Friday, 2 May 2014

A Brief Explanation of the Treaty of Union

The Treaty of Union between Scotland and England came into effect on May 1st 1707. Here is a rapid blog-post making one or two points about it.

The people who ruled England at the time wanted the Union urgently. They did not want to conquer Scotland. They were totally unimpressed by the old arguments about sovereignty Henry VIII and Edward I had used to justify invasion. They loathed the memory of Oliver Cromwell, who had carried out a forcible unification half a century earlier. But they did want Union urgently.

They were embroiled in a long and intense war with France that was all tied up with the effects of the so-called “Glorious” Revolution of 1688, and with the dynastic ambitions of Louis XIV. They had succeeded in getting rid of the Catholic, and increasingly anti-parliamentary James II (VII in Scotland) and securing a law that all future monarchs of England had to be Protestant. James had been replaced with Louis XIV’s most implacable enemy, William of Orange. Since 1688 England was beginning to consolidate her position as one of Europe’s significant powers, with a “modern” government, a fairly stable financial sector and the beginnings of an overseas empire.

This was now all threatened. The Protestant royal line was dying out without heirs. Parliament had picked the Electors of Hanover (pretty remote dynastically) as successors. But the Scottish parliament might choose a different successor. Since 1603 Scotland and England had had the same monarch. Thanks to the great civil wars of the 1640s, and the Cromwell episode, this had not resulted in universal peace, but otherwise it removed the chances of English invasions of Scotland (massively destructive for Scotland) or of Scots alliances with France (massively worrying for England). Now this might change. The Scottish parliament might choose a different heir - presumably James Edward Stuart, son of James VII and II and a client (pawn?) of Louis XIV.

A few years earlier an Irish soldier of fortune, Colonel Hooke, had come up with a simple scheme for buying the Scottish elections so as to secure a Jacobite majority in the Scottish Parliament. He argued that, with so few voters, mostly poor and corruptible, it would be a lot cheaper than fitting out an invasion fleet. Louis did not adopt the plan, but it showed the danger.

So, the people running England badly wanted the Union, so as to prevent once and for all any idea of a separate Scottish foreign policy. Nothing else mattered. They were prepared to give the Scottish decision-makers (no referendums or popular elections in those days) any number of sweeteners. The Law, the Kirk, the education system, all remained in Scottish hands. A chunk of money (“The Equivalent”) was set aside to compensate Scotland for the losses incurred by the Darien Scheme. Arguing about what tax and finance arrangements would be best went on in 1707 in a fog of uncertainty – just as arguments in 2014 do. Historians are still arguing about how much Scotland benefitted economically from the Union in the short and medium terms. (Let’s leave the very long term out of it. Too much changed to make a calculation possible). The English Empire, with all its money-making benefits (mostly slave-related) would be opened to enterprising Scots.

For understandable reasons of national feeling a large proportion of influential Scots were strongly against. In 1705 the English government reminded them that there could be sticks as well as carrots and passed The Aliens Act, which, roughly speaking said: “OK. If you want to be a separate country, see what it feels like” and all cross-border traders faced utter ruin.

The debates in the Scottish Parliament and in the country were impassioned and heart-felt. It seems probable that, had there been a referendum, Union would have been rejected. The English government thought that they faced a national emergency in the middle of a total war. (The Battle of Ramillies had been the year before the Treaty. The Battle of Oudenarde was to take place the year after.) As a result they had no qualms about using the various dirty tricks available in 1707 – of which the discreet bribery, with money, jobs or promises, of key figures was the standard one.

And so the Treaty was passed, with rioting in the streets. “Here’s an end to an auld sang”

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Two of my published Kindle pieces on Amazon relate to this period, (though they do not deal with the Treaty of Union directly). They cost 0.88p in the UK and equivalents elsewhere. They are longer than this blog-post, but still brief enough for, let us say, a long commute.

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