Regrets? They've had a few

The Scots and the Union
February 9, 2007

John Morrill enjoys a nuanced account of how the Scots came to commit themselves to partnership with the 'auld enemy'

The English have taken their history in their stride and tamed it into a heritage industry. They are content to be a mongrel people made up of waves of foreign marauders from the Romans to the Normans; they convert humiliating defeat in the face of foreign invasion (as in 1066 or 1688) into a source of national pride. They celebrate a dead past; they do not evoke a past alive and malign in the present. It is not surprising, then, that the English are not going to get hot under the collar about the events of 1707 when (they can plausibly claim) they were blackmailed by the Scots into allowing them to enter into a union on terms spectacularly generous to the North Britons.

At least five books about that Union of 1707 will be published for the tercentenary, of which Scots and the Union is the harbinger. All five are by Scots and all will agonise about why the Scots subordinated themselves to their awkward and arrogant neighbours, the South Britons. For many events in Scottish history still have the power to stir strong passions and a burning sense of injustice - Braveheart, Flodden, the Rough Wooing and many another slight. And in recent times the Union of 1707 has become a main source of lamentation.

In works combining scholarship, passion and a present-centredness, William Ferguson, Pat Riley, Paul Scott, Bruce Lenman and Allan Macinnes have argued that there was nothing inevitable about the union of the kingdoms in 1707: it was the result of the willingness of the English to bribe and corrupt a generation of unprincipled Scottish nobles; for Scotland was, as was said at the time, "bought and sold for English gold".

Less nationalistic voices have been heard - most of them stressing that Union was an economic necessity for Scotland just as much as it was a political necessity for England; but the stench of political jobbery, like a dead rat under the sideboard, has informed most political discourse north of the border.

The flyer for The Scots and the Union calls it "radical and original, logical and startling" - indeed "a timely and groundbreaking new assessment". And of what does this blink-making originality consist? It consists of its quintessential moderation, its calm demonstration that there was a principled case for the Scots to accept not only Union, but this form of Union, and that behind the normal operation of a politics of patronage, matters of principle and prejudice carried the day. After this book, the Scots may still have a case for a divorce from the English on the grounds of the mental cruelty of the latter, but they cannot claim an annulment on the grounds that the marriage was not really valid in the first place.

The Scots and the Union is a new style of monograph. At one level, Whatley is vastly extending the arguments of his 60-page pamphlet subtitled Explaining the Union of 1707 that was first published by the Economic and Social History Society of Scotland in 1994 and then reprinted as a 1-page paperback in 2001. At another level, he is transforming it through the remarkable trek through the archives undertaken by his research associate, Derek Patrick. The new book has been written by Whatley, but in constant communication with Patrick, and throughout it - for it is written in the first person plural - this is a joint effort. And so the title page properly ascribes the work to "Christopher A. Whatley with Derek J. Patrick". It is a pity, then, that the cover and the publisher's flyer ascribe it to Whatley alone. This is to short-change a gifted young scholar, and for this the publisher must take responsibility. This book is a new-style collaboration of principal investigator and research associate. Let us get the protocols right.

Patrick and Whatley have made some major discoveries in the archives, not least an account of speeches during the session of the Scottish Parliament that approved the draft proposals for union that is far fuller than those known and used hitherto. But family papers, church records and burgh records have all yielded valuable nuggets. Even more impressive is the careful sifting and evaluation of better known evidence, such as the addresses to the Parliament. There has hitherto been far too much of the "look at this number: impressive, isn't it?" school of historical thought.

Whatley and Patrick show that when we add up all the signatures on all the addresses against Union, we reach a total of 20,000 names - less than one in ten of all adult males. Given that those orchestrating the campaign were procuring the support of anyone who could be contacted - the illiterate certainly included - this comes as a shock. If many were opposed to the Union, and few ready to speak up for it, there was a mass of resigned acceptance. The book's careful weighing of the evidence, standing back and thinking about the silences and the biases of the past, pays dividends (when does it not?).

The Scots and the Union offers the most complete and nuanced account of the state of the Scottish economy in the period between the Revolution of 1688 and the Union of 1707 - the structural strengths and weaknesses of the economy, the devastating effects (direct and indirect) of successive harvest failures in the later 1690s, the compounded impact of the disastrous Darien adventure that had soaked up so much of the disposable capital of the Scots, and whose failure could be laid firmly (if exaggeratedly) at the door of the Court at Whitehall, at the sins of commission and omission by English statesmen and economic pundits.

In a slightly uneasy fashion, the book then offers the most detailed, nuanced and convincing account and analysis of the political process by which the Scots were brought to negotiate over and then to accept the union proposals. Here, Whatley and Patrick achieve a delicate balance by looking at how all the leading players' political behaviour over a long period shaped their decision-making in 1705-07, and by noting when and in what ways that behaviour was modified by consumption of the loaves and fishes of political patronage.

They also distinguish the various strands of anti-unionism, and because they are so sensitive to the unbridgeable gulf between those willing to contemplate a breach of the dynastic union (and the return of the Stuarts) and the visceral anti-popery of the Kirk, they are able to demonstrate that the closer the opposition came to success, the more the pyrrhic nature of such a victory was borne in on them. Some wanted to defeat the Union to keep the Jacobite cause alive, others to safeguard the Kirk and to preserve the solemn engagements of the Covenant to promote true religion in all three kingdoms; others felt that the benefits of free trade promised in the union came at too high a price in terms of new taxes; and others had a gut fear of an English takeover, however great the protections for Scottish law and Scottish religion built into this scheme. But the Jacobites were always in a minority, and most of those Lowlanders who hated the Union, hated (and feared) Jacobitism even more. What is striking is the failure of the non-Jacobite anti-unionists to develop a republican or Scottish royal alternative to the Hanoverian succession.

All this is very well explored: I just wish the definite article in the title had been more fully explored. By focusing so well but so narrowly on the period after 1688, the book does not consider the previous century and a half during which Protestant Scots were keener on a Union than the English were, hoping - indeed demanding - the right to purify the English Church of the dregs of popery and to underwrite uniformity of religion by a confederal political union.

Whatley and Patrick say little about these failed attempts at confederal union across the 17th century or about the baleful legacy of the Solemn League and Covenant. For example, they are excellent in their analysis of the significance of Anne's selection of the Scottish Union Commissioners in the summer of 1706, but it would have helped if they had recalled the bitterly remembered sense of betrayal in Scotland occasioned by the actions of the group of commissioners who had trudged south from Dalkeith in 1652 as a prelude to the Cromwellian incorporative union.

Similarly, the book could have done with a bit more geopolitical range. Ireland gets only the most passing of references, and the tempting line that "this was the second time - the first was under Cromwell - (that) the Scots got the union with England that Ireland had wanted" would have benefited from major unpacking. Generally speaking, there is a whole story of Scottish anxiety amplified by a smouldering Ireland and another of Louis XIV's support for the House of Stuart that would have deepened a lot of what Whatley and Patrick have to say.

These cavils only indicate how a really authoritative and intelligent book could have been even better. What we are offered demonstrates convincingly that the case for economic union became more and more insistent, exponentially so after 1688; but that the key to the Union of 1707 was the dynastic crisis triggered by the English when they passed the Act of Settlement without thinking through the implications for Scotland. It was this blithe disregard for the rights and interests of those who shared their monarch that both necessitated and complicated constitutional change. For the crisis of 1704-1707 precluded the confederal solution the Scots had sought for more than a century and required an incorporative settlement.

The bottom line was this: most of the Scots who opposed Union opposed a Jacobite succession even more. They knew that England's desperate need to make the Scots adopt the same dynastic solution gave them unusual leverage over the English, and they achieved disproportionately large political representation and disproportionately small tax contributions. They secured safeguards that for 300 years have protected the Church of Scotland and the country's legal, educational and welfare systems. Yet most Scots were as desperate as the English to avoid civil war over the succession and so needed to reach an accommodation. Anne was, after all, a medical nightmare. They could not afford to call the English bluff for too long.

So the real question in 1707 was not union or no union, but what sort of union, and with what fringe benefits. That was a fine judgment call, and there is no reason to think that bribes played a more critical part in the making of those fine judgment calls than in any of the other big political decisions of the period. The Scots and the Union is convincing in its demonstration that the Scots made the least bad of the choices before them in 1707.

John Morrill FBA is professor of British and Irish history at Cambridge University.

The Scots and the Union

Author - Christopher A. Whatley, with Derek J. Patrick
Publisher - Edinburgh University Press
Pages - 424
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 0 7486 1685 3

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