Declaration triggers a clash over democratic ideals

The statue of Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn. Picture: Ian Rutherford
The statue of Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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THE Scotsman has joined with the University of Glasgow to offer a unique perspective on how the “voice of the people” has been heard in Scotland since medieval times.

As we prepare for the independence referendum, the University’s Centre for Scottish and Celtic Studies will bring together historians, political commentators and literary scholars to consider the role ordinary Scots played in our history. In the first in the series, two eminent academics debate the impact of the Declaration of Arbroath.

Jimmy Reid speaks during the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders dispute in 1971

Jimmy Reid speaks during the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders dispute in 1971

Professor Cowan and Professor Mason will debate the Declaration of Arbroath at a seminar which is scheduled to take place at the University of Glasgow tomorrow at 5:30pm. Full details of this and of future events in the series are available at

The next event in the Vox Populi series will take place on 16 October and will also be profiled in The Scotsman when Dr Steven Reid of the University of Glasgow considers “What Andrew Melville Really Thought of James VI: Popular Sovereignty and the Role of the Magistrate in Early Jacobean Scotland”.

FETISHISING the Declaration fails to serve the interests of historical accuracy, especially when one considers that over a period of 350 years there is not a mention of the document itself, writes Roger Mason.

ONE can tell a lot about a society’s values and aspirations from the stories we tell about ourselves. Such stories give a community a sense of solidarity, make it feel distinctive, and, as often as not, suggest a superiority to neighbouring communities. They are stories that flatter the collective ego, making people feel proud of their common history, while reinforcing present values and defining future aspirations.

Among the many inter-related narratives that are common currency today and have been moulded to support the social democratic values that prevail across much of the Scottish political spectrum, one is particularly potent, namely, the belief that the new Scottish parliament – the people’s parliament – is rooted in traditions of popular political participation that are distinct from (and superior to) the English doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty.

Is there any truth in these beliefs? Do Scots have any real claim to a uniquely inclusive constitutional heritage – one in which the will of the people was always paramount? The short answer to that must be a resounding no. For most of its history, from medieval times to the 20th century, Scottish politics were as socially exclusive as politics everywhere else, with a tiny (male) landowning elite, latterly supplemented by a tinier mercantile one, monopolising the levers of power. Of course there was periodic popular protest, from the Reformation to Red Clydeside, but these are the exceptions that prove the rule. We should not forget that for most of its history, since the time of the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, democracy has been a dirty word and popular political participation a phenomenon to be feared, not welcomed.

Yet the idea persists, and appears to have increasing purchase, not only that Scottish politics is somehow more inclusive and egalitarian than its English equivalent, but that this is rooted in a historic commitment to popular sovereignty that was first – and most resoundingly – articulated in the Declaration of Arbroath of 1320. There it was clearly stated, albeit in the Latin of the educated elite and in a letter to the pope in Rome, that a Scottish king who failed to defend Scottish freedom from English lordship might legitimately be replaced by a king who would. The relationship between the Scottish king and his subjects was therefore contractual, the kingship elective rather than hereditary, and the right to hold their ruler to account vested in the community.

The Declaration is indubitably an impressive document and one that Scots may quite reasonably see as a powerful expression of the medieval kingdom’s freedom from foreign lordship. Yet, on its iconic status has been built a far more dubious story. It is now often seen as the originary text of a Scottish constitutional tradition that stretches from that day to this. Its influence is said not only to have governed Scottish attitudes to their late medieval monarchy, but also to have shaped the thinking of 16th-century Protestants like John Knox and George Buchanan, to have animated 17th-century covenanters like Samuel Rutherford and Alexander Henderson, to have been championed by Scottish patriots from Andrew Fletcher to Robert Burns, and to have continued to exert a profound influence on Scottish political life from the Disruption of 1843 to the Constitutional Convention of 1988 and the final establishment of the Scottish parliament itself in 1999. And, of course, along the way, let’s not forget, it has been said that it provided Americans with a model for their Declaration of Independence.

This is a beguilingly attractive story that speaks cogently to current Scottish political concerns, at once evoking memories of an independent Scottish kingdom while endowing the rhetoric of inclusion and accountability with an impressive historical lineage. Yet much of it is entirely bogus.

There is in fact no evidence at all that the American founding fathers were influenced by the example of the Declaration of Arbroath. Indeed, the very name of the 1320 document is a modern description that echoes the American one rather than vice versa. The American connection is no more than a Tartan Day gimmick with no genuine historical evidence to support it.

That aside, the biggest problem with documenting the influence of the Declaration of Arbroath is that for some 350 years after its composition nobody ever refers to it. Although a version is found in Walter Bower’s 15th-century chronicle of Scotland, no-one else seems even to have been aware of it, let alone to have recognised it as embodying the fundamentals of Scottish constitutional law. The late medieval Scottish theologian, John Mair (or Major), widely respected for his radical political views, never mentions it (even when writing an account of the Wars of Independence), and neither do either of his star pupils, John Knox and George Buchanan. In fact not only is the 16th century a “Declaration-free zone”, but so too is the 17th century. Covenanting political theorists never mention it and neither does the great codifier of Scots law, Viscount Stair.

Admittedly, it appeared in print for the first time in 1680, but it did so courtesy of an out-and-out royalist, George Mackenzie of Rosehaugh, better known as “bluidy Mackenzie”, persecutor of the later covenanters, who would have no truck with the whiggish political ideas it embodied. And, though finally printed in English translation in 1689, it could hardly be considered the touchstone of Scottish political distinctiveness in the constitutional wrangling that accompanied the union of 1707. In fact, it is rarely referred to at all.

In short, the misleadingly named Declaration of Arbroath never had the profile or influence in the past with which it is often now endowed. Its iconic status is a relatively recent phenomenon, certainly 20th-century, and arguably a product of the last half-century. Moreover, in fetishising the Declaration, we are missing the real story of Scottish constitutionalism. The Scots did not invent modern democracy any more than they invented America.

However, as I will suggest tomorrow night, it is possible to construct a narrative that gives due weight to the various strands of radical political thought evident in Scotland’s medieval and early modern past without either distorting it beyond recognition or demanding a patriotic suspension of historical judgement.

• Professor Roger Mason is director of the Institute of Scottish Historical Research, at the University of St Andrews

FOR 700 years the famous document, signed on behalf of ‘barons, freeholders and the whole community’ has been quoted to fire the principles of national freedom, writes Edward Cowan.

A voice was conferred on the Scottish people due to the unprecedented concatenation of circumstances now known as the Scottish Wars of Independence, and that voice was raised in defence of freedom.

In order to foil the acquisitive, imperialistic ambitions of Edward I of England the Scots argued, as early as 1301, that “the kingdom of Scotland… has always been completely free”. The supreme articulation of the concept is enshrined in a letter, now known as the Declaration of Arbroath, written in Latin and sent to the pope in 1320: “For so long as a hundred of us remain alive, we will never on any conditions be subjected to the lordship of the English. For we fight not for glory nor riches nor honours, but for freedom alone, which no good person gives up except with life itself.”

The document was sent by “barons, freeholders and the whole community of the realm of Scotland”. The letter also relates that Robert Bruce, like another Joshua, had set his people free. He had become king through Divine Providence, right of succession and “the due consent and assent of us all”, yet if ever he should seek to “make us or our kingdom subject to the king of England or the English, we would strive at once to drive him out as a subverter of his own right and ours and make some other man who was able to defend us, our king”. This remarkable statement is the first explicit articulation, with reference to a specific political situation as opposed to a theoretical abstract, of the contractual theory of monarchy in European history.

Today it is better known as the sovereignty of the people, the “revolution principle”, the validity of which James Wilson of Carskerdo, Fife convinced his colleagues in the constitutional debates following the American Revolution: “the first and fundamental principle in the science of government”.

It is difficult to ascertain in any historical period what exactly is meant by “the people” but Robert Bruce, for his own pressing reasons, seems to have been intent on making the term as widely inclusive as possible. When Bruce seized the throne at Scone in 1306 he was, in the eyes of many, guilty of usurping the kingship of John Balliol. The new king had to manufacture a narrative to indicate the superiority of the Bruce claim to the kingship, while asserting that Balliol, with the connivance of Edward I, was the true usurper. In 1309 his PR department trumpeted that in advancing his claim, the faithful people of the realm would live and die with him, their true king, since he enjoyed the consent of the whole people, consensum populi et plebis, which seems more all-inclusive than communitas regni.

Historians have doubted whether the promise of Arbroath, the reciprocal rights between king and people, had much influence on posterity but in fact several manuscript copies of the document survive from the 15th century, notably in Walter Bower’s massive chronicle in which it is possible to trace the development of notions of popular sovereignty. These, in combination with the inspirational legend of William Wallace as “man of the people”, generated Scottish assumptions about a kind of “democratic quotient” pervading politics, religion, education and many aspects of the national life and character. Shades of Arbroath seem to hover over the setting aside of both Robert II and III as unfit monarchs, in James I’s assassination and in the curbing of James II’s ambitions through to the depositions of Mary of Guise and Mary Queen of Scots. John Mair argued that kings were instituted for the good of the people. “It is from the people and most of all from the chief men and nobility who act for the common people, that kings have their institution”.

George Buchanan, Scotland’s greatest expert on the Scottish constitution and the legality of resistance to tyrants, does not mention Arbroath although he must have known about it. He was emphatic that there was indeed a mutual contract between monarch and people but his authoritative writings served to obscure the Declaration and its message. The feudal lawyer Sir Thomas Craig wrote in 1605 that it was left to the commonalty, “impelled by their impatience and hatred of slavery” to lead the resistance to Edward I.

The Declaration was printed with an English translation for the first time in 1689, the year of the so-called Glorious Revolution, representing a kind of defining moment in the history of the Arbroath letter as it was absorbed into the Whig tradition. So far as the document is concerned, the year represents the crossroads of the centuries, looking back to the inspirational rhetoric of the early 14th century, and at the same time forward, to the constitutional monarchy, and beyond, to the nationalism of later centuries. The association with 1689 renders the Arbroath letter mythic, as it becomes part of a process which will eventually transform it into an oath, a manifesto, a sacred charter, and a declaration of independence to attain a status that is best described as “parahistorical”.

Thereafter it is frequently quoted in pamphlets, for example during the 1707 union debate. It also appeared throughout the 18th century in many publications concerned with the ongoing heated dialogue about whether the monarchy was hereditary or elective. The novelist John Galt was moved to observe that whereas the English were a justice-loving people according to charter and statute, the Scots were a wrong-resenting race, according to right and feeling, “and the character of liberty among them takes its aspect from that peculiarity”.

Interest in the document rather cooled in the 19th century but two Arbroathians in 1897 and 1904 dubbed the 1320 letter, “The Declaration of Scottish Independence” in homage to the American document of 1776. Thus the voice of the people was heard once more, though academics paid little attention to Arbroath for a further 50 years, only taking a truly serious interest in it as the 650th anniversary approached in 1970. Today, thanks to the establishment of Tartan Day, the Declaration has become global, as Scottish values of freedom and constitutionalism are celebrated annually worldwide.

• Professor Edward J Cowan is emeritus professor of Scottish History, University of Glasgow