by Dr John R Young

The Union Unravelled

October 29, 2009 | by Dr John R Young

WITH THE APPROACH of the tercentenary of the Act of Union between Scot-land and England on 1st May 2007, a plethora of new publications on the topic are coming off the printing presses. Probably by accident rather than design, the anniversary is remarkably close to the forthcoming elections to the Scottish Parliament. Given the current state of British politics, Gordon Brown’s promotion of ‘Britishness’ and the apparent growing reluctance if not hostility to a Scot holding the position of British Prime Minister in a post-devolution context, the Union is back on the agenda as a topic for discussion. It remains to be seen to what extent the historical context of the Union will be politicised by the parties campaigning in the 2007 elections. For nationalists the Union has remained the bête noire of Scottish history, whilst for ardent unionists it has been the symbol of the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow that allowed for the development of modern Scotland.

History is not written in isolation and it is in this context that a reappraisal of the circumstances leading to the 1707 Union is currently taking place among historians and political and cultural commentators. New books by Douglas Watt, Michael Fry and Chris Whatley form part of this reappraisal. Watt’s book focuses on the abortive Darien project of the late 17th century. Traditionally the failure of Darien has been regarded as one of the main economic motives on the Scottish side for union. It has also been regarded as a symbol of a failed dynastic union as well as representing English political and economic aggression towards Scot-land’s attempt, as an independent kingdom linked to England via a dynastic union, to establish a colonial empire. Along with Glen-coe it has often been regarded as one of the black marks against William of Orange as King of Scotland.

What we have with Watt’s book is a fundamental re-evaluation of the Darien project. For the first time we have a financial history of the Company of Scotland. Watt’s Edin-burgh PhD focused on the relationship between the Highland elite and the legal profession in Scotland c.1550-1700. Following the completion of his thesis, he worked as a financial analyst in the private sector. What we have here, therefore, are the opinions of a historian who became a financial analyst and who has worked in the world of Edinburgh finance. Watt uses his background to bring to life the history and the economics of the Company of Scotland, with particular relation to Darien.

This is a well-researched book. Watt can tell you the monthly debt repayments by subscribers, 1696-99, and the ratio of shareholders to population, tax and money supply.

Appendices provide details of the promoters of the 1695 act for the establishment of the Company of Scotland, the Company Court of Directors and their attendance data, a breakdown of shareholders (including women), institutional investors, and the cost of shipping and cargoes. Watt has used the archives of the Banks of Scotland and Eng-land, as well as the Royal Bank of Scotland. Important material in the National Archives of Scotland and the National Library of Scot-land has also been used. In terms of sources consulted, Watt has looked at a substantial amount of printed pamphlet material relating to the period. This is not a pedantic point. Often the writing of Scottish history has suffered from a ‘here we go round the mulberry bush’ mentality whereby modern day commentators write books based on a limited range of source material and the same secondary sources. Painstaking archive work and original research is required to drive forward our knowledge of the Scottish past. Reflection on the research conclusions of the new books on the Union is required.

Watt’s book can be regarded as the definitive work on the financial history of the Company of Scotland. The financing of the newly formed Company of Scotland initially was an Anglo-Scottish venture and was popular among English investors. The traditional perception of political sabotage on the part of vested political and economic interests in tandem with William as King of England is confirmed, indicating that the dynastic union was no longer working. The Company of Scotland and the Darien project was transformed from an economic and colonial venture to a symbol of national economic patriotism and a political issue for the opposition Country Party in the Scottish parliamentary sessions of 1698 to 1701. But this is not the whole story. Watt shows with devastating effectiveness the level of sheer financial mismanagement and poor and stupid strategic decisions on the part of the Company directors even before the ships for Darien set sail from Scotland. In the words of Watt, “The Company of Scotland was…an early example of a corporate cock-up on the grand scale.” Furthermore, “In the years from 1695 to 1707 the Scots experienced a painful journey from the idealism of independent empire to the realism of incorporating union”.

Michael Fry’s book, The Union, is of particular interest given his recent public statement of support for independence as the appropriate route for post-devolution Scot-land to take in the future. Devolution, Fry believes, is a flawed outcome. “The government of Scotland probably cannot and certainly will not deviate from the main lines of policy laid down in London. We have inherited a vast apparatus of state from the unionist past. It is all dressed up in tartan with nowhere to go. It wastes time and money on trivialities, on efforts at micro-management of personal lives. Deeper problems of the nation, of redefining its character and purpose are hardly even seen, let alone solved. We have done no more than contrive a revised version of the Union of the Crowns between 1603 and 1707 – which by any standards counts as the most wretched era of Scottish history.”

Fry’s book is an honest and fresh reassessment of the events and issues that lead to the 1707 Act of Union, but it is not “the first full definitive examination of the Treaty for forty years”, as claimed on the back cover. In this regard Fry is both culpable and unfortunate. The majority of books being published on the Union are the product of new and detailed archive research. Professor Chris Whatley’s The Scots And The Union falls into this category. Professor Allan Macinnes of Aberdeen University has completed a research monograph to be published by Cambridge University Press in 2007 while Edinburgh University Press is publishing a political biography of the Duke of Queens-berry by Collins McKay as well as a study of Scottish Presbyterians and the 1707 Union by Jeff Stephen. Popular protest and the Union will be the subject of a monograph by Karin Bowie of Glasgow University. The books by McKay and Stephen are based on doctoral theses. Hence we have the mixing of the established research scholar (Macinnes and Whatley) with the new researcher (MacKay, Stephen and Bowie). When the dust has settled next year, a new historiography of the Union will have emerged and Fry’s book is likely to be eclipsed by the conclusions in these research based monographs. Fry’s book does not have the research base and coverage that these books will have, although he has used collections in North America.

This does not necessarily mean that Fry’s book is a poor one. He offers a fresh reassessment and reinterpretation of events. Reinforced by quotations from contemporary sources, Fry demonstrates the flair of a professional journalist. In short, this is a damn good read. Fry’s flamboyant and controversial public persona is present in his prose and he doesn’t pull punches when comparing events of the early 18th century to the current crop of Holyrood politicians. Thus, the Parliament of 1703-1707 was “able”, but not “admirable”. According to Fry, many of the “best of Scotsmen” distinguished themselves in Parliament Hall. “A number of them left a mark on their country or even of their age, if perforce after 1707 outside that hall. This generation of Scottish public men would not be matched till the Liberals’ heyday before the First World War – and it still puts to shame the gruesome mediocrities that represented the nation for the rest of the twentieth century, not least in the restored Scottish Parliament of 1999”. Ouch.

Fry puts politics firmly back on the centre stage of the Union and he is right to reject the economic determinism of previous generations of historians who emphasised the primacy of economic issues in explaining the Union. Political personalities of the time are brought to life through his prose. Some emerge with greater integrity and their reputations intact, pro- and anti-unionists alike, more than others. Fry’s book emphasises several key points. In the harsh reality of the early modern world of politics, the Union achieved in 1707 was the best deal that was going to be offered from south of the border. In this respect, Fry echoes the opinions of pro-treaty contemporary commentators of the time. Yet, this was also the result of the actions of Scottish parliamentarians and their refusal to acknowledge the Hanoverian succession. What started from England as an insistence that the Scots acknowledge this succession resulted in a firm resolution that the only way to secure this objective was through an ‘entire’ union. Queen Anne agreed. Infighting and the desire of one political faction to outdo another gradually laid out a path for this to be achieved. Realistically, failure to acknowledge the Hanoverian succession would have resulted in a War of the British Succession, as part of a wider European conflict. Such a war would have resulted in a military conquest and the imposition of a forced union. Furthermore, the prospect of a Jacobite restoration was an unrealistic one.

From a different perspective, Fry argues that the major issues in the treaty negotiations were imposed by the English commissioners, but thereafter the Scottish side negotiated the best deal that they thought possible. Moreover, the final session of the last Scottish Parliament emerges with pragmatic integrity in the sense that it made successful amendments to the negotiated treaty which bolstered the defence of Scottish interests. Realpolitik was therefore exercised. Fry also clearly shows the divided nature of the opposition in the final session, whilst emphasising the discipline of the Court and its adherents (this has been emphasised in the work of other scholars). The pathetic figure of James Douglas, fourth Duke of Hamil-ton, emerges as the political patsy of the Union. Leader of the opposition and the darling of the Edinburgh anti-Union mob, his courage went when it was time to stand up and be counted for his country, as viewed from an opposition perspective. Hamilton still remains a dark and shadowy figure in the Union and it is probably about time that he was the subject of a political biography. Hamilton appears to have been playing a double game, but he did not cut the political mustard in the company of tougher Court politicians. Fry is also right to emphasise the fact Scottish Presbyterians and the Church of Scotland emerge as key winners of the Union.

A stronger claim for “the first full definitive examination of the Treaty of Union for 40 years” can be made for Chris Whatley’s book. The publication of this book marks an important historiographical development for a mature understanding and appreciation of the events and issues relating to the 1707 Union. It can now be regarded as the leading work on 1707 and it reduces P.W.J. Riley’s The Union of England and Scotland (1978) to antiquarianism. Our understanding of 1707 has been taken to a new level. In terms of the public spats between Whatley and Paul Hen-derson Scott, familiar to the Scottish history academic world and recently re-encouraged by the media, Whatley has gained the upper hand and perhaps delivered the knockout punch to Scott’s arguments for explaining the 1707 Union.

This is a well-researched book that owes much to the sterling work and archive based research of Derek Patrick, Professor Whatley’s research assistant on the project. It is a nice touch to see full acknowledgement given to Patrick’s contribution. Indeed, the research base for the book is impressive. It is strongly archive based and a lot of new evidence has been located, even within the usual archive bases and locations familiar to historians of Scotland. This is no ‘here we go round the mulberry bush’ book. It would be fair to say that Professor Whatley is probably the leading historian in Scotland whose work has previously argued that economic factors were the driving force behind Scottish parliamentarians acceptance of the Treaty of Union. But this work goes beyond his traditional domain in terms of the Union and a wider range of political, constitutional, dynastic, religious, military and cultural issues are considered. This is a mature and thoughtful book that deals with historiography and the arguments of other historians in a mature manner, often when he disagrees with them. An important emphasis is placed on evidence, as it should be, when dealing with those arguments.

With this book a strong and forceful case has been made for a historical rehabilitation of the reasons why the 1707 Union came about. But the book is more than a learned text on 1707. It should be regarded as a book on the ‘state of the nation’ in terms of where Scotland stood by the late 17th and early Eighteenth centuries. Whatley quite rightly argues that contemporaries of all political persuasions were profoundly aware that this was a critical juncture of the condition of Scotland and what the future of the country would be. In terms of the treaty itself, the traditional emphasis on bribery has been dismissed and the commissioners who negotiated the treaty have been rehabilitated in terms of the deal that they struck for their country. A case for their patriotism and pragmatism, as opposed to their treachery, has been made. Political factionalism, voting behaviour on the treaty and the activities, attitudes and careers of key individuals and institutions are addressed.

Chronologically the book covers the period from the 1603 Union of the Crowns before focusing in-depth on the later 17th century before proceeding to the treaty negotiations and the ratification of the treaty itself. Several wider themes of importance stand out within this chronological framework. First, it is strongly argued that there is a close link between the events of the Revolution of 1688-90 in Scotland and the 1707 Union. Thus, the securing of the 1707 Union marked the ideological victory, in terms of the key personalities involved, of a desire for a Union with England (and not a federal one) that was evident at the Glorious Revolution. This is something that historians will have to address, even if they disagree with the conclusions. Second, the sheer horror of the famine of the 1690s is brought to life and it may well be argued that this is indeed Scot-land’s forgotten famine. Third, a theme that is constantly emphasised and brought to life in the book, as evidenced in the sources, is the intensity of the divisions between Jacobites and supporters of the Glorious Revolution, Hanoverians and Presbyterians. Jacobitism does not represent Scottish identity in its totality. The lack of reality and unpopularity of a Catholic Jacobite Stuart restoration in Scotland is exposed, even when Jacobitism offered a vehicle for the expression of anti-Union sentiment in the 18th century. Inadvertently, Whatley makes a strong case for a recognition and rehabilitation of Lowland Presbyterianism and Presbyterians for Scot-land’s identity in the Union years and afterwards. This may well be a bitter pill for contemporary commentators to swallow and it is somewhat ironic that the year of the 300th anniversary of the Union is being marked and celebrated as the Year of the Highlands. Whatley’s book should be compulsory reading for all MSPs and media commentators, irrespective of their own political party allegiances and viewpoints, and for anyone who has an interest in Scottish history.

These three books will add colour, controversy and debate as we enter the tercentenary of the 1707 Union. The publication of books by Bowie, Macinnes, Mackay and Stephen will enhance the arguments further and one suspects that the monograph by Professor Macinnes will be a serious counterweight to the Whatley book. What is missing to date from this complex historical jigsaw is the full English historical perspective on these issues. 1707 appears to still be a sleeping issue as a historical event in English history. In common with the politics of the early 18th century, English political eyes have started to look north as Scotland and the Scots become a thorn in the side of the English body politic. That sleep may well be fully awoken should Gordon Brown become Prime Minister.


THE PRICE OF SCOTLAND: DARIEN, UNION AND THE WEALTH OF NATIONS.
Douglas Watt
Luath Press, £25,
pp300 ISBN 1905222637

THE UNION: ENGLAND, SCOTLAND AND THE TREATY OF 1707
Michael Fry
Birlinn, £20
pp342 ISBN 1841585165

THE SCOTS AND THE UNION
Christopher A.Whatley
Edinburgh University Press, £25
pp424 ISBN 100748616853

From this Issue

DIARY

by Hannah McGill

The King My Father

by Christopher Rush

The Union Unravelled

by Dr John R Young

Dallas revisited

by Leslie Clark

Blog / Discussion

x
2
Posts Remaining