Scotland in the late 18th century was one of poorest countries in Europe. Famine and emigration had reduced the nation’s population by 15%, but its leaders believed they had a rescue plan. Seeing the success that England had achieved from its colonies, Scotland sought to establish its very own in Panama in 1698.
But Darien – billed as New Caledonia – quickly fell into disarray and became little more than a humid, fever-ridden swamp. Most of the Scottish settlers that went out to Panama died and for the nation’s economy it was a disaster in that the project consumed nearly a quarter of its liquid capital.
While England’s protectionist tariffs, which obstructed access to markets, was attributed by some to the collapse of Darien, Scotland’s leaders had little time for playing the blame game. With the financial outlook for the nation darkening by the month it was clear that drastic action would be needed. And so Scotland began formal talks about a union with England in April 1706.
For England’s part, joining with their neighbour in the north made sense as questions remained as to what would happen when Queen Anne passed away. Rather than endorsing a candidate from the Hanoverian dynasty as her successor, the Scots were determined to choose their own monarch. Could this mean the return of Catholic James II? The implications this would have for England’s security greatly worried Westminster given the launch pad for invasion it would provide for France, and other European countries, that opposed the Protestant cause.
By July 1706 agreement was reached on the 25 articles of the Treaty of the Union, providing the substance for the 1707 Act of Union. The English parliament endorsed it by 274 votes to 116 and Scottish parliament by 110 to 67. In the process of establishing the United Kingdom of Great Britain, the Edinburgh parliament was abolished and 45 Scottish MPs joined the 513 English and Welsh MPs in Westminster.
But while Scottish MPs may gave their support to the Union back in 1707, ordinary people were less supportive it seems and widespread protests reportedly broke out on the nation’s streets. Robert Burns also noted there was a hidden agenda in that a share of £20,000 was promised as a sweeter to politicians and others in Scotland (the “Parcel of Rogues”) to force through the legislation.
Security had been one of the key motives for the English for the Union, but in the short-term this was far from quiet. There were uprisings by Jacobites (supporters of James II) in Scotland in 1715 and 1745, and the reign of terror stretched down into the heart of England. The rebellion was only completely crushed at Culloden in 1746 – a battlefield on the outskirts of Inverness in the care of the National Trust for Scotland that I visited just a few weeks ago.
If the story had ended there, you could see why Scots would want to vote for independence in this week’s referendum. People took to the streets following the signing of the Union in 1707 to show disapproval that their voices hadn’t been heard. The reality of course is that much has happened in the last three centuries that has been of benefit for the Scottish nation.
While Scotland kept its own (Presbyterian) church and legal system, it benefited from free trade and access to the colonies. The nation was drawn right to the very heart of the British Empire with soldiers, traders, financiers, engineers, politicians and missionaries all standing to benefit from its riches. Today, the NHS and education systems are devolved giving Scottish people a say in their own affairs.
Scotland thrived in the Union. As Tristram Hunt, the historian and Labour MP wrote in a Sunday Times article (“Faster, higher, stronger together”) on the eve of the Commonwealth Games, Glasgow became the second city of the British Empire. Thanks to access to English imperial markets, the region grew rich on the sugar and tobacco trades, then later engineering – including the export of locomotives to the colonies – and shipbuilding.
“The Scots were the engineers, educators, explorers, doctors, spies and surgeons of empire,” wrote Hunt. “Several governors-general of India were Scottish and more than a quarter of the East India Company’s army officers were Scotsmen… Crucially, the Scots embraced a British identity through the medium of empire. If Great Britain’s primary identity was an imperial one, it allowed for much greater parity between the English and Scots as component nations of the colonial project.”
And it wasn’t just Glasgow that benefitted from the Union, as Adam Smith, the founder of modern economics noted. “There was little trade or industry in Edinburgh before the Union,” he wrote. Only “when the Scottish parliament was no longer assembled in it” did Edinburgh become “a city of some trade and industry.” And for the country as a whole he said “the middling and inferior ranks of people in Scotland gained a complete deliverance from the power of an aristocracy which had always before oppressed them.”
Britain may have lost its Empire, but Scotland still benefits from being part of – and would lose out if it was separated from – the United Kingdom. Jobs could be at risk, particularly in the financial services industry which employs some 200,000 people, if there was a yes vote and companies shift their headquarters south of the border, as has been suggested by a number of big companies. Scotland would also lose its voice on the world stage – and find foreign investment harder to attract – should it break away and lose access to 270 embassies and consulates around the world. Former prime minister John Major has summed up the voices of many by saying: “The UK would be weaker in every international body.”
It’s well documented the nation has a higher level of public spending that the rest of the UK (£11,381 in the UK vs £12,629 in Scotland, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies). With North Sea Oil running out, leaving the Union would be disastrous for Scotland and mean tax rises or cuts in public services. In recent days, supermarket bosses have said there would be a rise in food prices for Scottish people should there be a ‘yes’ vote. And Deutsche Bank, Europe’s biggest investment bank, said independence could result in the worst depression for Scotland since the 1930s.
But why as an Englishman should I care if Scotland decided to go it alone? For me, the answer is simple – we would have lost a unique part of our British identity. Just a few weeks ago on a 10 day road trip from Glasgow – via the Orkney Islands – to Inverness I saw how varied, beautiful and unique the nation’s landscapes are. From walking in the rugged Cairngorms national park to enjoying live traditional music in friendly cities like Inverness, there’s something special about Scotland.
Regular readers of my blog will know how much of a fan I am of many English cities, including London, Manchester and Bristol and rural beauty spots such as the Yorkshire Dales and the Lake District. Yet despite the diversity and attractions on offer here, losing Scotland would leave a deep hole that would be hard to fill. What would the Union Jack – and the Queen who rules over the United Kingdom – stand for without Scotland?
Just as we joined together to build a powerful British Empire in the 19th and early 20th centuries, we can once again work in partnership to create something that is more than a sum of its individual parts. Back then the trades included sugar and tobacco, today they are technology and financial services, but the same principles remain. Three hundred years ago, it was politicians that opted for – without consultation – for Union with England. Now it is the turn of the people to endorse that decision. We were better together then and are still better together now.