Three centuries on, still offering excellent value

By Magnus Linklater (THE TIMES, 17/01/07):

A horseman galloping south across the Scottish Border, guarded by troopers, and carrying a small bundle of documents: that is how the Union between Scotland and England really began, 300 years ago last night. The rider was bringing to Westminster the signed articles of the Treaty of Union, which had been approved by the Scottish Parliament the day before. The final vote, on article eight — the duty to be paid on Scottish salt — had been a fractious but lacklustre affair. The opposition had begun to lose heart. They knew the result was a foregone conclusion, and many of the country members simply failed to turn up. Allegations of bribery were rife.

A powerful combination of the Scottish aristocracy and landowners, backed by the merchant class and the Protestant interest, had swayed the debate by arguing that this was a treaty in the economic interest of Scotland. But they had done so in the teeth of enormous opposition from ordinary Scots, who were outraged by the loss of their parliament, and what they saw as a sell-out. “We’re bought and sold for English gold: Such a parcel of rogues in a nation!” wrote Robert Burns.

There had been riots in the streets, the threat of armed insurrection, and pro-treaty members were stoned by the mob as their carriages trundled down the Royal Mile. Watching in Edinburgh, Daniel Defoe, author and government spy, said that a Scots rabble was “the worst of its kind”.

But if Scotland was largely against the treaty, the English were delighted by it. Cheering crowds in London had greeted the commissioners sent down to negotiate its terms, and when it was finally approved by the House of Commons there was widespread approval. At last those troublesome Scots had been dealt with, was the general view. “We shall now be no more English and Scotch, but Brittons,” said one optimistic Englishman.

For 300 years, that prediction has largely been borne out. Scottish opposition, which continued for close on a generation, gradually died away as the benefits of a stable tax system and free trade grew. Then, as now, the market determined events.

Within weeks of the passing of the treaty, the port of Leith was experiencing a Hong Kong-style boom as massive stocks of wine and brandy poured in, attracted by lower Scottish import charges; the dealers were mainly English. The seeds of the Industrial Revolution were sown with the huge expansion of trade between the two countries, and their exports abroad. As the British Empire grew, the Scots became willing and enthusiastic partners in the enterprise. Through two world wars, they fought with pride under a British flag.

Is all that coming to an end? It is a sad and remarkable thing that, on this momentous occasion, there is no national celebration, no ceremony planned, no monument erected. The most we have is a newly minted £2 coin, and a plethora of doom-laden prophecy. Gordon Brown warned last weekend that talk of independence for Scotland and the creation of an English Parliament was threatening “the break-up of the Union”. He blamed siren voices from the Conservative Right for fomenting what he called “a newly fashionable but perilous orthodoxy, emphasising what divides us rather than what unites us”. The growing calls for Scots MPs to be excluded from voting on English matters at Westminster were, he suggested, “a Trojan horse for separation”.

Sir Menzies Campbell agreed. There was, he said, a “Faustian bargain” between the nationalists and the Tories in Britain — “they may have different motives, but their actions will jointly lead to the break-up of the Union.”

In some ways, the arguments have not changed much in 300 years — they are still about taxation, subsidy and strong feelings about nationality on both sides of the Border. Only this time the resentment seems to come more from the English than the Scots. An opinion poll this week suggested that a majority of voters in England would favour an English parliament. Hostility towards the Scots, and the advantages they appear to have gained from devolution, has grown.

A Scottish Prime Minister faces anti-Scottish prejudice on a level inconceivable ten years ago. In Scotland, by contrast, support for the Union commands the support of the majority, particularly among the young. The popularity of the Scottish National Party has more to do with anti-Labour sentiment than any real enthusiasm for independence. Now, as then, the Scots know which side their bread is buttered.

But if the arguments have not changed, then one must hope that the outcome, too, remains the same. The Union has been far more durable than its founding fathers ever imagined. It continues to serve its members well, bolstered by an economy that draws strength from its unity, and a culture that is seamlessly interwoven.

The case against it, by contrast, does not bear scrutiny. Talk of an English Parliament is vaporous nonsense. It would usher in a federal system of government wholly alien to the British constitution, and would be inherently unstable; no federal system in the world exists where one country is ten times larger than the others. Separating out English and Scottish questions would be a bureaucratic nightmare and would itself destroy the cohesion of the Westminster Parliament. The West Lothian question, which challenges the imbalance between Scottish and English MPs, may be of keen interest to constitutional anoraks but it is never going to provoke riots on the streets; our unwritten constitution has already absorbed it.

What Mr Brown can, and should, address is the financial settlement that still favours Scottish taxpayers over their English counterparts; he should in time concede more powers to a Scottish Parliament to address the “dependency culture” that still holds that country back; and he might perhaps indulge a little positive discrimination, to allow a few more of his English members into his Cabinet.

The Union will doubtless evolve over the next 300 years. It may even be unrecognisable from the one we celebrate today. But when, in 1707, a Scottish MP announced “There’s an end of ane auld sang”, he reckoned without the many choruses to come.