The elephant we can't forget
IN A now oft-quoted remark, the former Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau, during a speech in Washington, DC, in 1969, observed to his American audience that "living next to you is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant: no matter how friendly and even-tempered the beast, one is affected by every twitch and grunt".
Trudeau's memorable simile could, of course, be applied to any relationship between a large, powerful country and a close neighbour, much weaker in political, economic and demographic terms. It certainly, for instance, could apply to the Anglo-Scottish connection.
In 1707, the English outnumbered the Scots by over 5:1. By 1901 that disparity had widened to 10:1. England has always unambiguously been the senior partner in the relationship, with the sovereign parliament meeting in London as the seat of government and the political, social and cultural "establishment" of the United Kingdom also concentrated in the south. Despite the obvious possibilities for domination, assimilation or even exclusion by the senior partners, the union of the two countries has survived for nearly three hundred years. 1 May, 2007, will mark the tercentenary of the Treaty of 1707 becoming law. For most of that time any implicit tension because of imbalances in power has been minimal. True, for the first half of the 18th century, the new connection remained fragile and could easily have fractured. Also, since the 1960s, the option of withdrawal from the Union has appealed to a substantial minority of Scots though, thus far, not to a majority. However, since the later 18th century, until very recent times, the Anglo-Scottish connection has been remarkably stable and indeed rarely questioned, far less opposed, by political interests north of the Border.
In the 1840s, when nationalist movements racked the capitals of Europe, Scotland was quiet. Between then and the First World War, any articulated concerns about the Union were concerned with its refinement and improvement, not its repeal, and it must have seemed to Victorian gentlemen that the continuation of the Union for ever and a day was an unquestioned fact. But to earlier generations of Scots and to later historians there was nothing inevitable about the survival of the Union.
MERE geographical proximity between two different states does not, of course, guarantee the durability of any political association. Indeed, far from being typical, it may well be that the Anglo-Scottish Union was unusual when seen in the context of European history. Christopher Smout, for instance, argues that for "unions between distinct and established medieval kingdoms of some reputation, like England and Scotland, to last for four hundred years (ie, including the Regal Union of 1603) is a rare thing". He then cites the example of two well-known failed unions in western Europe. The connections between Spain and Portugal and Norway and Sweden both came to an end in acrimonious divorce.
Indeed, the more closely one examines 1707 and its aftermath, the more unlikely seems the remarkable longevity of the Anglo-Scottish political association. The omens at the time were far from auspicious. Scotland's emergence as a nation out of miscellaneous tribal groupings in the medieval period was in large part the result of a centuries-old endeavour to defend the kingdom from English aggression. A mere 50-odd years before the Treaty of Union, Scotland had been conquered and subjected to military dictatorship and annexation by the Cromwellian regime of the 1650s. The prelude to 1707 was the legislation of 1703 of the Scottish Parliament which, in the key areas of foreign and dynastic policy, suggested separation from England rather than union. The successful negotiations were carried out by a tiny patrician lite, resulting in a marriage of convenience passed through the Scottish Parliament in the teeth of both internal opposition and considerable external popular hostility.
AFTER 1707, the threat of "the elephant" loomed in the form of the English constitutional principle of the absolute sovereignty of "the Crown-in-Parliament". Potentially this dictum was the most lethal threat to the new association. The old monarchical tradition of the "Divine Right of Kings" to rule without constitutional limit was transferred in the "Glorious Revolution" of 1688-89 to the English and later to the British parliament after 1707. Given the dramatically different levels of parliamentary representation, based on either the population levels or property values of the two nations, this could imply the imposition of unacceptable policies by Westminster on Scotland. That this was not simply a theoretical possibility became brutally clear very quickly. In London, the High Church Tories who replaced the Whigs in 1710 with some Scottish support passed the Patronage Act of 1712, re-establishing the legal right of local patrons (usually landowners) to appoint to vacant church offices. This did not simply outrage pious Presbyterians at the time. It also opened up a running sore which poisoned church/state relations with the final crisis of the Disruption of 1843. In addition, the act confirmed unambiguously that the Treaty of 1707 was not an inviolate, fundamental and supreme law, but rather one which could be altered by the whim of any electoral majority in Westminster. This interpretation was confirmed much later by the most influential constitutional expert of the Victorian era, Albert Venn Dicey (1835-1922). Manifestly, this was the scenario for turbulence which became even more likely as taxation, on such basic necessities as salt, linen, beer, soap and malt, rose inexorably and the anticipated post-Union economic miracle failed to materialise. The deep frustration was first symbolised by the motion in the House of Lords in June 1713 to repeal the Treaty of Union, which was only narrowly defeated by a mere four proxy votes: so much for the inevitability of union longevity! But, second, the dissent and anger helped to fuel the Jacobite movement and helps to explain why Scotland became the great hope of the exiled Stuarts in the early 18th century.
But the febrile nature of anti-unionism before the 1750s should not obscure the fact that even in that volatile period the Union was gathering vital support. It came from two sources.
First, just as enthusiastic Jacobites regarded 1707 as an effective recruiting sergeant, Presbyterian Scots (which meant the vast majority in the Lowlands) saw the Union increasingly as the best defence against the potential horrors of a Catholic Stuart restoration. The more menacing Jacobitism became, the more were these feelings fortified. It helped that these sentiments were strongest in the nation's most economically advanced areas. Glasgow's joyful relief when the news came of the happy deliverance at Culloden Moor was tangible. The town's newspaper, the Glasgow Journal, brought out a special large-print edition in celebration of Cumberland's victory and to record "the greatest rejoicings that have been".
SECOND, and even more critical, however, were the vast increases in employment opportunities in the Empire through soldiering, trade, administration and the professions for the non-inheriting male offspring of the landed lite. This was an age of significant population increase. There were simply many more sons for whom careers had to be found commensurate with inherited social status. In that sense the Empire came as a godsend for the genteel but often impoverished landed gentry of Scotland. There was no barrier on entry placed on these Scots, even at the highest levels of colonial administration. By the end of the 18th century, not surprisingly, they were over-represented in every area of lite imperial employment. How important this was to the long-term stability of the Union is confirmed by comparison with Ireland in the 1790s and the provinces of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the 19th century. Deep frustrations among the Irish Catholic gentry at the more limited imperial prospects for their families helped to fuel Irish instability from the 1780s and was a significant influence helping to trigger the rebellion of 1798. Similarly, ethnic discrimination against provincial lites in Austria-Hungary fed disaffection in central and eastern Europe.
Growing awareness of the material benefits of union was paralleled by a growing consensus among the nation's intellectual leaders that progress and unionism were closely associated. In theory, one might expect the stunning achievements of the Scottish Enlightenment to have built a new national confidence and even a platform for nationalist assertion. But it was not to be. Almost to a man, the literati were wedded to the idea that the Union was the prime source of liberation from Scotland's dark past of religious fanaticism and feudal inertia. The rubbishing of Scotland's pre-Union history in the 18th century also fashioned a unionist intellectual agenda for the Victorian era. Standard 19th-century histories of the nation by such authors as John Hill Burton and PF Tytler continued the tradition of portraying pre-1707 Scotland in a negative light. Significantly, when the Royal Commission of 1876 suggested that chairs of history should be set up in the universities, they were filled by English-trained scholars who virtually ignored the Scottish past in their teaching and writings. Not until 1901 was the first professorship in Scottish history established with the Fraser Chair at Edinburgh.
With security on the northern Border firmly established by generations of Scottish loyalty, Westminster could afford virtually to let the Scots go their own way within the parameters of the Union. Unlike the policy in Ireland, there was no army of occupation or extensive colonial bureaucracy. As in the 18th century, parliament in London rarely intervened on Scottish issues unless invited to do so, and the Lord Advocate in Edinburgh continued to control such key areas as law enforcement and policing. In the second half of the 20th century the enormous influence of the state in education, health, welfare and economic management was taken for granted. In the 19th century government intervention was, however, limited in the extreme and Scotland therefore had considerable autonomy within the Union state.
BELOW the parliamentary level the routing of government and administration was devolved to town councils and supervisory boards which grew up from the 1840s. The Scottish Board of Supervision ran the Poor Law from 1845, and the Prisons Board was set up in 1838. These two were followed in due course by others for public health, lunatic asylums (1857) and education (1872). Scots lawyers staffed this new bureaucracy and its inspectors were Scots doctors, surveyors and architects. Along with these, the Scottish Burgh Reform Act of 1833 created a new and powerful local state, run by the Scottish middle classes and reflecting their political and religious values. It was this, rather than a distant and usually indifferent Westminster authority, that in effect routinely governed Scotland. The middle classes had therefore no reason to seek parliamentary independence or to adopt a nationalism which was hostile to the British state. They enthusiastically supported Kossuth in Hungary and Garibaldi in Italy in their struggles for national unity, but they did not feel similarly oppressed or need a national parliament to achieve what the Liberal middle classes in Scotland already possessed, namely liberty, economic prosperity and cultural integrity, the very advantages for which European nationalists had yearned for so long.
On the eve of the First World War, the Anglo-Scottish Union must therefore have seemed a rock of stability in an uncertain world. It was such a fact of life that no-one of any influence questioned its future. If truth be told, the Scots had been remarkably fortunate. Rightly or wrongly, they assumed that their global economic eminence was rooted in the Union. But that wealth had not come at the expense of either cultural dependency or loss of identity.
The old saying, having one's cake and eating it, does come to mind!
But between 1914 and the 1950s, this almost smug relationship was assailed to an extent unknown since the 18th century. Despite final victory, the First World War was a human catastrophe on an enormous scale for Scotland. At the start of the conflict national euphoria was the mood.
By 1918 this had degenerated into dark pessimism. One historian has suggested that the Scots regiments, on a per capita basis, suffered most from the carnage on the Western Front. The Serbs and the Turks had higher per capita mortality rates, but this was a result of disease rather than losses in battle.
THAT slaughter of the nation's young men of all social classes was then followed by the collapse of the markets for Scottish heavy industry in the late 1920s and thereafter, together with a remarkable and high level of emigration which, for the first time since the 17th century, caused an actual fall in Scottish population. Edwin Muir eloquently captured the collapse of national confidence in his Scottish Journey of 1935: "Scotland is gradually being emptied of its population, its spirit, its wealth, industry, art, intellect and innate character." George Malcolm Thomson was even gloomier: "The first fact about the Scot is that he is a man eclipsed. The Scots are a dying race." Some took the view that this series of catastrophes demonstrated that the Union no longer worked to Scottish advantage. But they remained in a small minority.
During the first five decades of the 20th century, the Anglo- Scottish Union seemed impregnable. The Conservative and Unionist party in Scotland was hugely popular between the wars, winning five of the seven general elections over that period. During the long drawn-out economic crisis of these years, Scottish voters clearly preferred the umbrella of the British state to any nationalist adventure.
The foundation of the SNP in 1934 showed that not all Scots were in the unionist camp, but its successive failures at the polls demonstrated conclusively that the vast majority were. Indeed, the emergence of the SNP came about in large part because of the growing indifference to Home Rule on the part of the more established Liberal and Labour parties. The outbreak of the Second World War further strengthened British identity. For a time plucky Britain stood alone against an evil foe. Every nook and cranny of life was affected as the nation geared up for war. The age-old distinction between combatants and non-combatants faded as the civilian population on the home front struggled against enemy bombers, food shortages and, until 1941, the fear of invasion. The legacy of Britain united in a good cause endured in the folk memory of the post-1945 generation through the extraordinary number (and longevity) of war comics, books and films.
This was not the only vital factor buttressing Britishness. The foundation of the Welfare State, promising cradle-to-grave security and the commitment to full employment in the post-war world, had enormous appeal for Scots who had suffered the full impact of market failure in the 1930s, as evidenced by serious unemployment levels and appalling housing conditions. Historians have argued persuasively that the actual impact of the Union in the 19th century was broadly neutral. It was only after 1947 that it once again had a marked effect on Scotland. Even the beginnings of the end of Empire with the independence of India and Pakistan in 1947 did not disturb the Union connection. As living standards finally started to improve in the 1950s and the years of austerity faded into the past, unionism in Scotland seemed unchallenged. Indeed, in 1950 Labour dropped its long-standing manifesto commitment to Scottish self-government and the SNP continued to stagnate in political irrelevance. 1955 saw the Conservative and Unionist Party achieve just over half of the popular vote, a unique and remarkable achievement in Scottish electoral history.
But this political consensus did not mean that "Scottishness" had in any sense evaporated. On the contrary, the mass interest in the Scottish Covenant of 1949, advocating a parliament in Edinburgh within the Union and attracting nearly two million signatures, suggested that Scotland's sense of itself remained robust. Moreover, by the later 1950s all was not well with the Scottish economy. The long period of Britain's post-war relative decline against international competitors, which lasted from the 1960s to the 1990s, had begun. The balance between "Scottishness" and "Britishness" now shifted. The rise of the SNP, the new and pragmatic interest in devolution by Westminster and a fresh vitality in Scottish culture were all signs of the times. A key decade was the 1980s when the English "elephant", for the first time since the 18th century, seemed to move to the Scottish side of the "bed", with the imposition of hugely unpopular social and economic policies by the Thatcher government. The Scots had not voted for Tory radicalism and many began to feel that they were now enduring an electoral dictatorship. The experience put more steel into the Scottish electorate and their politicians. Any ambiguity about the relevance of a Scottish Parliament to the future of the nation quickly receded.
MORE than half a century on from the high noon of unionism in the 1950s, the issue now is whether the time-honoured connection between Scotland and England will survive for much longer in the new millennium. Certainly, a sense of Scottish identity may not have been as strong since the 18th century. In 2004, around three-quarters of Scots felt "exclusively" or "mainly" Scottish, a significantly higher proportion than the equivalent measures in England and Wales. These "Scottish" loyalties are especially common among the younger generation. But that awareness need not mean that political independence is inevitable. It may be yet another manifestation of the Union's historic capacity not only for flexibility but for giving full and easy scope for the Welsh, English and Scots to express their cultural and ethnic identities within a UK framework. The most recent results from the Economic and Social Research Council suggest that the old dual identity is not yet extinct. Perhaps inevitably, however, most recent comment, both in the media and among academic analysts, has been about the reasons for the decline of "Britishness" over the last half century.
The obvious checklist might include the waning of Protestantism (a key ideological British resource for earlier generations), the end of Empire and Britain's subsequent fall for a time to the status of the second-rate power; the huge and increasing importance of Europe and the parallel decline in the authority of the British state and, not least, the ebbing of respect for the institution of monarchy.
Moreover, since the end of the Second World War and the collapse of the Soviet threat, there is the loss of a clear "Other", or of an external enemy which can help to sustain British national solidarity against a common foe.
However, whether all this means that a political divorce is likely in the short term is less certain. Three hundred years of Union have resulted in multiple familial, personal, economic and cultural connections between the two nations. Many hundreds of thousands of Scots have long migrated to England. Less well known is the continuous movement in modern times from England to Scotland. Between 1841 and 1911 a quarter of a million English and Welsh men, women and children apparently came north. At the last census (2001) over 400,000 English-born were resident in Scotland, by far the nation's largest immigrant group. Not so long ago, it was possible to speak with concern about the "Englishing" of Scotland.
More common nowadays is the reference to the "Scottish Raj" in English politics and media and London's financial institutions. The story about the Midlands MP who asked why should the Scots need a parliament when "they are running ours", may be apocryphal but still strikes a chord. The Scots may have felt themselves to be provincials from time to time and have also often been the target of some English humour, but such minor irritations have never really prevented them achieving access to the highest positions in politics, business or academe south of the Border. Devolution has also undeniably drawn the teeth of much of the discontent of the 1980s, even if a majority in Scotland still think that the parliament could do much better.
In addition, the economic crises of the 1970s through to the 1980s, which undermined confidence in the British state, have disappeared. Balance of payments problems, hyperinflation and trade union militancy have, for the last decade or so, gone from the UK. Since emerging from the recession of the early 1990s, Britain has thrived and most Scots have shared in the benefits. According to the International Monetary Fund, the growth of GDP per person in the UK was both stronger and less variable than that of other rich nations in the G7 over that period. All this has helped to fuel both electoral apathy and suspicion of dramatic political adventures.
But to conclude that the Union is now secure and that the devolved parliament as currently constituted is the "settled will" of the Scottish people would be to go too far. In recent surveys, nearly half of respondents wanted more powers for Holyrood, especially in the areas of taxation, economy and immigration. This suggests that the agenda in the medium term might not be the stark choice between unionism or independence, but how far and how fast the pragmatic transfer of powers from London to Edinburgh will proceed towards some kind of de facto "independence", with Scottish authority over all areas apart from foreign affairs and defence.
Nonetheless, even in the event of full independence, the "elephant" will still be there. After all, Trudeau's original simile referred to two separate states, the USA and Canada. In the final analysis, geography, relative size and power may perhaps be more influential than constitutional status.
• Tom Devine is the Sir William Fraser Chair of Scottish History at Edinburgh University. He is one of a number of distinguished figures taking part in speeches/debates organised by the university on the Union.
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