When a man’s spirit is low, he’s whipped. A Texan said that to me in the city of Houston. He’s probably working for Trump by now. That terse aside could just as easily sum up unionist attitude to the people of Scotland. Keep ’em down, keep ’em wonderin’.
How orotund a proclamation is the first article of the Treaty of Union. ‘The Two Kingdoms of England and Scotland shall forever after be united … by the name of the Great Britain.’ What fool from the dunce desks, what mathematical moron thought trading a proud nation for a tin cup of 14 Lords and 45 Members of the Commons constituted a union of equals? It left Scotland perpetually the weak partner, the minority, an impossible position from which to protect a nation of passionate souls and their culture.
English never learn from history
Studying the first decade of the Union you begin to perceive unnerving comparisons in the way the British parliament exercises power over its noisy, rebellious ‘province’ today.
The people of Scotland in their protests against the Treaty knew they had been duped, and so did the English officials who smirked into their mulled wine, or struggled to stifle guffaws behind cupped hands.
The Treaty wasn’t quite England’s phony ‘Vow’ in 2014 to Scots. That was a backroom concoction promoted by a tabloid newspaper and parroted by the British media, told to Scots to deflect them for narrowly voting for independence and remain loyal to perfidious Albion. However, the Treaty had a similar distinction of promising a lot and delivering very little, as well as enshrining English priorities over Scottish life and welfare.
For a long time England stayed well back so as not to provoke the natives. The Whigs were in power in London, a coalition they did not want to upset. The strategy was to avoid imposing any radical changes and appearing to be the authoritarian bully that is the core nature of English imperial ambition. Better to let Scots experience a false sense of security than give them a prod in the belly. But they miscalculated.
One of the biggest shocks of quislings who sold Scotland for a pouch of bawbees was the discovery they had inherited an English war with Spain. Scotland has suffered that fate countless times since, sacrificed its sons and daughters on the swords and bayonets of English imperialism. Back then, it was England that looked to Scotland to fund its war deficit. Today England’s mounting debts are subsidised by Scotland’s oil and taxes.
A duplication of parliaments
For a while the Scottish Parliament carried on in session, often duplicating debates and Bills discussed by the London Parliament which took no notice of Scottish interests because they were viewed as secondary to English interests. The Scottish Parliament decided to adjourn and then close its doors. It has not penetrated the English consciousness that England’s Parliament did the same thing, but because of its in-built majority has regarded itself ever since as English.
Edinburgh’s parliament in mothballs meant the two surviving Scottish officers of State, mostly attending the British Privy Council in London, left a big black hole in Scotland’s governance. Unwittingly, Westminster had weakened its ability to respond swiftly and vigorously if an element of Scottish society required altering or pacifying.
The vacuum was seen as a gift to the Jacobites, implacable enemies of the Union. At that point the Jacobites could still depend on over twenty of the most formidable clans to come to their cause when called. This scared English Parliamentarians witless.
For readers uninformed of the Jacobites, (Latin for Jacobus – James) they were a political movement in Great Britain and Ireland that aimed to restore the Roman Catholic Stuart King James VII of Scotland, (II of England and Ireland) and his heirs to the thrones of England, Scotland and Ireland. Just as not all independence Yes voters are SNP members, so not all Jacobites were Catholics. Their motivation was first and foremost sovereignty regained – a nationalist ideal.
Jacobite in waiting
The Jacobites wanted support from the great Catholic powers of Spain and France, and mobilize that into an army sitting in England ready to pounce. The War of Spanish succession seemed never to end and England was every European state’s worst enemy. Having Jacobites marshalling dissent was a right royal pain in the nether regions for London’s elite intent on carving up Scotland for profit.
France kept the fire of dissent aflame in merry England. Louis XIV exploited the Scots disgust with England’s con trick – a version of Better Together – and sent an expedition up Britain’s east coast to join with the Jacobites, but it ended in humiliating disaster when bad weather delayed their arrival in the Firth of Forth and rendezvous with waiting supporters.
Failure aside, the debacle was a warning to the English government. Scotland had to be governed from within its borders not without. Either they appointed placemen to every institution and university, and implemented a government office staffed by civil servants loyal to London, or they garrisoned a regiment in Edinburgh. Counter revolution by those bare arsed savages was the fear in every English parliamentarian’s heart.
There is very little difference today from that situation then.
But a softly, softly approach was soon to end. In 1710 a Tory government dismissed the Whig coalition. The Whigs had shown restraint towards Scotland’s vulnerability. (Three years of harvest famine aided that fragility, not the Darien adventure!) Caution and diplomacy were abandoned. Scots needed tamed one way or another. Religion was one place to start, taxation another.
Alert readers of a political mind will realise we have a Tory administration in London today with an attitude bordering on the criminally inexcusable towards Scotland’s interests.
Nae Popery or Episcopalian soapery
Scottish Presbyterians had long disliked the thought of a London Parliament dominated by the Church of England. The rights of the Church of Scotland were enshrined in the Treaty of Union a target for Tories to undermine.
Tension escalated in 1711 when an Episcopalian minister appealed to the House of Lords against his imprisonment in Edinburgh for singing from the wrong hymn sheet, namely, using the English liturgy. Presbyterian purity was central to the Scottish psyche and here it was challenged by an alien form of worship. So, the London Parliament passed two antagonistic measures in violation of the Treaty, the Toleration Act and the Patronage Act. The first gave freedom to Episcopalians to worship as they pleased in Scotland; the second gave landowners the right to choose their local ministers. The Kirk was furious.
Religious interference was followed by taxation. The London Parliament had happily spread the myth that they had saved Scotland from bankruptcy, the failure of four Darien schemes. This was a lie. Two-thirds of Scotland’s wealth still circulated. London knew that and so raised Scotland’s taxes with impunity as a way of funding England’s wars.
England – as now – had amassed monstrous debts from fighting France then Spain, and buying off allies. (It gives the finger to the entire European continent today! What ambition, what confidence.) Taxes imposed, the strength of opposition to the Treaty hardened overnight, its intensity commensurate with the number of English-appointed tax collectors appearing in towns and villages like wood lice after a rain storm.
Tax, tax, and tax again
As many a letter and a few poems of Robert Burns attest, hiking taxation began with land taxes and then shifted to custom dues and excise payments. If it was shipped to Scotland English taxed it. If it was shipped out of Scotland they taxed it.
Anything in common use was fair game, from ship’s rigging to shoes, from ale to soap. Cloth of all sorts was taxed to hell and back. The cloth industry all but disappeared in a few years. Then London introduced a Malt Tax penalising ale drinkers. Such was ale quaffing fury that tax collectors found it almost impossible to enforce. The irony was, much of the taxes collected were lost in the administration of collection. Between 1707 and 1714, seven years, taxes rose fivefold hardly making a dent on the English Treasury.
The outcome of taxing to subdue dissent, and losing the income in expenses collecting taxes, meant that promises of an economic heaven arising from embracing a union never materialised. As ever, the only wealth Scotland could acquire was that created by its own means, and held fast in Scotland.
The propagandists and pamphleteers, Daniel Defoe among them, an agent spy for London, had worked hard to convince Scots that prosperity lay in English bounty and generosity. It was clear to Scots, the majority still rural workers, not townies, that a new era of wealth was a wicked deceit. Indeed, some felt they were better off independent, famine or feast.
A derelict new dawn
Unsurprisingly, the first decade of the Union saw the Scottish economy founder and stagnate, much as it did in the 20th century, adding to English jeers of the day that Scotland was an impoverished nation relying heavily on the support of England.
Attacks on the well-being of Scots before the Union, threats of invasion and trade blockades, the Alien Act designed to have Scots categorised as foreigners, passed but later rescinded, scowls of derision at Scotland’s ambitions, all became normal pronouncements by the London Parliament as a means of control … as they do to this day.
Embarrassed by taxes imposed on Scottish enterprise financially forceless and worthless compounded Westminster’s woes over how to govern Scotland to England benefit. Worse, smuggling increased out of all bounds. The black market became a ‘global’ enterprise.
Scotland was proving to be as ungovernable as previous Westminster regimes had argued. Out of anger and frustration the London Parliament embarked on a campaign of vilification. Scots were ‘not paying their way’. They were indolent wasters, indulging in industrial levels of ‘tax evasion’. (There is a recognisable pattern evident here!)
London merchants frequently derided Scots merchants as cheats and time wasters. From barely a presence in Scotland after the Treaty was signed, by 1714 England had well over 400 customs officers stomping around Scotland’s coast. They were charged with arresting smugglers and resetters with extreme prejudice, to quote a contemporary American term.
Scots did as Scots do faced by London policy they abhor. They took to the streets in mobs. Some armed themselves. Customs warehouses were broken open, goods ‘removed’ taken to a better place. Scared witless, customs officials took to being accompanied by groups of guards. Some officials were stoned, beaten up, or tossed into the sea. Throwing England’s stuff in the water was later emulated by The Sons of Liberty – some members Scots – in Boston harbour, America, 1771.
Daniel Defoe, like many a unionist today recoiling from the intolerance and stupidity of Brexit, had a Road to Damascus moment. He wrote “Not one man in fifteen would vote for the Union now”. Thus, over-taxation, brute force collection, and religious reformation destabilised England’s confidence and strengthened Scots resolve to damn the Treaty. London trembled; how could it subdue and govern that ferocious race beyond Berwick?
Notable English figures joined Scottish peers in the clamour to tear up the Treaty. They moved for a debate in the House of Lords intending to cause the dissolution of the Union.
There was the odd lone voice that echoes down the ages to this day. The Earl of Oxford thought the persistent rebellion of the Scots resembled “a man with toothache who proposed his head be removed to end the pain.”
For similar homilies and arrogant, ill-informed bluster refer to the Scottish Independence debate in the House of Lords, 2014.
The London Parliament that once thought the signing of the Union “the end of an auld sang’ now felt it was time to call it all off. They were bruised and not a little disenchanted. The Lords delayed a vote, and then the anti-unionists lost by a very narrow majority.
But the writing was burnished into the House of Commons wood panelling – a union was never going to be secure. And so it has proved down the centuries to this very day.
Note: This essay is written as part of a trilogy with “An Act of Self-Interest”:
- Lordship to Patronage 1603-1745 – Rosalind Mitchison
- A short History of Scotland – Andrew Lang
- Independence and Nationhood – Alexander Grant
- A Concise History of Scotland – Fitzroy MacLean
- Scotland, History of a Nation – David Ross
- The Collected Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson
- The Scottish Nation, 1700-2000 – Tom Devine
- James V & James VII – Gordon Donaldson
- The Union of 1707 – Paul Henderson Scott
- The History of Edinburgh – Hugo Arnot
- A History of England, Ireland and Scotland – Mary Parmele
- The National Library of Scotland – Edinburgh