by Patrick Geoghegan

A Tale of Two Unions

October 19, 2009 | by Patrick Geoghegan

HOW DID THEY pass the Union?

By perjury and fraud. By slaves who sold their land for gold, as Judas sold his God”. These lines were written in the late-nineteenth century about the Irish Act of Union of 1800, but they could just as easily have been written at any time over the past three hundred years to capture popular feeling about the Anglo-Scottish Union of 1707. The similarities between the two acts of incorporation are striking. Both were born out of a fear of France and a belief that the religious and political allegiances of a majority in the smaller kingdom made them suspect at a time of war in Europe, both were attempts to rescue the economy of the smaller kingdom, both were passed amidst widespread allegations of bribery, intimidation and corruption. During the recent tercentenary commemoration of the Act of Union of 1707 I delivered a lecture at the University of Dundee on the Irish Act of Union, how it was passed, and the importance of the question of empire. Present at the lecture was Professor Christopher What-ley, the author of a number of groundbreaking works on the Scottish Union, who commented afterwards that he was struck by how extraordinarily similar the stories were. But history does not repeat itself. This was a case of one event sometimes subtly, sometimes explicitly, yet always deliberately influencing events on the neighbouring island almost a century later.

Allan Macinnes’ Union And Empire: The Making Of The United Kingdom In 1707 and TM Devine’s Scotland And The Union,1707-2007 are the most important of the recent contributions by historians to the tercentenary commemoration of the 1707 Union. Maciness deals with the long-term background to incorporation (starting in 1603 when James VI of Scotland became James I of England to resolve the Elizabethan succession) and culminating in the passing of the Union in 1707 when potential problems over who would eventually succeed Queen Anne were resolved in favour of the Hanoverian succession. The second book is a collection of fourteen essays by eleven different contributors (four of them, including some of the strongest, are by the editor of the volume, T.M. Devine). This volume has a much wider scope, examining different interpretations of the passing of Union (with particularly striking contributions by Whatley and Macinnes), the impact of the Union on Scotland and the empire, the challenges which the Union faced in the twentieth century, and a final, somewhat speculative section on devolution and the future. Both volumes add to the impressive number of books produced on the Union in recent years, in particular the fine work of Michael Fry, Jeffrey Stephen, and, of course, Christopher Whatley and Derek Patrick.

So how did they pass the Union in Scot-land in 1706-07? Perhaps a better question is why the idea of a Union was rejected by the Scottish Estates in 1702. The traditional interpretation has always centred on the use of coercion and bribery to create a majority in the intervening period. The Scots who supported the Union were thus portrayed as traitors who sold their country for promises of money and advancement. This viewpoint was put to verse by

Robert Burns in the eighteenth century (“We’re bought and sold for English gold, Such a parcel of rouges in a nation!”) and was best summarised in prose by PW Riley in his classic study of the Union (published thirty years ago), when he claimed that “The Union was made by men of limited vision for very short-term and comparatively petty, if not squalid, aims”. However this has been challenged by a more sophisticated approach (exemplified in these two volumes) which shows that more important factors were at work, and that a range of different arguments were used to convince people that a Union was the correct policy. Indeed, as Whatley notes in his essay here, “Uncomfortable though it may be for those who are inclined to such simplistic, faintly Anglophobic and largely parochial explanations for the Union, the fact is that there were Scots too who sought Union with Eng-land”. As we learn in these volumes, there were many Scots who were tempted by the altruistic desire to steady the Scottish economy, partake in the advantages of empire, and secure the two countries by a more permanent connection. In other words, genuine motives swirled alongside the more cloudy reasons of self-interest and corruption to create a very potent cocktail. This concoction was described by one contributor as ‘Presbyterianism and plunder’, but could just as easily be sold under the name ‘Cash and conviction’.

As Macinnes shows, the Union was seen as an economic necessity for Scotland and a political necessity for England. Scotland had become something of a rogue state when it came to economic matters and a system of regulation needed to be imposed. The fear that Scotland would become a rogue state politically was an even greater concern, especially with the Pretender looking on in exile, King Louis XIV of France waiting to pounce, and the War of Spanish Succession threatening to become the War of British Succession.

And yet, in the popular imagination, the theme of corruption remains the most attractive one. The charges concern the shadowy influence of the Duke of Queens-berry and the £20,000 which was sent from London to assist his negotiations. Indeed one of Whately’s earlier works on the Union asked this very question with its Burns-inspired title, Bought and Sold for English Gold? Explaining the Union of 1707. Through Queensberry’s skilful management the treaty of Union passed through the Scottish Estates in four months, and took only five weeks to go through the Commons and Lords. Corruption enabled the Unionists to override legitimate opposition, and neutralise anti-Unionists who were not convinced by the genuine arguments being made but who were prepared to listen to the sound of their own self-interest.

Ireland did not welcome the Anglo-Scottish Union of 1707. Many were furious that Scotland had been invited to partake in all of the promised commercial, political and imperial advantages, but that Ireland had been deliberately excluded. Rejection intensified the feelings of resentment. In 1703 the Irish Protestants had invited the English parliament to unite the two crowns, but had been spurned. Satirists of the day, Jonathan Swift most notable among them, stoked this resentment by casting Ireland as the jilted lover. In 1698 when William Molyneux wrote one of the famous pamphlets in Irish history he called Union “a happiness we can hardly hope for”. This pamphlet would be reprinted many times in the eighteenth century but the comment about a Union was always excised from these later versions. In the language of relationships, Ireland was no longer playing hard-to-get, it was now a case of ‘don’t go there’.

In 1707 England had worried about trusting a neighbouring kingdom tainted with Presbyterianism and Jacobitism. In 1799 Britain worried about trusting a neighbouring kindgom tainted with Catholicism and Jacobinism. The loss of the American colonies, the granting of Irish legislative independence in 1782, and war with revolutionary France in 1793 persuaded Britain that it was time for a closer relationship with Ireland. And so, following the 1798 rebellion in Ireland, the British government decided that a Union was the only solution to the pressing problem of imperial security. The home secretary, the duke of Port-land, commissioned John Bruce, the keeper of the state papers, to prepare a report on the Anglo-Scottish Union to show favourable precedents (published in two-volumes in 1799 to help in the propaganda war). An even greater influence on deliberations was the secretary of state for war, Henry Dundas, the leading Scottish politician at Westminster, who was able to make the most of his extensive knowledge of the 1707 Union to direct the strategy. If the story of the Irish Union appears familiar to Scottish eyes it is only because so much care went into making sure it was a frame-by-frame reworking of the original.

The plan for the Irish Union was directly modelled on the Scottish precedent. Commissioners from both countries would be appointed to negotiate a treaty, which would then be voted on in both parliaments. However the Irish House of Commons reacted angrily and defensively when a Union was mentioned in the King’s address in January 1799 and rejected the proposal. But this merely postponed things for a year. In January 1800 a revised Union was introduced in both countries and passed inexorably through both parliaments. Secret service money was used illegally to create a slush fund to bribe recalcitrant MPs and a whole range of other weapons (patronage, pensions and peerages) were deployed to great effect. It became a standard feature in Irish historiography (best expressed in the opening lines of this article) that the Union had been the product of “black corruption”, with the Irish nation bought and sold for negligible gains. Like the books under review here, recent accounts have developed a more sophisticated interpretation, showing that as many people were persuaded by genuine arguments about the economy, Ireland’s role in the empire, and the desire to secure Catholic emancipation, as were swayed by the financial inducements on offer.

The great irony about the passing of the Irish Act of Union is that the corruption involved in its passing was almost exposed by the unlikeliest person, King George III.

The King went mad in March 1801 following his prime minister William Pitt’s botched attempt to accompany the Union with Catholic emancipation, and when he eventually recovered he had no recollection of authorising the various elaborate slush funds. Instead, suspecting that money was being embezzled, he threatened to go public, claiming that corruption had taken place during the passing of the Union. Only after repeated reassurances from Pitt did he finally sign-off on the fictitious accounts which ended the paper trail, and the matter was allowed to drop. In 1822 when his son, George IV visited Ireland to celebrate his coronation he found the Union still a matter of some debate. And he noted slyly the mistake the Irish parliament had made in not enshrining the majority religion in the kingdom as the Scottish Presbyterians had done in 1707.

The Treaty of Union for the Anglo-Scottish Union was implemented on 1 May 1707. Bonfires were lit throughout England, church bells rang throughout the land, and there was a massive service of thanksgiving in St. Paul’s Cathedral, a service which was replicated from London to Berwick-upon-Tweed. The reaction in Scotland was much more muted. No one protested, no one celebrated. Extra soldiers had been sent to Edinburgh in case there were disturbances, but instead they had to listen to the plaintive laments which were rung all day on the church bells, beginning with ‘Why should I be sad on my wedding day?’ There was a similar response in Dublin when the Union came into effect on 1 January 1801. The young barrister, and future Catholic leader, Daniel O’Connell, noted that although bells rang out across the city there was little genuine feeling for the measure. As he wrote in his diary, his “blood boiled” at the humiliation, and he made a vow that someday he would restore the Irish parliament.

The tercentenary of the Anglo-Scottish Union last year helped produce an enormous output of scholarly and non-scholarly books, articles, and collections of essays and taken together they provide a richer and more nuanced historiography. Macinnes deserves praise for his mastery of the sources and for the quality of his interpretation, best summed up in his magisterial conclusion that the Union was “the product of power, control and negotiation. England had the military power to coerce and the fiscal power to persuade”. Devine is to be congratulated for bringing together some excellent contributors, and for his own essays which give a coherence to the collection, often lacking in these ventures. The volumes do something better than just providing answers, they ask questions which challenge our lazy assumptions. Or, if we learn one thing, it is that bad poetry rarely makes for good history.


Union and Empire: The Making of the United Kingdom in 1707
Allan I. Macinnes
Cambridge University Press, £18.99 pp398 ISBN 0521616301

Scotland and the Union, 1707-2007
T.M. Devine
Edinburgh University Press, £14.99 pp192 ISBN 0748635424

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