More oafs than rogues bought for English gold

April 27, 2007

The Scottish negotiators who agreed the terms of union were inept, says Allan Macinnes

In the next few weeks, elections to the Scottish Parliament will determine whether devolution is an ongoing process that may lead to the sundering of the Treaty of Union concluded between England and Scotland 300 years ago. If the Union is to terminate, the standpoint of England will be no less critical to its breaking than to its making.

In 1703, England was content to break off negotiations for union with Scotland and to refuse overtures for union from Ireland. Why did that position change? The conventional account has it that English interest was associated with political considerations, principally the War of the Spanish Succession. Scotland appeared to offer a back door to invasion from France under Louis XIV, who favoured the restoration of the exiled House of Stuart that had been removed for its Roman Catholicism in the Glorious Revolution. In 1701, the English Parliament had determined unilaterally that succession should pass to the German House of Hanover on the death of Queen Anne as her nearest Protestant heirs. Accordingly, there was a real prospect that the War of the Spanish Succession that began in 1702 could have turned into the war of the British succession. Yet this prospect had been apparent in 1703 when negotiations for union were broken off.

So we must look at other issues, primarily of political economy, to learn why England changed tack. A key starting point is 1695, when the English Parliament placed oversight of the American colonies and overseas commerce with the board of trade. This marked a decisive shift in servicing national debt as a fiscal-military state with global pretensions. Overseas trade was deemed the most important means of financing the war against France - fiscal burdens fell mainly on the customs and excise exacted on commerce and consumption. The largest component of customs was levied on colonial trade with the Americas, but this was disrupted by Scottish commercial networks that circumvented the Navigation Acts that contrived to protect English business. Feelings in England that Scotland was acting as a rogue nation contributed to William's willingness to sabotage the Darien venture, whereby the Scots attempted to establish an entrepot for the East and West Indies on the Panama isthmus in the late 1690s. English desires to control the Scots became more acute when, in 1703-04, the Scottish Parliament not only refused to accept the Hanoverian succession, but also imposed limitations on the prerogative powers of the Queen's eventual successor. These manoeuvres outraged Anne and convinced her that the Scottish Parliament should be terminated.

By 1705, after three years of intense warfare in continental Europe, the Caribbean and North America, the servicing of the national debt was becoming critical. But the issue that persuaded the English ministry to move from punitive to conciliatory measures was the growing realisation that England was facing a demographic crisis. It had insufficient manpower to fight war, sustain manufacturing and expand empire. The Scots were a ready reservoir. Accordingly, England prepared to negotiate on the basis of paying reparations for Darien but guaranteeing access to the American colonies, a reversal of its position in 1702.

In pursuing negotiations for union, England retained the option of coercive persuasion: garrisons at Carlisle, Berwick, Newcastle and Hull were stepped up to facilitate an invasion of Scotland if necessary. But England had a negotiating advantage. It was not that Scotland was impoverished. Too often historians have confused bankruptcy of the government with that of the country. Scottish politicians were not a parcel of rogues bought for English gold. Rather, those charged to negotiate union in 1706 were inept, as shown by their stance on reparations, investment in manufactures and colonial access. They secured all three conditionally. But marginally increased reparations were traded off against scaled-down investment compared with what was on offer in 1705. At the same time, by agreeing that such monies should be met by the raising of customs, excise and land tax to English levels, the Scots in effect agreed to finance their own dividends from the Union once implemented on May 1, 1707. The current Scottish Administration has made a virtue of doing less better in government. It is to be hoped that, in future, in negotiations on union the Scots will not do "less better" than their predecessors in 1706-07.

Allan I. Macinnes is Burnett-Fletcher professor of history at Aberdeen University. His book Union and Empire: The Making of the United Kingdom in 1707 will be published by Cambridge University Press in the autumn.

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