12 May 2014
Professor Christopher Whatley provides an in-depth insight into the Union of 1707 and takes a fresh look at the long-held belief that Scots were'bought and sold for English gold'
‘Bought and sold for English gold’. The sentiments expressed by Scotland’s national poet Robert Burns have long been part of the popular explanation for why Scotland’s politicians in 1706 surrendered their nation’s parliament in Edinburgh and forged an incorporating union with England. In addition English ministers, it is alleged, intent on subduing the Scots, had an invasion force ready if the Scottish Parliament failed to deliver the Union.
This account of the making of the Union of 1707 – which accords with nationalist readings of Scotland’s history and was the dominant narrative from the 1970s – is not without foundation. Votes for the Union in Edinburgh were made more secure through the promise of government posts and promotions and by speeding up the payment of salary arrears.
Veiled threats were made about consequences – military and otherwise – of Scottish non co-operation.
This however, is only part of the story, and is only partly true. The assumption that the Union was ‘made in England’, is contradicted by the fact that English interest in closer union with Scotland in the early eighteenth century was largely lukewarm. Tories were decidedly cool, seeing little advantage in joining forces with joyless (as they saw it) and materially needy Scottish Presbyterians. English interest in incorporating union with Scotland was short-lived, induced by the strategic need to stop Scotland siding with France at a time of war.
SCOTS ADVOCATING A UNION
Over the preceding centuries, it was Scots who advocated a united Britain. After the union of the crowns in 1603 it was monarchs of the two antagonistic kingdoms rather than English parliamentarians who favored closer union, not least King William in 1702 and his successor Queen Anne, under whom the Union was accomplished.
Anne (who had no surviving natural heirs) and her leading ministers were determined she should be succeeded by a Protestant. This was settled – in England – in 1701. There were Scots who were of like mind, but who exploited England’s anxiety for Scotland to agree to the Protestant succession by demanding certain concessions from England.
BOUGHT AND SOLD FOR ENGLISH GOLD?
But the main weakness in the ‘bought and sold’ interpretation of the union process is that it ignores altogether those Scots who spearheaded the drive to union between 1688 and 1707. These were Whigs, mainly moderate Presbyterians who believed that the Revolution settlement of 1688-90 – the re-establishment of Presbyterianism as Scotland’s national church, and constitutional monarchy – would be better secured through union with England. This way a united Britain could resist the hegemonic ambitions of Catholic France, under Louis XIV.
They were also anxious to thwart the ambitions of the Jacobites, supporters of James VII (and II), who had been forced to surrender his crowns in 1688 but who had hopes of being restored.
Presbyterians had suffered greatly under the later Stuarts (Charles II and James), with several having been executed. Many hundreds were exiled, in the Low Countries.
Amongst the Whigs too were fierce patriots who had been champions of Scotland’s ambitious attempt to establish an overseas trading colony at Darien. This ended in disaster, but once England’s union negotiators conceded that the Scots should be compensated for what they had lost in the venture, with 5 per cent per annum interest, and that Scots merchants could have free access to English markets at home and across the Atlantic, they concluded that a union of the parliaments was in Scotland’s best interests. Consequently they threw their weight behind the measure.
Although most Scots were reluctant unionists in 1707 (favoring instead an improved version of the existing federal arrangement), over time they made sure that the Union worked to their advantage. In 2104 however the factors that underpinned union in 1707 are less relevant. The Scots’ attachment to Britain is weakening. Whether there is enough support for the UK to avoid a vote for independence this coming September remains to be seen.
Professor Christopher Whatley is the author of The Scots and the Union: Then and Now, published by Edinburgh University Press. This new edition brings the historical debate up to a vigorous present, in which we are once again discussing such issues and opinions, lending historical weight to arguments for and against union.