Scottish Desire for Union 1707: George Mackenzie, British Union and the Dangers of Federalism

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A Force For Good presents the fourth in its 6-part series entitled "The Scottish Desire for Union 1707", written by John Provan, who has an MA (Hons) in History. The series dispels several Scottish nationalist myths related to this period.

Our first article demonstrated that nationalist claims of 'bribery' are not the reason why the Scottish Parliament voted for Union. As our second article suggested, these claims are often made by nationalists because they do not want to accept that matters related to the Succession of the Monarchy, Protestantism, and a growing sense of British patriotism were strong influences upon the vote.

This article concentrates on British Unionist George Mackenzie who campaigned for Union and who said at the time, "those who are for the total and true Union of Britain, are as the true mother, and so the true patriots of their country."

Posted on this site on 13 May 2016.


There was a genuine and often passionate unionist discourse which permeated debate on the subject in the years leading up to 1707. As Scots pondered over various dynastic, federal and incorporating arrangements, George Mackenzie emerged as an outspoken champion of full political Union.

Through his tracts, letters and speeches in parliament, Mackenzie made a positive and measured case for incorporation, while at the same time offering a sharp critique of the dangers which a looser federal arrangement would pose.

Mackenzie was a colourful and unpredictable figure in Scottish politics. Known often by his title as 1st Earl of Cromartie, he began his political life as a steadfast Cavalier. As such, he was a royalist who supported the House of Stuart during the Wars of the Three Kingdoms; an allegiance which forced him to exile on the continent until the Restoration of 1660.

His loyalty to the Stuart monarchs was unusual amongst pro-union politicians, who overwhelmingly favoured King William's House of Hanover. However, Mackenzie was a pragmatic figure; a champion of moderation and tolerance who was willing to put his country before his dynastic loyalties.

In an attempt to work with the newly-ruling Hanoverian monarchy after the Glorious Revolution of 1688, Mackenzie put forth his first proposal for Union in 1689, when he suggested a Union which would provide freedom to worship for both Presbyterians and Episcopalians, rather than forcing all citizens to submit to a single state church. In the early years of Hanoverian rule, his sympathies towards Episcopalianism and the Stuarts allowed him to become an effective mediator between the government and the Highland clans. Much bloodshed was no doubt prevented through his shrewd diplomacy.

While Mackenzie's first Union proposals in 1689 were highly idealistic, he lost none of his passion come the debates leading up to 1707, when Union appeared to be a much more likely prospect.

For example, in A second letter, on the British union penned at Edinburgh on the 8 April 1706, Mackenzie demonstrates the many inadequacies and absurdities of federalism, while at the same time articulating the need for a full incorporating union.

THE PROBLEMS OF FEDERALISM
While historians tend to speak of pro-union and anti-union opinion in the debates surrounding the Union of 1707, it would perhaps be more accurate to speak of a debate between pro-incorporationists and anti-incorporationists.

Incorporationists were those who envisioned full parliamentary union, whereas anti-incorporationists, in supporting a looser form in union, wished to retain some sort of legislative authority for a Scottish assembly.

Very few who opposed the incorporating arrangement which passed through the Scottish Parliament in 1707 actually advocated for anything resembling modern notions of independence. In fact, the most popular viewpoint amongst ordinary Scots was that of federalism, an arrangement not entirely dissimilar to our current system of devolution.

Federal union was championed even by modern nationalist icons like Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun; yet for other Scots like George Mackenzie, Union would have to be complete to be enduring. Indeed, Mackenzie was adamant that the Scots should enter into no union with England, unless it was a full Union that would ensure true equality for Scotland:

"...we are bound by duty to our country and posterity, to refuse to England to be under their head...unless they come in with us, into one and the same body."

The hallmark of federalist viewpoints was the retention of distinct Scottish and English Parliaments under a central British government, whether consisting of the monarch and his royal court, or a grand British Parliament.

The Parliaments of Scotland and England would deal with local and domestic issues, while broader matters of war and diplomacy would be conducted at the British level. Yet as Mackenzie observes, Scotland would only ever be the lesser partner in such an arrangement, and its concerns over war and trade would surely be second to English plans:

"If the two different kingdoms shall on any occasion, happen to have different and contrary interests, in war, treaty or trade...then tell me which of the two interests he [the King] will prefer?"

Of course, as an incorporationist, Mackenzie had to address similar concerns that Scottish voices at a united British Parliament would be drowned out by their far more numerous English counterparts.

His response was that a truly full union would erode the old divisions between Scotland and England, and replace any local Scottish or English interests with a single, British national interest. For English politicians to pass legislation that was injurious to Scotland, would be to injure Britain as a whole, and thus also England.

As Mackenzie observes:

"But the Objection and Fear are founded on two absurdities. First, that after we are united into one body, we are still two. Secondly, that the study of the parts of this body, will be to destroy itself in the whole..."

He later goes on to note that the idea of English politicians passing harmful laws against Scotland is as ridiculous as those of one town passing laws to spite a nearby rival. While individual politicians would naturally reflect the local interests of their constituency, these would be grounded in a much broader national interest, which would allow policy to be directed for the common good.

With full British Union for the Scots and the English, the good of one would be the good of the other, and what would harm one would harm both. The fostering of this common good is the heart of Mackenzie's unionism.

ECONOMIC ADVANTAGES OF BRITISH UNION
Economic issues were central to the 1707 Union debates, and Mackenzie was quick to point out the inadequacies of a federal union to secure Scotland access to the burgeoning English market.

Scotland was suffering from a serious balance of trade deficit, while tariffs were increasing at the markets of its trading partners in Northern Europe and the Baltics. The English economy on the other hand was booming, fuelled by rapid colonial growth and the huge range of new produce being introduced from the Americas.

It was unlikely that the English would be willing to allow the Scots free access to their markets without full political Union, as Scottish merchants would provide unwanted competition for their own:

"Will England grant to us in virtue of a Federal Union, the liberty of trade in their kingdom and its dependencies? I wish they would, but I fear they will not..."

As Mackenzie notes, any sort of free trade arrangement would be impossible without a single British Parliament to provide common legislation on tariffs, tolls and subsidies. He provides one example where the Scottish Parliament taxes a particular produce by ten percent, while the English Parliament (prone at that time to far heavier rates of taxation) demands three times the sum. Naturally, Scottish merchants would be able to sell the produce at a lower rate, and would out-price the English competition. Such an arrangement would be unworkable as well as unjust, and only incorporating Union seemed to provide a remedy.

Mackenzie was also highly optimistic about the prospect for economic growth if Union was achieved. Although the Scottish economy was still reeling from the catastrophic effects of the failure of its colony at Darien, Mackenzie believed that its plentiful raw materials offered the potential for rapid growth, if only initial investment could be secured to harvest them.

The Scottish nobility was relatively poor and preoccupied with traditional agriculture, but the more entrepreneurial English could provide a vital source of investment:

"But what if our inexhaustible mines and treasures which grow every year should invite the English to come and dwell upon our grounds..."

Incorporating Union would at once provide Scottish merchants with unhindered access to England's lucrative markets across the world, while at the same time ushering in an era of unprecedented growth and investment for Scotland's domestic economy.

THE BENEFITS OF LAW AND PEACE
While Scotland's economy was in dire need of regeneration, perhaps the most immediate benefit of incorporating Union would be the political stability it would bring.

Mackenzie was born and raised during the turbulent events of the mid-Seventeenth Century, in which the political difficulties of a single monarch managing three different kingdoms had led to a brutal civil war across the British Isles. As issues surrounding the succession threatened a renewal of these conflicts in the early Eighteenth Century, it was hoped that incorporation would remove the basis for any potential conflict once and for all:

"...if the isle is more obnoxious and adapted for internecine division and war, by being divided than when it is united; then it is a natural inference, that union will prevent these dangers, and cure that depraved disposition..."

After the constitutional turmoil of the previous century, there was also concern that Scotland's ancient (albeit unwritten) constitution would be lost in an incorporating Union. But Mackenzie was quick to point out that the greater part of Scotland's laws were fully compatible with those of England, and all the principles of freedom and liberty which were central to Scotland's constitution would be secured within that of a newly united Britain:

"And if we join with England, and England with us, there is no doubt but the prudence of the conjoined body will retain of both the ancient Constitutions, what will be necessary for the new united body..."

Indeed, as Mackenzie notes, these principles might be far better secured in Union than without it.

Despite his Stuart sympathies, he was well aware that the Stuarts tended far more to absolutism than the Hanoverians, hose succession to the Scottish and English thrones had been wedded by an agreement to acknowledge the principle of parliamentary sovereignty. But Mackenzie was not just a reactionary looking to protect ancient privileges, and he evidently saw union as a chance to forge a superior British constitution, for:

"...all, fools excepted, will be content to cast off or change what will be hurtful to the whole body..."

Equally, Mackenzie pointed out that even within an incorporating Union, it was possible for Scotland and England each to retain their respective legal systems. Such arrangements were common amongst many states of the day, where territories acquired through conquest or dynastic succession were granted their ancient customs even within a broader framework of political unity:

"...nor was ever two peoples joined, unless it was by conquest, to alter any municipal laws... nor do wise kingdoms attempt to judge particular places, but according to local customs..."

There was good reason to believe that such a system would be achievable within a British Union. After all, within England, many regions had retained their distinctive laws and customs for centuries without interference. Within Scotland itself, Orkney had been governed by Norwegian law until as late as 1587, and Mackenzie demonstrated the variety of local customs which had prevailed in neighbouring England:

"And in England, hath not Kent its Gavalkind? Hath not Lancashire its Ducal Authority...Hath not Wales both different Laws and Forms before its Predifial Court? And may not York too, if the people of that country did not reject it?"

Clearly, Mackenzie believed that Union posed no danger to Scotland's ancient constitution and the liberties which it protected. Indeed, the Union of 1707 has preserved Scotland's distinct legal system to this very day.

A PATRIOTIC UNIONISM
While historians rightly address the many economic and political benefits of Union which were highlighted in the discourse of the period, the genuine sense of British patriotism displayed by unionist figures is often neglected.

This sense of Britishness had strong historic roots. There was a widespread belief that the original inhabitants of Britain had originally been united under one king, before the invading Saxons and Scots tore this archaic British kingdom apart. Mackenzie was clearly dubious of the antiquity of the Scottish kingdom:

"Scotland was a name not known to our people; in our true antiquity...given us indeed it is by other neighbours, but whether for distinction or derision, we are left to judge..."

Only incorporating union would allow for a reunification of the British people, allowing them to reclaim their ancient name. If the Scots and English were to take upon themselves the ancient name of 'Britons', they would be reclaiming a very illustrious title - one which hearkened back to a highly romanticised past of the Romano-Britons and Arthurian lore:

"...return to us... the true and honourable name of Britain...this, with many greater goods, we shall have by an incorporating union."

In recent times, some have tried to accuse Scotland's unionists of being unpatriotic, but Mackenzie would never accept such a charge. As a unionist, Mackenzie felt that he was a patriotic Briton, one who held the true interest of his country at heart and was willing to put his people before his religious or dynastic loyalties:

"...those who are for the total and true Union of Britain, are as the true mother, and so the true patriots of their country."

Indeed, there is no doubt that Mackenzie's unionism was rooted in a deep care for his country.

He articulated a case for an incorporating Union which would bring peace to the British Isles, strengthen Scotland's economy, and secure forever the status of its Kirk.

His pro-Stuart and pro-Episcopalian sympathies also show that support for Union was far from monolithic, and capable of appealing to diverse elements of Scottish society.

In particular, as questions of devolution and federalism re-emerge in Scottish political life, Mackenzie's fierce critique of such arrangements, coupled with a highly positive argument for incorporation, ensure that his Unionist thought remains as relevant today as it did on the eve of Union, over three centuries ago.

Source:
Mackenzie, G., A second letter, on the British union, (Edinburgh, 1706). Reproduced by Ecco Print Editions.

Our 6-part series "Scottish Desire for Union 1707":
1. No Parcel of Rogues
2. Dynastic, Religious and Britishly Patriotic Reasons
3. William Seton of Pitmedden and The Interest of Scotland in Three Essays
4. George Mackenzie, British Union and the Dangers of Federalism


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