Keith Brown: Scots’ respect for the vote stretches way back

An 18th-century view of Parliament House, Parliament Square, Edinburgh
An 18th-century view of Parliament House, Parliament Square, Edinburgh
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Continuing our collaboration with the University of Glasgow’s Vox Populi series, Keith Brown looks at the roots of democracy in Scotland

Why does democracy emerge in some societies but not others? This question has puzzled philosophers, political scientists and historians from Plato to today. Why did democracy flourish in ancient Athens but not ancient Babylon? Why did democracy evolve in a British colony in North America but not the Spanish colonies of South America?

Scotland has two traditions that claim some credit for the emergence of democratic values. A more nationalist and populist version traces its roots to the Celtic church, clanship, the Declaration of Arbroath, John Knox and the Covenanters – a mishmash of totemic myths that feed into modern ideas of Scottish egalitarianism. The other is an Anglo-centric Whig narrative that at the modern end of the story tells of the 1832 Reform Act and eventually women’s suffrage. It ignores earlier Scottish history and traces its antecedents back through the Magna Carta, the English Civil War and the 1689 Glorious Revolution.

The purpose of this article is not to argue that Scotland was an emerging democracy in the 17th century that was erased following the Union of 1707, or that there was a smooth Whig high road from the 17th century through to 1832 and beyond. What it does is to set some empirical tests to ascertain what capacity there was in Scotland before the Union for nurturing a culture in which democracy might later evolve.

One test subject is political choice, or elections, which are at the heart of democratic practice. We can ask what elections took place in early-modern Scotland, what sort of people participated in elections, and what was happening when elections took place. The value of this information in addressing the bigger question about the roots of democratic values can be assessed in the context of the participatory theory – the idea that where people become used to participating in one area of civil society, they are more likely to participate in others. That was a point understood by 20th century tyrants, and to a lesser extent by 18th century absolutist rulers, hence the desire of kings to exercise control over the church in early-modern Scotland.

In the course of the 16th and 17th centuries, all of the following occurred in Scotland. At least one regent (the ruler during a king’s minority) was elected by his peers; parliament elected its own presiding officer, judges and privy councillors (the cabinet); up to a half of members of parliament were elected; members of parliament elected committees; town councils and guilds (incorporations of merchants or craftsmen) were elected; ministers, kirk sessions, members of presbyteries and the General Assembly were elected. Thus, at one point or another, the very highest political officers, much of parliament, urban local government and the church – responsible for the early-modern equivalent of the media, education, poor relief, social services and community policing – were all elected. The ratio of elected “officials” to population was probably greater than it is in Scotland today. Furthermore, over the course of the 17th century elections became common in professional associations and private clubs. That is an impressive level of communal decision-making in a society seen to be royalist, aristocratic and oppressive.

Of course, there are some cautionary points that need to be made. Who was doing the electing? First, everyone who cast a vote was a man. Secondly, the elections for political office, or to parliament, involved a relatively small number of landlords in the countryside and, in towns, usually the more prosperous merchants. But the election of ministers and kirk sessions could and did engage a wider portion of the “respectable” protestant community.

The second cautionary observation is that we have to consider what was involved in voting. Early-modern societies could be highly divisive, but they preferred to look for consensus where it could be found. A contested election in which the community publicly demonstrated its divisions was not seen as a virtue.

Furthermore, we know little about what men thought they were doing in casting a vote. Were they making a personal choice, seeking to demonstrate their obedience to hierarchy, struggling to meet the needs of their community, or discerning the mind of God? We do not know.

And, of course, voting did not take place in a politically neutral environment. On the whole, the rule of law was respected, but political muscle was exercised to get results. When James VI asked cathedral chapters to vote on the election of a new bishop, he expected his nominee to be elected. Shire elections might involve a small community of lesser untitled landlords, many of whom took instruction from the regional aristocrat.

At other times the franchise was manipulated. Burgh councils put in place convoluted voting processes, such as retiring magistrates providing a shortlist of candidates from whom their successor could be chosen. At various times bishops, landlords and presbyteries contested the election of ministers by congregations. In addition, elections were not by secret ballot.

It would be foolish, therefore, to argue 17th century Scotland was a democracy, or even a nascent democracy. On the other hand, a lot of people were taking decisions by voting on a number of offices with influence over a broad range of activities. So, what happened when parliamentary union occurred in 1707?

The answer is that it did not make a definitive difference. The new parliament of Great Britain did not behave very differently from the Scottish parliament in engaging its members to form governments or staffing committees. Elections to parliament carried on with the same franchise and processes, but with a smaller number of MPs and less frequent elections. On the other hand, the small Scottish contingent to the House of Lords now was elected. Burghs continued to elect councillors and magistrates with a variety of practices ranging from oligarchic and corrupt to fairly populist.

In the countryside, shire commissioners of supply (responsible for collecting taxes) were increasingly elected by relatively large numbers of landowners. The Church of Scotland turned away from popular involvement in electing ministers, but large numbers of congregations chose to secede in order to assert their right to choose their ministers. Clubs and societies proliferated, increasing the public space wherein elections determined status and office-holding.

What are the implications of this? For the 18th century, it helps to underline that Scotland’s tradition of elections, serving here as a proxy for the kind of socio-cultural values that might encourage democratic development, were native and not dependent on English ideas and practices.

Secondly, the Union did not suppress that tradition. Thirdly, large numbers of Scots were familiar with elections as a means of taking decisions.

Many of those people took their traditions and values with them to North America. Others remained in Scotland where the ideas of the American and then the French Revolution were not so out of tune with people who already exercised a right to vote in some areas of their lives.

It would be a step too far to claim that early modern Scotland was a cradle of democracy, but the road to democracy is often a long one, and Scottish democracy, unlike democracy in much of the world today, has deep roots.

• Professor Keith Brown is Vice President and Dean of the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Manchester. His seminar takes place at 5.30pm todayin the Boyd Orr Building at the University of Glasgow at 5.30pm and is open to the public. For information, see