Unionism and a sense of Déjà vu

0
602

By Hamish Scott
 
It is over 300 years since the Unionist campaign of the 1700s to bring about the Union between Scotland and England.  We now have a Unionist campaign in the 2010s to retain that Union in the coming independence referendum.  Scotland, England and the world, have all changed hugely in the intervening period. 
 
Yet despite that change, we might be forgiven for feeling a strong sense of déjà vu when comparing the current campaign to that of the 1700s, for both campaigns bear considerable similarities in both their circumstances and characteristics.

By Hamish Scott
 
It is over 300 years since the Unionist campaign of the 1700s to bring about the Union between Scotland and England.  We now have a Unionist campaign in the 2010s to retain that Union in the coming independence referendum.  Scotland, England and the world, have all changed hugely in the intervening period. 
 
Yet despite that change, we might be forgiven for feeling a strong sense of déjà vu when comparing the current campaign to that of the 1700s, for both campaigns bear considerable similarities in both their circumstances and characteristics.

Following the Union of the Crowns in 1603, when the monarch began ruling Scotland from London, the post of Secretary of State for Scotland was created.  The Secretary of State, along with other Scottish ministers and office bearers, were variously appointed, paid and instructed by English ministers, usually via the monarch.

Monies raised by taxation in Scotland were transferred to, and controlled by, the English Treasury.

Scottish interests, including trade, were often compromised or sacrificed in the furtherance of the monarch’s or England’s interests.  Most notably in the context of the 1707 Union, the Darien scheme and the Company of Scotland created for it were treated as a threat to England’s trade and the English East India Company respectively.  English investment in Darien was discouraged by Queen Anne, and English diplomacy discouraged international interest in the scheme, as well as Spanish hostility.

After the Union of the Crowns, Scotland’s military resources were used outside Scotland, also in the furtherance of the monarch’s or England’s interests, to the extent that Scotland itself was considerably defenceless.

In modern Scotland, the post of Secretary of State for Scotland continues.  Although nominally Scotland’s representative in the British government, the post-holder is appointed and paid by Westminster.  The political affiliation of the post-holder is that of the Westminster government, no matter its popularity in Scotland.

Scotland’s revenues continue to go to, and be spent by, the Treasury in London.

Scottish concerns, including economic ones such as fishing in Scottish territorial waters by other EU countries, continue to be compromised by, or sacrificed to, London’s interests.  Darien-type schemes that offer significant benefits to Scotland, but threaten London interests continue to be discouraged.   For example, a proposal to make Prestwick airport a hub for northern Europe was seen as a threat to London airports and consequently discouraged.

Scotland again finds herself poorly protected, with military resources prioritised elsewhere, exemplified in December 2013 when a Russian warship approached the Moray Firth and the best British response available was to send a ship from Portsmouth, some six hundred miles and 24 hours away.  It has also recently been revealed through declassified documents that, had Scotland been invaded by Nazi forces in the Second World War, Scotland would have been abandoned militarily by the British.

In 1701, the English Parliament passed an Act of Settlement to determine the succession to the throne, but did so without consulting the Scottish Parliament.  The Scottish Parliament took this as an opportunity to effectively restore Scotland’s independence.  It passed an Act of Security that provided for either a different successor from England, or for the Scottish Parliament to be much more powerful if Scotland had the same monarch, so that Scotland’s economic and military resources would serve Scotland’s needs and interests.

In the 2011 Scottish Parliament election, the people of Scotland gave the SNP a mandate to hold an independence referendum that would restore Scotland’s independence, so that Scotland’s economic and military resources can serve Scotland’s needs and interests in our own time.

The English response to the Act of Security was the Aliens Act that required the Scottish Parliament to accept the same monarchical succession as England.  Failure to do so would bring into effect provisions of the Act that created an embargo on the export of Scottish products to England that represented approximately half of Scotland’s trade. 

Scots would also become aliens in England, threatening their property interests there.  These economic threats to trade and property directly and personally affected many members of the Scottish Parliament.

In 2014, Westminster’s response to the prospect of an independent Scotland has seen various economic threats made, including not agreeing to a sterling currency zone and the loss of the pound, and the claim that Scotland is not entitled to any assets of the UK.  Scots are also again being threatened with the prospect of being foreigners in England.

In the 1700s, members of the Scottish parliament were bribed or rewarded with both money and positions for their unionism.  For example, the Duke of Hamilton was made the Duke of Brandon in 1711, Ambassador to France in 1712, and a Knight of the Garter; the Duke of Queensberry was made the Duke of Dover in 1708 and given a £3,000 per year pension.  Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun, a leading opponent of Union, described Unionists in the parliament as ‘greedy’ and ‘ambitious’.

In modern Scotland, Unionist politicians continue to receive substantial monetary reward as well as positions and honours for their service to the British state.  Many rely on their political unionism for wealth and status they could not earn elsewhere. 

Their contemporary ‘greed’ is reflected in their widespread abuse of parliamentary expenses in the House of Commons.  Even in ‘retirement’, many are ‘elevated’ to the House of Lords with associated titles and a highly lucrative £300 per day allowance simply for attending.

Leading Unionists of the time acknowledged that the alternative to Union in the 1700s was the threat of an English invasion and the imposition of a Union on less favourable terms.  The threat was implicit, but well understood by members of the Scottish Parliament nonetheless.

In the referendum campaign, the Ministry of Defence has raised the spectre of annexation of Faslane and Coulport naval bases in order to retain them for the UK’s nuclear weapons.  Although the idea was quickly denied by British government, the threat remains implicit.

Armed Forces Day in 2014 is to be held in Stirling.  Although this will be only the sixth of such UK-national events, it will be the second in Scotland: an unusual frequency for such UK-wide occasions. 

It will also take place in the same place and at the same time as the event to mark the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn.   The Secretary of State for Defence, Philip Hammond, described the Armed Forces Day event as a ‘show of power’.

In the 1700s, London directly intervened in the Scottish debate with its own propaganda, using agents such as Daniel Defoe through pamphleteering and other means.   In the current debate, London once more intervenes with its own propaganda both officially in government papers and informally through the media.

Both campaigns have also seen virulent anti-Scottish sentiment expressed in England’s media by commentators and members of the public alike.

Something acknowledged by Daniel Defoe was that the Union would allow England to ‘punch above its weight’: ‘It must be allow’d to say…that the advantage is wholly on  England’s side, whose Power is by the Addition of Scotland so fortif’d, that it must be her own Fault, if she does not make a different Figure in all the affairs of Europe, to what she ever did before’.

A similar acknowledgement was made by the journalist Tim Luckhurst, in the Daily Mail on 10 January 2012, when he wrote that: ‘If…Scotland chooses independence, the nation that stood firm against Hitler will cease to exist.  Shorn of its permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council and relegated to minnow status in Nato – as we surely would be – the Union of England, Wales and Northern Ireland would lose the power to punch above its weight in international affairs, and face relegation to diplomacy’s second division.’

The pro-independence campaigns of both periods have warned of the economic dangers of a Unionist victory.

Victory in 1707 would lead to the loss of Scotland’s existing trade with the Continent: France, the Low Countries and the Baltic in particular.

A Unionist victory in 2014 would bind Scotland to the result of a promised UK ‘in/out’ referendum on the European Union in 2017 that could lead to Scotland losing membership of the EU and its single market.

A contemporary commentator of the Scottish Parliament debates on Union in the 1700s noted the ‘good sense, good language and strong argument’ of those opposed to Union.  The arguments of the advocates of a Yes vote in the referendum tend to be of a higher quality than those seeking a No vote.

The Unionists in the Scottish Parliament of the 1700s lacked popular support.  It was acknowledged by Unionists then, and acknowledged by their contemporaries now, that there was overwhelming popular opposition to Union, including much active interest and protest by the unenfranchised common people.  This mass involvement, remarkable for the time, made no difference to the ruling elite however.

Today, the No campaign also lacks active popular support, whereas the Yes campaign is a massive, active grassroots movement.  Once again, though, it is largely ignored by the Unionist establishment and its media.

Let us hope, with all these similarities, that others do not prevail.  Fletcher of Saltoun said of Scots: ‘We have neither heart nor courage, though we want not the means, to free ourselves’.  Fletcher words were proved correct and, thoroughly disillusioned, he thereafter lived largely overseas.