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Issue 30 - A happy union

Scotland Magazine Issue 30
December 2006


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A happy union

Let me first emphasise that there is no political agenda in my writing this, but it recently occurred to me, as I was listening to a speech from Alec Salmond, leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party, that the year 2007 is a very significant milestone for Scotland.

Why? Because on the May 1, 2007 it will be the 300th anniversary of the implementation of the Act of Union whereby Scotland was politically integrated into the United Kingdom of Great Britain. On that day in 1707, the Scottish Parliament was dissolved and its members re-located to join a United Kingdom parliament at Westminster in London.

Yes, there were riots in the streets, and the writer Daniel Defoe, sent to Edinburgh to report on the proceedings, observed, “For every Scot in favour there is 99 against.” Then came the period known as the ‘Scottish Enlightenment’ rapidly followed by the Industrial Revolution. Scots, tapping into the burgeoning British Empire, decided that it was not such a bad thing after all to be part of a team. However, come the 20th century, with the Empire in retreat, it was perhaps inevitable that a degree of political introspection should return. In 1999, after decades of debate, a devolved Scottish Parliament was reinstated in Edinburgh and, in May 2007, with proportional representation being introduced for the first time, there are 73 Scottish constituency seats and 56 Scottish regional seats up for grabs.

In two years time, there will also be a UK General Election to return 59 Scottish members to the Westminster parliament.

Confused? Be assured that you are not alone.

As it turns out, however, the present arrangement, given one or two glitches, appears to have worked relatively well during the past seven years, at least as an alternative to full political independence for Scotland. What makes the timing of the 300th anniversary of the Act of Union so doubly poignant, however, is that it coincides exactly with the 2007 Scottish election and nobody is quite sure whether to draw attention to this or not.

So why are our political masters so uneasy, and why was the Act of Union necessary in the first place? Well, the answer is simple enough. At the end of the 17th century, Scotland, with a population of 1.1million, was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy.

The Dumfriesshire-born William Paterson is a largely forgotten figure today, but in 1695, he was very much the man of the moment. Having persuaded Scottish Parliament to establish a Company of Scotland to trade with ‘Africa and the Indies,’ his next ambitious plan was to create a Scottish colony on the Darien Isthmus of Panama in South America (pictured left) in order to set up Scottish trading links with the Far East.

Subscriptions to fund the venture were effortlessly raised in London, but it became known that the English Government, at war with France, was bitterly opposed to the idea, fearing that it would offend Spain, which claimed the Panama territory as part of New Granada. When this became known, English investors withdrew their money in droves. The Company then turned to Edinburgh where, from rich and poor alike, no doubt as an act of defiance against England, £400,000 was raised, approximately one third of the wealth of Scotland at the time.

“The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft a-gley,” observed the poet Robert Burns, who died the same year as the Company of Scotland was launched. He could easily have been writing about the Darien Scheme.

Those that did not die on the sea voyage were struck down with malaria. Lack of food and repeated attacks from hostile Spaniards made it impossible for them to continue. Out of a total of the 16 ships that had set sail, only one returned.

Scotland lost more than half of its national wealth and the lives of 2,000 of the colonists involved. William Paterson’s second wife and child were among them, and he himself returned home gravely ill.

Faced with financial ruin, the Estates of Scotland looked around desperately for a solution. England and Scotland already shared a monarch and from the English point-of-view, the introduction of the Act of Union was all about guaranteeing the Protestant Royal succession of the House of Hanover north and south of the Border.

For Scotland it was a way out of debt, albeit a lot of vested interests were inevitably and unscrupulously involved.

Is it any wonder, therefore, that our ruling politicians should feel uneasy? However, with no less than nine prime ministers of Scottish origin at the helm of Britain during the past 200 years, the Scots have had a hand in running England for quite a long time now. On that basis alone, such a profoundly significant anniversary cannot be allowed to pass by unnoticed.