Paul Scott: No, Scotland was not ‘extinguished’ in 1707

Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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DEREK Bateman of BBC Scotland telephoned me recently to draw my attention to references to myself in a campaign document on the Scotland Office website, that is the office of the department of the UK government in London.

The document is called Referendum on the Independence of Scotland: International Law Aspects. Its authors are two Professors of International Law, James Crawford in Cambridge and Alan Boyle in Edinburgh. It deals not only with Scotland and what they call rUK, the rest of the United Kingdom, but with many countries.

With the large number of books published in recent years about the relations between Scotland and England, why should they refer only to a short one I wrote for Canongate in 1992, Scotland in Europe: Dialogue with a Sceptical Friend? They are provoked by a couple of sentences: “The fact is that the UK was created by the Treaty of Union between Scotland and England in 1707. If one party decides to withdraw from the Treaty, then Scotland and England revert to their previous status as independent countries.” Crawford and Boyle do not agree because they argue that Scotland, but not England, was “extinguished in 1707”.

The Act of Union of 1707 was the result of England’s determination to achieve it by the heavy bribery of members of the Scottish Parliament and the threat of invasion. At that time the Scottish Parliament, like most others in Europe, did not represent the population at large. It consisted of the three categories of members sitting together in the same chamber, the Lords, the Burghs and the Counties. Only in the last of these were members chosen by election, but the electorate was confined to the lairds, who, of course, elected one of their own. There is no doubt that the great majority of Scots were strongly opposed to the Act of Union. Letters against it, and not one in favour, poured into the Scottish Parliament. This opposition lasted until about the middle of the 19th Century when trade within the Empire for a time reconciled people to it. A false account of the origin of the Union was widely circulated and generally believed.

Crawford and Boyle’s idea that the 1707 Act “extinguished” Scotland is absurd. Far from being “extinguished”, on the contrary, the Scottish Parliament proposed an Act seen as an indissoluble part of the Union, which provided for the Church of Scotland “to continue without any alterations to the people of this land in all succeeding generations”. The Church of Scotland, of course, as an expression of the popular, not Royal, will was quite different in spirit and aims to the Church of England. In the 18th Century, and for long afterwards, it was supported by most Scots and was much more democratic in spirit and doctrine than anything to the south. This did much to ensure that Scottish identity survived the Union.

There were many other key differences. The Scottish legal system continued and so did education, which was available to the whole population and for about 200 years was probably the most enlightened in the whole of Europe. As the American Arthur Herman said in his book, The Scottish Enlightenment: “As the first modern nation and culture, the Scots have by and large made the world a better place.”

The Westminster Parliament, as part of the Union settlement, added a few Scottish members to both Houses: in the Commons about the same number as the members for Cornwall and in the Lords fewer than the English bishops. For a short time after 1707, the Commons did pass some laws on Scottish matters, but it soon lost interest. As Sir Walter Scott said in his series of essays, The Letters of Malachi Malagrowther: “Scotland, no longer the object of terror, or at least great uneasiness, to the British Government, was left from the year 1750 under the guardianship of her own institutions, to win her silent way to national wealth and consequence... But neglected as she was, and perhaps because she was neglected, Scotland reckoning her progress during the space from the close of the American war to the present day, has increased her prosperity on a ratio more than five times greater than that of her more fortunate and richer sister”.

Then, of course, as Scotland became more prosperous, Westminster began to take a new interest in Scottish affairs. As Scott says in Malachi: “Scotland is now worth the attention of the learned faculty, and God knows she has had plenty of it. She has been bled and purged, spring and fall, and talked into courses of physic, for which she has had little occasion. She has been of late a sort of experimental farm, upon which every political student has been permitted to try his theory…”

Walter Scott’s conclusion is that Scotland should take charge of her own affairs. He says: “There has been in England a gradual and progressive system of assuming the management of affairs entirely and exclusively proper to Scotland, as if we were totally unworthy of having management of our own concerns. All must center in London”. In Scotland there was such an enthusiastic reaction to Walter Scott’s Malachi that Westminster withdrew their proposal to intervene in Scottish affairs. Scott wrote in his Journal on 9 June, 1826: “I shall always be proud of Malachi as having headed back the Southron, or helped to do so, in one instance at least.”

Strangely enough, Malachi, instead of becoming one of the most celebrated of Scott’s essays, has virtually disappeared. In reference books, Walter Scott is still described as “Conservative and Unionist”. He supported the Conservatives, but he was no Unionist. He virtually launched the movement for the recovery of Scottish independence.