The 300th Anniversary of the Act of Union
On May 1st, 1707 England and Scotland were formally united into one country, later known as the United Kingdom of Great Britain, and, after 1801, as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland (Northern Ireland since 1922).
The Act of Union followed a tense period in relations between England and Scotland. The two countries were participating allies in the war of Spanish Succession (1702-13), opposing the ambitions of Louis XIV of France. England feared that Scotland might opt to withdraw from the war if, after the death of Queen Anne, they chose a different monarch, who might even be James Edward, son of the expelled James II.
The Scots, still bitter about the failure of the Darien scheme, passed the Act of Security (1703) declaring that they would choose a different monarch from England after Queen Anne’s death. Queen Anne reluctantly gave her assent the following year. In retaliation, the English Parliament, less anxious about the threat from Louis XIV following the great victory over his armies at Blenheim in 1704 by the Duke of Marlborough, replied with the Aliens Act (1705), confirming the Scots as second class citizens in England and English colonies.
The Scottish attempt to found a colony in central America at Darien in 1697, near the Panama Isthmus, had been a dismal failure, as much due to a poor choice of site (a malaria infested swamp in land claimed by the Spanish) as to deliberate obstruction by England, who refused to allow English investment in the colony, and informed Spain of Scotland’s plans. Scottish merchants were treated no differently from other ‘foreigners’ in colonies, which the English considered belonged only to England.
From 1603 England and Scotland had had the same monarch (initially James VI of Scotland I of England) but the two countries were not themselves united, simply two independent and separate states, which happened to have the same monarch. James I tried to arrange for a political union, and devised the first Union Jack, but both Parliaments were not keen on the idea and the flag remained an unofficial one.
There were several attempts by England to seize Scotland by force or, at any rate, place a ruler on the Scottish throne, who would be favourable to England as, for example, in the attempts to kidnap Mary, Queen of Scots in the 1540s. Later, Oliver Cromwell, after his crushing victory over the Scots at the Battle of Dunbar in Sept. 1650, forcibly incorporated Scotland into union with England, but this was reversed at the Restoration of Charles II in 1660. Otherwise the closest to success for England came with Edward I who, after the capture and execution of William Wallace (Braveheart) in 1305 had Scotland virtually under English control, but the Scots under Robert Bruce, wrote the most illustrious chapter in their history, by defeating Edward II and the English at Bannockburn in 1314. At the declaration of Arbroath in 1320 the Scots had vowed to resist English rule :
‘for, as long as but a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any conditions be brought under English rule. It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting, but for freedom - for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself.’
The Act of Union was made possible by an agreement between the Commissioners appointed by both Parliaments in 1706. The Scottish Parliament, however, was strongly opposed. But their attitude changed when the English Parliament threatened to ban Scottish exports entering England, therefore potentially bankrupting the Scots, as England was their largest and most lucrative market. The large Scottish landowners, who dominated the Scottish Parliament, relied heavily on exporting cattle to England and they faced certain economic ruin if the English carried out their threat. Even then, the Scottish Parliament was very reluctant, and only the disbursement of substantial bribes finally persuaded the Scottish MPs to abolish their own Parliament. The Scots only regained their Parliament in 1997.
Though news of the impending Act of Union was met with riots in a number of Scottish towns, the Act of Union was passed in January, but with no great enthusiasm among the common Scottish people. Many Scots believed that England had effectively blackmailed the Scots into signing the Act: bankruptcy or sign. Therefore, the Act of Union and what it gave to Scotland was not well received from the start.
Under the terms of the Union the United Kingdom of Great Britain was created with a single flag (Union Jack), one Parliament and one Monarch. Scotland was to keep its own religion (Presbyterianism) and education and legal systems. But the Scots were under-represented in Parliament (because the number of MPs was based on the proportional wealth and not population of the two countries), and the free trade area worked to their disadvantage as English goods were more competitive. Nonetheless, the Scots did benefit from the right to trade with the colonies, and many of the most enterprising Imperialists, merchants, soldiers and missionaries throughout the British Empire, were Scotsmen.
Ironically at this time of the 300th anniversary, many Scots favour the ending of the Union and support for the Scottish Nationalists is higher than for a long time.