Christopher Whatley: Battle for hearts and minds

Retaining Scotland's honours was crucial to winning support for Union in 18th century
Retaining Scotland's honours was crucial to winning support for Union in 18th century
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AS in 1706-7, those who favour the Union must make a strong case for how it will help the people of Scotland to prosper, writes Christopher Whatley

EVER since 1707, the reasons why the Scots entered into what some contemporaries called an “entire” union with England have been hotly debated.

However, even 300 years after the first histories of the Union appeared (Daniel Defoe led the way, in 1709), no particular school of thought can claim outright victory.

What is intriguing however are similarities between the situation now, pre-referendum, and the years immediately preceding the Union of 1707. There are differences too, but also some lessons for us today.

We are already being deluged by arguments for and against Scotland remaining within the United Kingdom. Scots in 1705 and 1706 were also swamped with propaganda. The challenge now, as then, is to distinguish blatant political self-interest from informed, evidence-based comment.

From the summer of 1706, however, the terms of the proposed union – which had been hammered out by a group of senior politicians from England and Scotland – were publicly available. Today’s Scots still await the detailed proposals that will enable them to engage with the debate on independence in the meaningful way our ancestors did.

Similar, too, is the high level of public interest. Ordinary Scots in 1706 thought and argued about the union proposals. Many sought to influence the country’s 200-plus parliamentary commissioners (today’s MSPs). Petitions showered into Parliament House. Some amendments were made to the treaty.

On some issues it was the threat of popular protest that induced change. Fear grew in the winter of 1706-7 that the symbols of Scotland’s independent nationhood – the crown, sceptre and sword of state as well as the official records, the country’s memory – would be moved to London. A guarantee was given by government that the honours of Scotland would remain in the country for all time coming. So far they have.

Highlighted here is the powerful sense among Scots of their distinctiveness and history as an independent nation. Appeals were made to the memory of Bruce and Wallace. They will be again, in 2014, the anniversary of Bannockburn. Towards England, attitudes were mixed and included ugly Anglophobia as well as mild irritation. Even pro-unionists felt patronised by their richer, more urbane southern neighbours. Does this feel familiar?

Passions ran high. They still do. But then, as now, public opinion was sharply divided. Then, as now, politicians worked assiduously to harness public opinion. It is, therefore, hard to be certain what the population at large actually felt about the proposed union.

Many were confused. In 2012, there is a sizeable body of “don’t knows”. Unlike their counterparts in 1706 and 1707, who sought God’s guidance as to the best course for Scotland, the undecided among today’s electorate will expect informed answers to their questions.

Undeniably there was strong support for the status quo – the regal union of 1603. One monarch but separate parliaments in England and Scotland. Given the support there is for Scotland’s devolved parliament, and the current majority in favour of remaining within the Union, the question arises as to whether, after 300 years, the Scots have somehow rediscovered a constitutional relationship with England with which they feel comfortable?

Pre-1707, a key issue was the standard of living. There are resonances of this today in the social survey evidence, which suggests that being £500 better or worse off could influence voting behaviour in 2104.

There was also concern for Scotland’s economic future. England looked to be Scotland’s best bet. Indeed, such were the perceived economic benefits of union that the article which created a protected free trade environment for Scotland’s enterprising merchants, was approved in parliament even by those commissioners who were against the rest of the union proposals. Scots are pragmatists as well as idealists.

Much water has flown under the Tweed since 1707. The economic context is very different, while the nature of Scotland’s relationship with England has evolved from that originally conceived. Does 1707, then, have any relevance for the current debate about Scotland’s constitutional future?

Yes. There are those in the pro-independence camp for whom the referendum in 2014 offers an opportunity to return to a historical trajectory from which they believe the Scots were forced against their will in 1707. The inclusion in nationalists’ speeches of references to the “parcel of rogues” – a term lifted by Robert Burns and applied to pro-Union politicians – indicate that events three centuries ago can still be evoked to rouse anti-Union passion. With some justification.

Union was the unintended consequence of Scotland’s growing feistiness during the later years of King William’s reign and the early years of that of his successor, Queen Anne. There was concern in England that the Scots might invite as monarch “James VIII”, the son of the Catholic King James VII (and II) who had been deposed at 
the “Glorious” Revolution of 1688-9. The prospect of the return of a Catholic Stuart, backed by the much-feared enemy and threat to British security, France under King Louis XIV, was unthinkable. Anne should be succeeded by a Protestant. By 1705, English politicians had lost patience with the Scots’ awkward parliament – and put on the table their demand for incorporation. And just to make sure, troops were marshalled in readiness to intervene.

In this interpretation of events, the Union was unwanted, brought about as Scotland’s supine parliamentarians were “bought and sold for English gold”. Some were. What this overlooks though, are the patriotic Scots in parliament who genuinely favoured union.

On the other hand, at least some parliamentarians who resisted the union proposal most strenuously were nationalists by convenience. Several of them were Jacobites, the former King James’s supporters. If the union – at the core of which was the Protestant succession – was agreed, they would be condemned forever to the political wilderness. The popular patriotic flag they grasped cloaked their sympathy for a dynasty whose henchmen had brutally crushed political and religious dissent.

This is hardly an admirable pedigree for those who read opposition to the Union in 1706 and 1707 as a chapter in Scotland’s noble struggle for independence. Nor is comfort to be had from the most virulent opponents of union outside parliament – ordinary folk who were also extreme Presbyterians, spurred by their unflinching womenfolk whose Scotland would be independent yes, but materially poor, a theocratic state of the godly that had no truck with sinful bishop-ridden England. In the light of Scotland’s real as opposed to its myth-history, we should be asking more probing questions about what being Scottish in 2012 means, and might mean if we break with the UK.

Union was not something England had sought prior to 1705. Scots had. In 1689, and not for the first time, Scottish Presbyterians – Whigs – advocated union with England to preserve the gains of the revolution from their enemies within (the Jacobites) and without (France). Better together? They had a vision for Scotland. Economic modernisers who rejected the notion of the divine right of kings, they were committed to constitutional monarchy in the belief that the duty of princes was to serve the people in parliament.

There was a cogent case for union. Despite opposition allegations, the union was never “entire”. Scotland’s negotiators had secured the “fundamentals” of Scottish civic society, including the Church and legal system. However the conditions in which the Union was forged and for more 250 years afterwards became an unspoken fact of political life in Scotland, no longer apply. It was a union for the 18th century.

If the opponents of independence are to carry hearts as well as minds, a similarly ambitious case for the Union in the 21st century needs to be made.

• Professor Christopher Whatley is vice-principal of the University of Dundee