From The National:
IT was in this week in 1706 that the Scottish Parliament formally began to debate the proposed Act of Union with England. I have written before about the events that led to the Union – digitally subscribe to The National and you can read my three-part series from 2017 – but this week I want to concentrate on one aspect of the Union, namely on how, 314 years ago this week, it was all a fix.
The future of Scotland had already been decided. Parliament was merely expected to confirm what had already been arranged, and the fact that there was any debate at all was proof of how strongly many people in Scotland were against the Union.
As we now look forward to dismantling the Union, it is instructive to recall what was said and done at the time. On her arrival on the throne in March 1702, Queen Anne was desperate to secure Protestant succession and said in her first speech to the Parliament in Westminster that such a Union was “very necessary”.
The first Union negotiations between the English Parliament and the Estates of Scotland started as early as October 1702. Talks broke up in February, 1703, and the Scottish negotiators went home to up the ante, so to speak, by having the Scottish Parliament pass the Act of Security. This was in response to the English Parliament’s designation of the Electress Sophie of Hanover, granddaughter of James VI and I, as heir to the throne should Anne fail to have any children. Needless to say, the Scots had not been consulted on the succession by the English Parliament, so the Scottish Parliament’s Act of Security basically said the three Estates would choose Anne’s successor as king or queen of Scotland from the Protestant descendants of the Scottish monarchs. The Act was only given royal assent after the Scottish Parliament threatened to withdraw Scottish forces from the Duke of Marlborough’s army then fighting the War of the Spanish Succession.
The English Parliament retaliated with the Aliens Act of 1705, treating Scots in England as foreign nationals and putting a block on Scottish exports to England and its colonies – about half of Scottish trade. But the Aliens Act would be suspended if the Estates came back to the negotiating table to create a Union of the Scottish and English Parliaments.
At that time much of Scotland was in deep financial trouble, due largely to the failed Darien scheme. The prospect of free trade with England and its colonies, plus the English offer to make good the Darien losses, was attractive to members of the Scottish nobility in particular. They controlled the governing Court Party which had a majority in the Scottish Parliament. The opposition, chiefly the Country Party, could never muster enough numbers to defeat the Court Party. Frankly, many of them had been bought off.
So at the direction of the Court Party, controlled by the Queen’s favourite the Duke of Queensberry, the Scottish Parliament authorised new negotiations and appointed 31 commissioners to meet a similar number of commissioners from the English Parliament. Queen Anne personally supervised the choice of commissioners, of whom only one or two were sceptical about the Union – in fact there were more sceptics on the English side who openly questioned whether England wanted to be shackled to a poor backward country.
In the background all the time was the fear of the Jacobites, who were agitating for the return of King James III – as he had been recognised by French King Louis XIV and the Pope – with many Scots still loyal to James.
Now we are always being told that this Precious Union has been going for so long it would take many years to break it up. Balderdash, because the whole damn thing was put together in a matter of three months starting in April, 1706, and if it can take just a few months to set up a Union it won’t take much longer to dissolve it.
The fix was simple and was based on money and privilege. The Commissioners met in London at the Cockpit and carved up responsibilities among themselves for creating a treaty of Union. Apparently the whole 62 met just once face to face. For Scotland, the Dukes of Queensberry and Argyll led the way – and they were ardently for the Union. No wonder – Queensberry was given a small fortune for his work while Argyll was given an English peerage.
Modern day federalists should be aware of this fact, as stated in Professor Sir Tom Devine’s The Scottish Nation: A Modern History: “A federal solution, which might have perpetuated weak government, was never on offer.”
In other words the English Parliament, by sheer dint of numbers, was effecting a takeover. Scotland would get 45 MPs, one more than Cornwall, and just 16 peers in the Lords – unelected, as always.
The biggest fix was the Equivalent. In order that Scotland might take on its share of England’s £18 million national debt – Scotland had no such national debt – the sum of £400,000 was set aside to pay what was in effect compensation for the Darien losses.
But there was much more on offer to secure the votes. The UK Parliament website states: “Honours, appointments, pensions and even arrears of pay and other expenses were distributed to clinch support from Scottish peers and MPs.”
Devine agrees: “The promise of favours, sinecures, pensions, offices and straightforward cash bribes became indispensable to secure government majorities.”
The debate that began on October 3, 1706, was therefore a waste of time. Even though the majority of Scots opposed the incorporating Union, and there were riots in the streets against it, the Scottish Parliament had been bought and sold by English gold. It really was a fix.