Past prejudice should not cloud debate

April 13, 2007

Scotland should review its place in the Union based on the present, writes Christopher Whatley

The future of the Union is at the heart of the current general election campaign in Scotland. While support for independence seems to be less strong than it is for the Scottish National Party, opinion polls indicate that the incorporating Union that transferred political decision-making from Edinburgh to London on May 1, 1707, is less popular in Scotland than it has been for nearly 300 years.

One reason for this is the way the Union has been portrayed by historians. For a long time it was represented as a bargain in which Scotland had surrendered parliamentary independence in return for economic concessions from England. Yet from the later 1960s onwards, a small but influential stream of mainly nationalist historians has rejected this line of reasoning, preferring instead explanations for Union that emphasise financial chicanery, political management and English bullying. The language of betrayal, of a nation wronged by the treachery of a "parcel of rogues", has become part of the currency of Scottish political discourse, accepted as fact by many in the Scottish media. Consequently, the Union is now seen by many Scots as a national grievance and a historical wrong.

There are grounds for arguing that this is propaganda masquerading as history. It is based on dubious premises - that politicians as a class were bereft of any ideological position and for whom confessional adherence was simply a cloak of convenience. It owes at least something too to latent Anglophobia. Events have been interpreted in a partial and one-sided manner, based on primary materials that were deeply coloured by the prejudices of those who produced them in the first place.

One of those sources was the Memoirs (1714) of George Lockhart of Carnwath. "Scotland's ruine", according to Lockhart, was assured when the opposition leader the Duke of Hamilton moved that the Queen rather than the Scottish Parliament should nominate Scotland's Union commissioners. It was the Memoirs that exposed the transfer of £20,000 from Queen Anne to Scotland, for distribution among Scottish politicians. Lockhart was contemptuous of Union supporters. The feathers of character assassination have stuck firmly.

Yet Lockhart was an Episcopalian and a Jacobite, a passionate and militant adherent of the exiled House of Stuart, for whom Union was anathema. He should be taken seriously, but he needs to be read critically. So too does much recent anti-Union history.

John Clerk of Penicuik, another Scottish MP who shared many of the same experiences as Lockhart, annotated his copy of Memoirs almost line by line, pointing out Lockhart's errors, or what he called "silly poor stuff" written in the heat of "party rage". Clerk was a unionist with his own axe to grind, but his notes demonstrate that there was an alternative perspective on the events of the time.

Recent research suggests that it may be time to pay more attention to this body of evidence. What has become clear is that many of those Scottish politicians who were active in seeking union did so in the belief that they were acting in the national interest.

Where the differences between Lockhart and Clerk and his allies ran deepest were over Scotland's material circumstances. For Clerk, Scotland's "ruine" lay in its ailing economy and near bankrupt state. Parliamentary sovereignty without teeth in an age of muscular mercantilism was worth surrendering if the Scots were to obtain in return compensation for the massive financial losses they had incurred in their ambitious but failed overseas venture at Darien, as well as legal access to England's plantations overseas and protection from the Royal Navy. Scotland's far from supine Union commissioners were able to exploit English anxiety to pacify Scotland by demanding and securing within the Union the "fundamentals" of Scottish civic society - the separate educational and legal systems and the law courts, the universities and the royal burghs. This was far from the "entire" Union of subjugation or absorption many had feared.

In 1707 then, the terms of the Union itself and the terms that were negotiated, addressed most of the challenges faced by Scotland - the need for political stability and assured liberties in the wake of the Glorious Revolution; security for Presbyterianism; conditions in which Scottish economic ambitions could be realised; a strong sense of nationhood and of difference from England. Union was a sensible solution and is nothing about which Scots today should feel a sense of guilt or betrayal. Whether the arrangement is the appropriate one for Britain today should be assessed in the context of 2007, not 1707.

Christopher A. Whatley is vice-principal of Dundee University and author of The Scots and the Union , published by Edinburgh University Press, £25.00.

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