Scott, Pub. The Saltire Society 1998, pp. 39-44. (orig. pub The Herald, 12 August 1995)

Thanks to @R_MacGhilleAnd for the transcription

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