The Act of Union
From 'A History of the British Nation' by AD Innes, 1912
An Incorporating Union between England and Scotland was a project which William III had been anxious to carry through; and one of his last public acts was to commend such a scheme to the consideration of the Scottish parliament. The existing arrangement, which united the crowns only, was fraught with danger; for Scotland it was intolerable.
As matters stood, England was practically able to treat Scotland as a hostile count whose commercial interests were to be ruined for the benefit of England, while the Union of the Crowns left the weaker and poorer country no means of defending herself except commercial retaliation, which could inflict no great harm in England but must inevitably be ruinous to Scotland herself.
With the Union dissolved, Scotland could at least follow the ancient policy of allying herself with the enemies of England abroad; and separation appealed to the Scottish mind as being a restoration of Scotland's ancient independence. An independent Scotland could not be ignored by England; a Scotland tied to her as Scotland was now tied could be ignored altogether.
The Commercial Consideration
The fact had become most patent during William's own reign. Though he himself had been unable to visit his northern kingdom, he had not been unpopular there in spite of Glencoe and the Darien failure. In the one case he was held to have been misled by Dalrymple, and in the other to have been rather the victim of irresistible pressure than a free agent. But it was precisely in that fact that Scottish hostility to the existing arrangement found its strongest argument.
If such a king as William found himself compelled to subordinate Scottish to English interests, in spite of his zeal for even-handed justice, it was hardly possible that Scotland should not suffer yet more under another king who wore the English crown. The one condition, therefore, which could make the Union of the Crowns tolerable was commercial equality. Scotland was practically agreed that the alternative to commercial equality was separation; and the threat of separation was the one means by which commercial equality might be obtained.
There was no possible question of Scotland's right to separate herself from England. The two nations were bound together by nothing whatever except the accident that a King of Scotland had succeeded to the throne of England as the legitimate heir a hundred years before. Since that time each nation had asserted its own right to lay down a rule of succession for itself.
The English Commonwealth indeed, for its own preservation, had asserted its right to forbid Scotland by force of arms to set up as a separate kingdom under a Stuart monarch; but there was no possibility of questioning that, for so doing she had no other authority than that of superior force.
At the Restoration England herself had cancelled the absorption of Scotland. Both countries had rejected James II, and both had accepted William; but the Acts by which England had fixed the course of the succession to the English throne were in no sense binding upon Scotland, which had not committed itself any further than the acceptance of Anne. Though England had selected the Electress Sophia and her heirs, Scotland was perfectly free to settle the Scottish succession on some one else.
Now England had hitherto turned a deaf ear to all Scottish complaints on the score of her commercial policy. The recognised English mercantile doctrine was that foreign products should not be allowed to compete with home products at all in the home market, or in the foreign market so far as such competition could be prevented.
With greater insight the Commonwealth had realised that English commerce would not suffer by freeing the trade with Scotland, Ireland, and the Colonies. But with the Restoration England had reverted to the earlier theory. She believed that something very tangible would be required to compensate her for any concession on the point; and hitherto Scotland had had nothing very tangible to offer. But now came the Scottish threat of separation.
The Act of Security
The Scottish parliament passed what was called the Act of Security, which asserted the right of the nation to nominate as successor to the throne of Scotland some other person than the Electress Sophia. It claimed also that the great officers should be nominated by the Scottish parliament, whose consent should be necessary to any declaration of war on the part of a king of Scotland who was also king of England.
Here then was something tangible. Nothing short of an incorporating union could preclude the possibility that now or at some future time the exiled Stuarts might be restored in Scotland, and England might be hampered as of old by a hostile state in the North, ready to attack her whenever she should find herself embroiled with continental powers, and ready also to support a Jacoctte revolt.
Immunity from that danger was worth purchasing at the cost of commercial concessions. On the other hand, Scotland could hardly be secure of the permanence of commercial concessions unless they were guaranteed by an incorporating union. The problem was to frame an incorporating union sufficiently attractive to Scotland to counterbalance the Nationalist bias towards separation. For half Scotland was convinced that no union whatever could be devised which would not subordinate Scottish to English interests.
The Scottish Convention
The Convention in Scotland which had called William to the throne and had by him been continued as a parliament, had never been dissolved; Scotland had no Triennial Act. It was exceedingly doubtful whether this assembly had any validity as a parliament beyond the term of William's own reign.
Nevertheless it was this parliament which opened the negotiations for a union with England at the moment when a House of Commons had just been returned with a large Tory majority. The moment therefore was unfavourable, because, whereas the Whigs followed William in favouring the idea of the union, the Tories as a natural consequence were antagonistic.
The conference therefore between the Scottish and English commissioners which was held in the winter of 1702-3 was unsatisfactory. The authority of the Scottish commissioners was dubious, and Scottish Nationalists had already repudiated the authority of the parliament. The English commissioners, though ready to make concessions, still fell considerably short of the minimum of the Scottish demands.
The election of a new parliament in Scotland whose legal authority should be beyond question left the real Unionists, headed by Queensberry, decidedly weak; while the Nationalists, or "Country Party," seemed likely to gain the support of the extreme section who called themselves Cavaliers, with most of those who were as yet indisposed to commit themselves to one side or the other. The head of this coalition was that Duke of Hamilton who figures in Thackeray's Esmond.
The real chief of the uncompromising Nationalists was Fletcher of Saltoun. It was the parliament thus composed which passed the Act of Security already referred to, in which the crucial clause declared that, after Anne, the same person should be incapable of being king or queen of both England and Scotland unless England had conceded "a free communication of trade, the freedom of navigation, and the liberty of the Plantations," that is to say, of the colonies. The Act did not receive the royal assent this year, but did so in the following year after it had again been passed with the commercial clause omitted.
The Act of Security received the royal assent almost on the day when Marlborough was winning the battle of Blenheim. The event was unknown; disaster was still possible; if the royal assent had been refused, Scotland would have refused the money to pay the army, and if Marlborough had been defeated on the Danube, a very critical situation would have arisen. After Blenheim, the English Government no longer felt that it would be imperilled by anything that Scotland might do.
The immediate reply of the Whigs to the Act of Security was contained in measures stiffening the barriers to Scottish trade, ordering the north of England to be put in a state of defence, and treating all Scots as aliens unless and until Scotland should adopt the line of succession laid down for the English Crown. But these measures were accompanied by further proposals for a union; and again in April 1706 commissioners from the two countries were assembled to discuss terms.
Proposal of Terms
The Scots proposed in effect a commercial union under one crown, the two countries retaining their separate legislatures. The English insisted that the union of legislatures and the acceptance of the English rule of succession were a sine qua non. The Scots required with equal emphasis that the freedom of trade should be part of the bargain.
These conditions having been accepted by both sides, there remained questions of detail as to the treatment of finance, the composition of the united legislature, and the security in Scotland of the national religion and national institutions. In July nearly the whole of the commissioners signed the articles, but the ratification by both parliaments was still necessary.
The English commissioners had done a good deal towards disarming opposition by the liberality of their financial concessions and by the reasonableness of their demands as to the relative strength of the representation of the two nations in the parliament of Great Britain.
Before the Scottish Estates met in the autumn to discuss the acceptance of the treaty, the English parliament had withdrawn the hostile measures with which they had responded to the Act of Security. Marlborough's later successes in the Netherlands had confirmed the results of Blenheim, and neither Nationalists nor Jacobites in Scotland could use the fear of France as a lever for gaining their own ends.
Struggle for Support
Nevertheless, it was still far from certain that the treaty would be accepted. On one side there were the zealots of the Covenant, who feared for the independence of the Scottish Kirk, on the other the Jacobitism which was wide-spread in the Highlands, though comparatively inactive in the Lowlands.
Everywhere, even among men who were rationally convinced of the substantial benefits that would arise from the union, there was a sentimental antipathy to anything which savoured of diminishing national independence. It was possible with perfect honesty, and easy by means of deliberate exaggeration and misrepresentation, to excite a passion of emotional hostility, insomuch that hardly any one believed that the union would be carried without bloodshed.
But the opposition was overcome, not without the employment of influence which a strict political morality would have rejected as corrupt. The leaders of the opposition were divided. But when the crucial clause deciding the question of the legislative union came up for final decision, Hamilton abstained from voting, and the clause was carried by a substantial majority.
The Scottish Act of Union received the royal assent in January 1707; that of the English parliament received it in March. The Acts came in force on the 1st May, and from that time England and Scotland, while their separate nationalities remained intact, were merged in the single Power of Great Britain.
From a strictly constitutional point of view, the government of England was modified at the Union by nothing more than the addition of forty-five Scottish members to the House of Commons and of sixteen Scottish peers to the House of Lords. So far as the sovereignty of the country lay with the parliament there was no change.
It was not so with Scotland, where it was only during the reign of William III that parliament had claimed powers approximating to those of the English Estates. The Union in fact applied the English system to Scotland. On the other hand, it prepared the way for Scotland to exercise a very effective influence in the policy land the concerns of Great Britain.
Scottish Nationalism was respected, the Presbyterian Scottish establishment was secured, the Scottish system/ of law and Scottish institutions generally were preserved. Although the Treaty of Union could not in effect debar the sovereign parliament of Great Britain from occasionally modifying the original terms, the fact still remained that it would be exceedingly dangerous to the public welfare and the public peace for the parliament of Great Britain to introduce modifications which were not acceptable to the Scottish people.
When there was no longer any differentiation between English and Scottish trade and shipping, the way was cleared for an immense development of Scottish energy and Scottish wealth, although half a century was to pass before the effects were thoroughly realised.
At the moment and for years to come the Union was not popular in Scotland; it had been carried because the Unionists proved themselves more skillful party manager than the nationalist stalwarts. The opposition to Jacobitism was much weakened in the northern country by the expectation that national independence would be restored with the Restoration of the Stuarts. It was not till the Jacobites had played their last card and lost the game for good and all at Culloden that Scotland became sufficiently reconciled to the Union to turn it to full account.
This article is excerpted from the book, 'A History of the British Nation', by AD Innes, published in 1912 by TC & EC Jack, London. I picked up this delightful tome at a second-hand bookstore in Calgary, Canada, some years ago. Since it is now more than 70 years since Mr Innes's death in 1938, we are able to share the complete text of this book with Britain Express readers. Some of the author's views may be controversial by modern standards, particularly his attitudes towards other cultures and races, but it is worth reading as a period piece of British attitudes at the time of writing.