Scottish Origins of British Unionism: David Hume's The Union of the British Isles

Young Unionists in Glasgow during the Referendum campaign 2014

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A Force For Good is pleased to announce the second in our 7-Part series entitled, "The Scottish Origins of British Unionism", written by John Provan, who has an MA (Hons) in History.

This article examines the remarkable British vision of David Hume of Godscroft. [Please note that the Scottish Renaissance David Hume of Godscroft (1558-1629) is to be distinguished from the Scottish Enlightenment David Hume (1711-1776).]

Posted on this site on 10 February 2015.

Nationalists accused unionists of many things in the referendum. The No campaign was said to be unimaginative and inflexible, failing to consider the possibilities for an independent Scotland in a new world of supranational institutions where national boundaries were being at once eroded and redrawn.

It was said to be the voice of the establishment, as the Scottish branches of the three main parties towed the party line on behalf of their Westminster 'masters'. It was said to be disparaging of Scotland, taking a self-deprecating view of the country, and failing to see its potential as an oil-rich state or a leader in renewable energy.

It was said to provide no positive vision for how Scotland might flourish within the union, offering instead only the rather unsatisfactory status quo. And in a similar vein, the unionist campaign was seen as being lacklustre and conservative; altogether less exciting that the radically progressive politics which seemed to emanate from certain sections of 'Yes Scotland'.

Such criticisms may have some validity when aimed at the official Better Together campaign. But there is a perception among some that these problems run far deeper – that these flaws are somehow inherent to unionism itself.

Such perceptions are based on a highly simplified view of history, where the political machinations used to secure the Union of 1707 ultimately allowed the domineering English to forever subdue the freedom-loving Scots [an incorrect claim which we will be examining in a future article]. Unionism is therefore seen, from this perspective, as being by nature oppressive, unjust, and worst of all, distinctly English in character.

A great deal of evidence could be brought forth to challenge these misconceptions, and to demonstrate the depth and dynamism of unionist thought in Scotland that can be traced back centuries prior to 1707 – and this series of articles is intended to contribute to that process.

From leading humanists like John Mair of Haddington, to great Reformers like Knox and Melville, to the populist Covenanting movement, and down to ordinary merchants like John Henrysoun and even outlawed Highlanders like John Elder unionist thought in pre-Union Scotland was as ubiquitous as it was diverse. And while all these figures and many more could be brought up in defence of unionism against nationalist slurs, there is one champion who can single-handedly vindicate unionist thought from all the accusations levelled against it: David Hume of Godscroft.

Hume was one of the great figures of the Scottish Renaissance and a pioneer of Enlightenment thought. In the words of historian Alan Macinnes, he "marked the culmination of the Scottish humanist tradition". 1

He would use his extensive knowledge of the classics to challenge the increasing power of the monarchy, reformulating a concept of citizenship based on the ancient Greek polis and republican Rome to challenge the idea that the people were little more than subjects to their rulers.

It was this willingness to challenge the norms of his day that led Hume towards adopting such an uncompromising unionist platform – in his eyes, it was time for the old feudal kingdoms of Scotland and England to be replaced with a new, civic Britain.

These ideas were profoundly expressed in his great work, De Unione Insulae Britannicae [The Union of the British Isles], which called on James VI and I to unite his two kingdoms politically after the 1603 Union of the Crowns. 2

At a time when populist protest parties have been making gains across the developed world, the Yes campaign was quick to realise the potential of portraying their unionist opponents as representing the Westminster 'establishment'.

While the truth of such claims in our own time could be debated, it is certain that they have no validity whatsoever when aimed at the great unionist thinkers of the past. David Hume launched scathing attacks on the establishment of his own day, a fact that caused him to be exiled from his native kingdom for much of his life. It was during this time that he built close personal ties with fellow radicals.

It is most likely due to his interactions with Presbyterian firebrand Andrew Melville that Hume would go on to be described as "the terror of the Scottish clerical establishment". But it was the temporal, rather than the ecclesiastical powers, that were to receive the full brunt of Hume's humanist wrath. Historians Paul McGinnis and Arthur Williamson state of Hume's work that:

The De unione is the republican riposte to the The True Lawe of Free Monarchies, the civic counter-peice to the Basilikon Doron. It seeks to re-claim the classical vocabulary. It proposes an alternative Britain.

'The True Lawe of Free Monarchies' and the 'Basilikon Doron' were propaganda used by James VI and I to justify his rule. At a time when Britain was seeking to emulate the much more absolutist monarchies of the continent, David Hume's call for an alternative Britain appears particularly profound.

By appealing to the people as the sovereign source of all political authority, Hume challenged the divine right to rule which the Stuart kings claimed for themselves. Having attacked the old monarchist order, the idea of union was the culmination of his humanist thought, which would create a modern British nation and no longer allow Scotland to be treated as a backwater by an absentee king in London.

Emerging as it did from the writings of exiled radicals like David Hume and his contemporaries, there is little doubt that unionism was at its origins a fundamentally anti-establishment movement.

Closely related to the modern idea of unionism as representing some vague sense of the 'establishment', is the idea that this unionist establishment is fundamentally anti-Scottish. Some of the nationalist campaigners at the referendum were quick to claim that unionists were somehow anti-Scottish, or that they held their native land in contempt.

Historically speaking, unionism in Scotland is often regarded as having been the preserve of a landed, Anglicised elite. Yet David Hume – one of the early pioneers of Scottish unionist thought – once again demonstrates just how wrong these misconceptions are. In fact, so far was Hume's work from disparaging his native kingdom, that one contemporary of his remarked that:

the booke...hes no uther end then to make Scotland equal to ingland in al and superior in sume pointis.

Indeed, when facing English opposition to his union plans, Hume was quick to remind the English that they owed their continued existence to the valiant efforts of the Scots, citing the example of the Spanish Armada crisis, when the Scots closed off all their ports to the Spaniards and left them unable to land on British shores.

He went so far as to say that "the English plainly owe to us not only their well-being but the fact that they exist at all." Clearly, as an early unionist, Hume felt no need to defer to his English neighbours.

Hume also explodes the myth that early unionists were somehow Anglicised gentry who wished to 'civilise' their countrymen. Apparently, national stereotypes have not changed much over the centuries, for the Scots of Hume's day were often charged with being uncouth, unclean and altogether uncivilised. Not only does Hume speak well of the customs of the Scots, he unequivocally rejects the common criticisms laid against them, and stands up proudly for his native kingdom:

...we are held to be less other words, of being rough, gruff, and hard to get along with...I don't admit the charge!

Aggressive as ever in his rhetorical manner, Hume does not settle for defending on the back foot, but surges forward into an attack upon the English, pointing out a hypocrisy, which he restrains himself from elaborating upon:

Nor do I mention such epithets as other people have given them [the English] in which they can take no pride.

There is no doubt then, that Hume was proud of his native land of Scotland. For him, union was not about erasing Scotland's culture in favour of a new, Anglicised order. On the contrary, it was about taking the thought of the Scottish Renaissance and seeking to emulate it at the royal court in London, securing forever Scotland's place in a progressive, civic-minded Britain.

Perhaps one of the strengths of the Yes campaign was its dynamism, and its willingness to re-imagine the possibilities for an independent Scotland in a changing political climate. As the old world of highly independent nation states is replaced by one where political authority is wielded at various levels of national, sub-national and supranational institutions, entities like the European Union were identified as offering new opportunities for small states like Scotland. On the other hand, the No campaign was accused of rather unimaginatively offering little more than the status quo, and failing to offer any deep improvements to the existing union arrangements.

While in our own day we have nationalists challenging a unionist status quo, in Hume's day, these positions were reversed.

Hume had to make the case for union in an independent Scotland, and this inevitably meant coming up against those who were very entrenched in their defence of the prevailing order. It was up to Hume to develop a compelling case for union, and he heartily embraced this task. In much the same way that the nationalists of today look to the EU, Hume looked to the republics and confederacies of the continent to imagine how a British union might look.

From the Italian city states, to the patchwork of petty kingdoms which made up the German-based Holy Roman Empire, to the cantons of the Swiss Confederacy, Europe seemed to provide an endless source of possibilities for an idealist like Hume to muse over.

While most unionists of the time preferred a confederal model, Hume embraced something resembling a more full incorporating union. As radical as these ideas were, they were inevitably met with opposition from the 'powers that be', who frustrated Hume with their reluctance to accept any proposals for change:

... they say that no changes should be rashly introduced into a commonwealth. They hold that every innovation is full of peril, not to be entertained or allowed except for the greatest, the most significant, the weightiest reasons...

Perhaps, to adopt the rhetoric of the SNP, we might call them the 'scaremongers' of the Seventeenth Century! Not only does Hume suggest these changes, he goes on to show his energy for continually refining and improving the existing order, and never settling for something which could be made better.

Having noted the many benefits which ensued from the Union of the Crowns in 1603, Hume goes on to argue that this dynastic union must be perfected by political union, and that people must not grow complacent with their present situation:

Now with the storm blown over, we're enjoying the good things. We do not pay attention to the evils which are present, which can be present. Nor in the midst of the present joys do we wish to consider them. But that's exactly what we need to do, asking ourselves whether the present state of affairs is even now perfect, or whether there is something lacking, and what sort of thing it is...

Certainly, there is no doubt that unionists like Hume cannot be accused of being unimaginative, or of entrenching themselves in defence of the status quo; on the contrary, Hume reminds us of just how pioneering and dynamic that unionism can be when at its finest.

Another charge commonly laid at the feet of modern unionists is that they are reactionary, and that they stifle the prospect for Scotland to realise its 'potential' as some kind of modern, centre-left country.

The progressive, left-leaning and republican elements which typify the civic nationalism of the SNP are contrasted with the more conservative unionist opposition. Yet the early unionists were often the progressives of their own day, who were willing to challenge the old feudal order with the values of Renaissance humanism.

For figures like David Hume, a core part of this new humanism was putting away the old animosities which lingered between the Scots and English, even when they had already been united under one king. At a time when deep divisions remained between the two peoples, Hume made an emotive plea to his countrymen:

I get you, and I beseech you, by the love of our shared Britannia, by the affection we have for England and Scotland...eradicate from deep within the origins of hostility.

Hume hoped to break down the barriers between the two kingdoms to such an extent, that people could be judged on the merit of their character, and not whatever part of the isle they were born in:

as if it really matters, whether someone is born in London or Edinburgh, under whom Britannia may flourish, whether he is of Scottish or English nationality (although in a perfected Union these distinctions will be abolished).

It might be alleged that Hume was simply replacing one barrier with another, putting a British nationalism in place of the old Scottish and English variants. Yet he shows that he is willing to extend these principles beyond his own countrymen. Even by the standards of the modern age, Hume often appears progressive in his willingness to judge people on their individual character, free from the hubris of nationalism:

I do not extol our own, and I do not disparage the individual of any people whatsoever. I would wish that others would refrain from extolling themselves too much and from denigrating those who are different from them.

Remarkably, he even goes on to suggest imposing harsh fines on any person who makes slurs against somebody on account of their Scottish or English heritage. Indeed, at times, Hume seems to go beyond being simply progressive, and foreshadows some of the more politically-correct laws of our own time.

Perhaps the most common criticism aimed at the No campaign by the Yes campaign was a presumed failure to articulate 'a positive case' for union. And yet it is in offering a positive vision of union that early unionists like Hume shine.

The entire second half of De Unione is dedicated to describing the many proposals for how exactly the new British state would function, and the many benefits it would bring to the British people. It is difficult to do justice to the variety of Hume's ideas in one article, yet Hume's almost utopian vision of his new civic Britain can be easily demonstrated:

Men will see the cattle grazing everywhere, and the flocks of sheep with no close guard on them for fear of raids, the herds and flocks abounding on the hillsides, and the valleys teeming with fruits at harvest time...And the men themselves will be living peaceful and easy lives, enjoying themselves and enjoying their own and acknowledging the blessings of a sincere and lasting peace.

Hume believed that the political and social integration which would ensue from the union would provide such a secure peace as had never before been achieved within Britain. With Britain safely protected from foreign powers by the sea, the Britons would finally be able to live contentedly within their own island.

The use of common currency and the flow of free trade throughout the nation would usher in a golden age of prosperity and growth. People would be freed from the hardship of toiling the land to survive, and would be able to educate themselves and foster an intellectual revolution, with Britain becoming the heart of the Renaissance.

The Scots would no longer have an absentee monarch in London, but would enjoy all the same rights and privileges as the English as part of an integrated British state. For the first time, there would be meaningful democracy, as several regional parliaments based at local centres like Edinburgh and York would work together with a grand British parliament. Crucially for Hume, all this would allow the realisation of his dearly held humanist principles – a civic Britain, flourishing like the classical republics of antiquity. Hume was an idealist, and he certainly articulated a positive case for union.

Indeed, at a time when unionism seems to be coming under such a concerted attack from certain elements of Scottish society, Hume's De Unione offers a poignant reminder that none of the criticisms which nationalists level against the Union are inherent to unionism itself.

Unionist thought has deep roots within Scotland, roots which predate the emergence of unionist thought within England. Modern Scots have a right, perhaps even a duty, to claim this as part of their heritage. 3

When today's unionists look back to the likes of Hume and other great unionists of the past, we see a powerful precedent for an innovative, forward-looking and distinctly Scottish unionism which is as vital to the union today as it was hundreds of years ago. As questions surrounding independence and union are with us again, Hume's De Unione takes on a remarkable contemporary relevance.

1. Macinnes, A, Shaping the Stuart World, 1603-1714: The Atlantic Connection, (Brill Press, 2006). The quote from Macinnes is on page 44.

2. Hume, D, De Unione Insulae Britannicae in The British Union, A critical edition and translation of David Hume of Godscroft's De Unione Insulae Britannicae, ed. by P. McGinnis and A. Williamson (Ashgate, 2002). All quotes from Hume, his contemporaries, and from McGinnis and Williamson are taken from this book.

3. For example, also see Kidd, C, Union and Unionisms, Political Thought in Scotland, 1500-2000. (Cambridge University Press, 2008). Kidd details some of the varieties of unionist thought within Scotland from 1521-1660 from pages 39-66.

Scottish Origins of British Unionism
Part 1: John Mair's History of Greater Britain
Part 3: John Elder's Highland Unionism
Part 4: John Knox's Unionism of Monarchy and Faith
Part 5: John Russell's Happy and Blessed Union
Part 6: Thomas Craig's Vision of Complete and Perfect Union
Part 7: The Covenanters' Movement for Religious and Royal Unification

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