Alf Young: The Union has helped Scotland flourish

CONTRARY to claims that our sovereignty was sold off, evidence suggests the union was a Scottish concept, writes Alf Young

Bannockburn, near Stirling. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

FRESH from that minor stushie over his Saltire moment, Alex Salmond has moved on from some Centre Court photobombing to a bit of hoary old cliche-mongering. In a speech at Nigg energy park yesterday, Scotland’s First Minister described his union-supporting political opponents as a “parcel o’ rogues”, intent only on spreading scares and fears about independence.

Some say Robert Burns himself penned the bitter 18th-century lament in which Scotland’s right to political self-determination was “bought and sold for English gold’ by a bribed clique, led by the Earl of Seafield. But even the Scottish Government’s own Education Scotland web-site acknowledges that our national bard never claimed authorship of the song. Though Burns did insist, 83 years after the event, that nothing would reconcile him to the terms of the 1707 Act of Union.

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For Alex Salmond to resurrect the accusation more than 300 years on speaks volumes about how many modern-day nationalists view anyone who dares ask questions about what we are all being asked to say yes to in September 2014. That same song, in its second verse proclaims: “What force or guile could not subdue/Through many warlike ages/Is wrought now by a coward few/For hireling traitor’s wages”

Those of us who do dare ask questions have long grown weary of the traitor charge. Much of it is web-based venom I can simply shut out of my life. But I have had it thrown at me in, of all places, Milngavie rail station car park, as Carol and I were taking our two then-much-younger sons home, after an evening out together.

The well-dressed, middle-aged gent who had stalked us out from the train and was now banging his fists on our car window had clearly had too much to drink This was, in today’s parlance, a hate crime.

And, with just over 14 months to go before Scotland decides, both sides should be doing all they can to banish such behaviour from their exchanges.

It’s not even clear that the “parcel of rogues” account of how Scotland came to surrender its independence in 1707 is anything like the complete story. One of our leading scholars, Professor Colin Kidd of St Andrews University, insisted last year “Unionism is a Scottish invention – not, as might be imagined, an English idea”. Kidd calls it “the original third way in British politics, a daring yet practical policy conceived as an alternative to warfare.”

Bannockburn did not put an end to Anglo-Scottish conflict, he argues. Hostilities continued in late-medieval Scotland and Northern England. By the early 16th century Henry VIII was still trying to fulfil the imperial ambitions of Edward I. A negotiated union was, writes Kidd, the brainchild of the Scottish philosopher and historian John Mair of Haddington. Mair asked what another St Andrews professor, Roger Mason, has called – pace Tam Dalyell – the East Lothian question.

What, Mair wondered, was the practical value of independence for southern Scotland in particular in the early 16th century if the result was ongoing sporadic warfare, poverty and lawlessness? In 1521, in his Maioris Britanniae Historia (History of Greater Britain), Mair set out his answer.

Kidd describes Mair’s answer thus: “An Anglo-Scottish union would achieve the same political benefits for Scotland as independence, as well as a range of social and economic goods, which embattled independence on a small island shared with a much greater power had conspicuously not delivered.”

It was, Kidd claims, “a visionary project designed not to subordinate Scotland to England but as a means of taming England’s overbearing imperial pretensions. Unionism was not the opposite of Scottish nationalism, but a way of allowing Scotland to be Scotland within a British framework of institutions.” Will anyone be celebrating the 500th anniversary of the publication of Mair’s union ideas in 2021, the way we are being encouraged to celebrate the 700th anniversary of Bruce’s victory at Bannockburn next year? I’m not holding out too much hope of that.

For all the talk of rogues and traitors, there is another narrative. One about how Scotland flourished, in so many ways, from its 1707 political union with its southern neighbour. Our two big banks, one formed 12 years before, the other two decades after that union, certainly prospered over the next three centuries, until they crashed and burned, thanks to their own commercial excesses, in the banking debacle of 2008.

Scots embraced the free trade area created by union and the access afforded to a burgeoning British empire. Glasgow became a great industrial powerhouse. Edinburgh, what the novelist Tobias Smollett called a “hotbed of genius”, the core of enlightenment thinking. As Alistair Darling reminded us, in his Glasgow University lecture on Thursday, one of the greatest luminaries in that world, Adam Smith, wrote in 1760 to his publisher suggesting: “The union was a measure from which infinite good has been derived in this country.”

An act of bribery and treachery delivering infinite goods? Are Burns, if it was him, and Smith reflecting on two sides of the same coin? Simply illustrating a central paradox that has bedevilled Scottish politics for nearly a century. Consider again Alex Salmond’s choice of the “parcel o’ rogues” jibe to describe the tactics of his pro-union opponents in persuading a majority of Scots to say no to independence.

What kind of independent Scotland is the First Minister promoting? It will, if Salmond has his way, retain the British monarchy, a sterling monetary union, an enduring social union with the rest of the UK, a free trade area, open borders, shared embassies and harmonised regulation and a growing list of other shared functions.

Apart from the right to command its own raw materials, notably oil, banish nuclear weapons from the Clyde and set its own tax and spend policies, would the independent country we are being asked to say yes to, be genuinely independent at all? If we still shared so much with the rest of the UK, wouldn’t any independent government struggle to create a radically different kind of Scotland?

The degree of pooled sovereignty implicit in the choices already made is massive.

The further pooling of sovereignty that may well be required to gain entry to the Nato nuclear alliance or to meet the fiscal restraints implicit in the sound conduct of any formal currency union would further constrain freedom of political action.

The promise implicit in the words on the ballot paper – “Should Scotland be an independent country?” – might quickly prove a political chimera.

In short, would John Mair of Haddington, were he around today, see in the kind of Scotland being proposed by Alex Salmond and the SNP as a pragmatic reworking of his own 16th-century vision. A union still in all but name. Certainly not a brave new independent nation state, beset by fear-mongering rogues and traitors.