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WHAT PRICE THE UNION?
on 3 February 2012
I bought this book in January 2012, when Alex Salmond, leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party, announced that there would be a referendum on Scottish independence, probably in 1314, the anniversary year of Robert the Bruce's great victory at Bannockburn. Yet it was published in 2006, in advance of the celebration of the 300th anniversary of the Act of Union in 2007. The author is a former Conservative Party candidate but he has since announced his conversion to the SNP. He is also an excellent historian and the book is well-researched and very well written.
Some years ago, an English historian called Riley wrote a series of articles and books which portrayed the Act of Union in a very bad light, purporting to show that the votes of the majority in the old Scottish Parliament which voted for the Union were bought and paid for by the English government. This seemed to confirm the worst fears and suspicions held by opponents of the Union in Scotland, at the time and since; but Fry shows that there was a lot more at work in 1707 than English money. The Scots had several powerful reasons for voting in favour, though many still could not bring themselves to do it.
More importantly, Fry shows that the old Scottish Parliament was in no sense democratic; and it is therefore pointless, in any event, to base arguments about the voting on the assumption that it represented the popular will. Scotland was a semi-feudal kingdom, where the people were in no sense `autonomous'. The nobility had the most important voice. The General Assembly of the Church of Scotland was probably more representative of majority public opinion than the Parliament, which incidentally was unicameral, so that the lairds controlled it all the more. A majority in each place was in favour of the Union, once an Act of Security for the Kirk was secured.
For the Kirk, the pursuit of virtue was more important than the pursuit of happiness. Economics was not really the issue, though the merchants, in so far as they had a voice, wanted free trade with England and access to the English colonies, especially after the failure of the Darien Scheme. On the other hand, England wanted to secure the Hanoverian Succession in Scotland as well as in England. A Jacobite restoration would have threatened her security, at a time when she was still locked in war with Louis XIV's France.
It is fascinating to be told that Union did not necessarily involve the dissolution of the Scottish Parliament. Fry discuss the alternative schemes which were canvassed between 1702 and 1707, as well as the various ways of merging the Scottish Parliament in with the Westminster one at Westminster, once this was decided upon in principle. At all events, the deal was done - and it was very much a deal, rather than a grand statement of principles. It would seem to this Englishman that the terms which were finally agreed upon were very generous to the Scots both economically and politically, but it is also clear that many Scots felt that the loss of independence was too high a price to pay.
There were 25 articles in the Treaty or Act of Union. They explain a lot. For example, why does the Englishman ask for a pint of bitter to this day, while the Scotsman asks for a pint of `heavy'? The answer is in the legislation. I was also interested to see that Scots and English, over the centuries, have been equally inventive when it comes to verbal abuse of each other. I did not know that we English were called `pork-eaters'.
What does the book tells us about the forthcoming referendum? At the end Fry hints at his conversion, by stating that the period between 1603 and 1707 (when there was a Union of the Crowns but no Union of the Parliaments) was `by any standards the most wretched era of Scottish history'; and in his view, devolution merely re-creates that unhappy time. The logic of this is that the Scots should go forward, by going back `to the place where we started', which means full independence.
An excellent read and it makes you think. As an Englishman, I should be sorry if the Scots do vote for independence; but I am also clear that if they do, that is their business; and the decision will have little to do with economics.