Allan Massie: Even fervent nationalists warmed to the Union

Putting Scottish interests first does not preclude saying No & just ask Sir Walter Scott, writes Allan Massie. Picture: Getty
Putting Scottish interests first does not preclude saying No & just ask Sir Walter Scott, writes Allan Massie. Picture: Getty
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IT IS always a pleasure to spar with Paul Scott, whose intellectual vitality well into his ninth decade is remarkable and whose commitment to the Nationalist cause must be an inspiration to many young members of his party.

Yet, his zeal may sometimes cloud or distort his judgment and his article in yesterday’s Scotsman invites some measure of disagreement.

He is, however, surely right in arguing that “if one party decides to withdraw from the treaty (of Union), then Scotland and England revert to their previous status as independent countries”, and right when he challenges the view of Professor James Crawford and Professor Alan Boyle that Scotland, but not England, “was extinguished in 1707”. Clearly, in one sense, neither was extinguished.

Yet, in another sense, both were. That anyway was the opinion of Professor David Walker, expressed in Volume V of A Legal History of Scotland. He wrote that “by the Treaty of Union itself the participating states, the kingdoms of Scotland and of England, extinguished themselves as distinct political entities and united themselves forever into a new entity, a kingdom by the name of Great Britain, to be represented by one and the same parliament to be styled the Parliament of Great Britain”. Consequently, the treaty could neither be amended nor cancelled since the parties which contracted it – the kingdoms of Scotland and of England – had no longer any legal existence.

This is a nice point, but not really of practical importance. Everyone – including the UK parliament and government – recognises that a Yes vote in next year’s referendum will lead to negotiations resulting in the re-establishment of Scotland as “a distinct political entity”.

Paul makes great play of the circumstances which persuaded the then Scottish Parliament to approve the treaty. These are of interest rather than importance to us 300 years later, but a couple of points are worth making. There had been several proposals for “a more perfect union” ever since James VI inherited the English crown in 1603. Most of them came from Scotland, not England, where there was no enthusiasm, though the countries were briefly united by Oliver Cromwell in the 1650s.

The change in the English attitude to union was the result of an uncertain succession to the throne at a time when there was war with France. There was indeed, as Paul says, a threat, even if a veiled one, of an English invasion if the Scots rejected the proposed treaty, but there was also the more immediate danger of a French invasion in support of the exiled Stuart Pretender, James VIII & III. There were Scots Jacobites working for this and others who would have welcomed it. This alarmed much of Lowland Scotland; we had had our fill of civil wars in the 17th century.

In both countries, the Union was accepted without enthusiasm, even reluctantly, because the alternative to it seemed worse. So it was made, and, after the chance or danger – depending on your point of view – of a Stuart restoration disappeared following the failure of the 45, was generally accepted. It led to prosperity and to the flowering of the Scottish Enlightenment – partly because, thanks to the security brought about by the Union, Scots were able to put the political passions of previous generations behind them.

The economic benefits took decades to materialise; yet they did come. In Rob Roy, Walter Scott has merchant Bailie Nicol Jarvie admit that the Glasgow folk had been against the Union, but go on to say: “Now, since St Mungo catched herrings in the Clyde, what was ever like to gar us flourish like the sugar and tobacco trade, will anybody tell me that, and grumble at the treaty that opened us a way west awa’ yonder?” The bailie is actually anticipating the benefit Glasgow received from the Union, which wasn’t apparent at the date when the novel is set, but he was dead right in his anticipation. The wealth and magnificence of Glasgow were among the fruits of the Union.

Paul and I share an admiration, even a reverence, for Sir Walter. But we don’t entirely agree about his politics. This isn’t surprising because Scott, like many great men, contained contradictions. He had a deep sympathy for Jacobitism but the argument of Waverley is that the failure of the 45 was historically inevitable and to be regretted only sentimentally. He was jealously protective of Scottish interests, but, as one who lived through the wars against revolutionary and Napoleonic France, was also a British patriot.

He was a unionist who said that he would have opposed the treaty if he had been alive in 1707, but now recognised that it was a good thing. He belonged to what Professor Colin Kidd has identified as a strain of nationalist unionism, defending Scottish interests and insisting that the Union is a partnership in which Scotland‘s peculiar identity must be maintained and respected. This was the argument he advanced in The Letters of Malachi Malagrowther, which Paul rightly admires. But the first passage Paul quotes from the Letters recognises that Scotland had flourished since, and partly as a result of, the Union. There is no getting away from that. He was intensely and proudly Scottish, but called England “our sister”. His stage-management of George IV’s visit to Scotland was intended to cement the Union.

We can’t tell how he would have voted today. We would all like our heroes to be in our camp, and Paul is sure Sir Walter would have been in the SNP. He may be right, though I think Scott would have disliked the anti-English sentiments expressed by the more extreme nationalists. It is possible that he would have favoured an amicable divorce. On the other hand, he would have been aware of the benefits the Union still delivers and as a man of conservative temperament would have felt himself to be both Scottish and British.

I am sure he would have welcomed the re-establishment of the Scottish Parliament and would have favoured proposals to extend its powers. He would have disliked, even resented, the dominance of the City of London, but might not have approved of the centralising policies of the present Scottish Government and its disregard for some of the cherished traditions of Scots Law. On the constitutional question, I am inclined to think he might have favoured a loosening of the Union structure and a move towards a quasi-federal or confederal United Kingdom. But perhaps I am attributing my own views to Sir Walter, just as I think my old friend Paul Scott is attributing his.