Scottish Desire for Union 1707: Opposition with a Unionist Flavour

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A Force For Good presents the sixth 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 the 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 finds that contrary to the nationalist narrative of the Union debates of 1698-1707 being hostile to the idea, the debates were largely "intra-unionist conversation" between different versions of union.

Furthermore, opposition on the street was largely from Jacobites and hardline Presbyterians, both of whom had unionist reasons for their behaviour.

For example, nationalists today will say that the Articles of Union were burned by 'armed men' in Dumfries, without mentioning (or realising) that it was the Cameronians who burned them in opposition to the preservation of the Episcopalian Church of England because they wanted a fully Presbyterian Britain and thereby "a complete union of the kingdoms".

(In this article, 'incorporationists' means 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.)

Posted on this site on 3 May 2017. Pic from Pretty Green

With our perceptions coloured by the modern debate surrounding independence and the Union, it is all too easy to project such dynamics into Scottish politics of past centuries. As today's nationalists and unionists look to legitimise their positions by appealing to ideological forefathers in the nation's past, the debate surrounding the Union of 1707 is often reduced in modern understanding to the two polar opposites of incorporating union and independence; a 'corrupt Anglicising elite' against the dissenting voices of 'proud, patriotic Scots'.

However, modern notions of independence, nationhood and sovereignty rarely transfer well into the political landscape of the early Eighteenth Century!

While the historic legitimacy of modern unionism may find vindication in the writings of Scotsmen such as William Seton, George Mackenzie and John Clerk, the same cannot be said for those who champion independence.

Indeed, very few of those who opposed the incorporating union of 1707 proposed anything resembling independence. On the contrary, they were some of the most imaginative and idealistic unionists, suggesting countless forms of dynastic, federal and confederal arrangements. As the historian Colin Kidd observes:

"Whereas today's historians – nationalist historians in particular – tend to misread the Union debates as a contest between nationalists and unionists, it will become clear that the struggle was largely one between incorporating unionists who wished to see Scotland and England united under a single parliament, and confederal unionists who wished to see a looser arrangement, with separate Scottish and English legislatures." [1]

Despite the tendency of most historians to view the debates surrounding 1707 as being conducted between pro-unionists and anti-unionists, Kidd notes that "the Union debates of 1698-1707, for one reason or another, largely took the form of an intra-unionist conversation." [2]

Indeed, even the most outspoken critics of the Union of 1707 were unanimous in advocating for at least some form of union. Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun, now elevated to the status of nationalist icon, was one such figure – his irrepressible idealism looked to preserve Scottish autonomy within British statehood. This was itself just a small part of his almost utopian vision for a reformed Europe comprised of small, self-governing city states.

Similarly, James Hodges and George Ridpath were two of the most prominent producers of anti-Union tracts, and yet their own writings argued for a form of federal union which in many respects bears a remarkable resemblance to the modern system of devolution.

Beyond the views of these individuals, popular anti-Union opinion was also rarely anti-union in the wider sense.

The two main focal points of anti-Union protests were Jacobitism and radical Presbyterianism – themselves sworn enemies – and each had their own vision of union, albeit in drastically different forms.

As these are explored below, it will become clear that modern notions of independence will find little precedent in this particular portion of Scotland's history. What will be revealed, however, are some wildly divergent proposals for just how Scotland ought to relate to its southern neighbour as a fellow partner in union.

Andrew Fletcher has become something of a nationalist icon in recent times; his opposition to the Union of 1707 naturally earns him the adoration of modern proponents of independence. But although Fletcher opposed the Union of 1707, at other times he gave enthusiastic support to alternative union arrangements.

In both the first and the last works commonly attributed to Fletcher – these being 'A Letter to a Member of the Convention of States in Scotland' (1689) and 'State of the Controversy betwixt United and Separate Parliaments' (1706) – he displays varying shades of unionist thought. [3]

Indeed, historian John Robertson traces three distinct strands of unionist thought which developed throughout Fletcher's political career, and ultimately progressed away from the narrow confines of looking to protect Scottish interests within Britain, to calls for a much more dramatic reordering of the European political landscape. [4]

An early, somewhat embryonic form of Fletcher's unionism can be found in his 'Discourse of Government with relation to Militias', penned in 1698. In this work, we can also catch a glimpse of Fletcher's broad and historic approach towards politics. His argument centres around his opposition to the creation of a standing army in Scotland – a development which he notes had already occurred on the continent.

Throughout much of Europe, the transition from feudal military obligation to more permanent professional forces had taken the sword from the hands of the people and granted it to the prince – a dangerous development as far as political liberty was concerned.

In observing that Britain's island geography had so far protected it from such a turn of events, Fletcher goes on to propose the creation of a British militia to be placed under the command of the monarch. [5]

The same year that this tract was penned, Fletcher also gave his support to the Scottish parliament's attempts to convince King William to join Scotland and England together in an incorporating union – it appears that Fletcher was happy to endorse union so long as it was on Scotland's terms. [6]

The second stage in Fletcher's unionist development can be seen in a series of speeches he made in the Scottish parliament in 1703. The major theme in these was his concern to provide a more workable model than the existing one of multiple kingship, rooted in the Union of the Crowns of 1603.

Fletcher argued for a set of 'limitations' to be enacted in order to limit the power of the monarch in Scotland. [7] The removal of the royal court to London had shifted the centre of political gravity away from Edinburgh, and Scotland's increasingly bare-boned political infrastructure had allowed the kingdom to be dominated by overbearing monarchs. Fletcher's cries for institutional limitations on royal power resonated with the Scottish parliament, and were achieved at least in part through the Act of Security in 1704.

The issue of preserving Scottish interests within a framework of British governance has continued to be a preoccupation of Scottish unionists throughout the centuries.

The last phase in Fletcher's unionist development is by far the most intriguing, and is placed against the backdrop of the union debates leading up to 1707. At a time when anti-Union opinion was riddled with petty factionalism and religious fanaticism, Fletcher was one of very few figures to offer a substantial alternative to incorporation.

If Belhaven's 'Mother Caledonia' speech typified the tendency of anti-Unionists towards impassioned rhetoric over political substance, Fletcher cannot be tarred with such a brush. [8]

Clearly indulging himself in his love for the classical republicanism of antiquity, Fletcher proposed a dramatic reshaping of the entire European political landscape. The continent was to be re-divided into ten geographically-consolidated union states, themselves each composed of around ten to twelve sub-states based around urban centres, which would exercise a large degree of self-governance. The British Isles were to form one of these ten European regions, while Scotland itself would cease to exist as a national unit, instead being governed by two semi-independent city-states based around Stirling and Inverness. [9]

In this final phase in Fletcher's unionist development, he breaks through the narrow confines of nationalism, stating that he intends to "to render, not only my own country, but all mankind as happy as the imperfections of human nature will admit." [10]

While some historians dismiss it as little more than a utopian fantasy, there are grounds to believe otherwise – Fletcher's vision provides a very particular critique of 'De Monarchia Hispanica', a publication aimed to justify the concept of universal monarchy based on brute conquest and divine right kingship, [11] Fletcher also made very clear allusions to the thought of well-established political theorists such as Hugo Grotius and Samuel Pufendorf. His particular brand of unionism was undeniably idealistic, but it was not bereft of substance either.

Fletcher was far from typical of anti-Union opinion; more mainstream examples of such thinking can be found in two particularly prominent writers of anti-Union tracts: James Hodges and George Ridpath.

Both men in fact lived in London at the time that they penned the majority of their anti-Union works. Apparently, the disproportionate support that anti-Union opinion enjoys amongst expatriates is not purely a modern phenomenon!

Yet despite their opposition to the Union of 1707, throughout their writings both men made the case for what could be considered federal, or at least certainly confederal forms of union.

James Hodges' main contribution to the union debate was 'The rights and interests of the two British monarchies', a series which was published in several parts between 1703 and 1706.

Like Fletcher, he looked to the continent for inspiration, and singled out the "well ordered federal conjunctions" of the Dutch United Provinces and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth as two examples of how a successful union between two or more kingdoms might be enacted. [12]

In doing so, he proposed a system where multiple layers of governance would be spread across the British and local levels, as well as at the level of the component kingdoms. His distinction between "interfering interests" and "unitable interests" would help determine which issues would best be addressed at the British level, and those which would be better dealt with by the regional parliaments for Scotland and England.

These proposals bear many similarities to our current system of devolution. Although Hodges expected the regional parliaments to enjoy significant legislative autonomy, he argued that a British parliament should have authority on matters such as national security, trade policy and the royal succession. [13]

George Ridpath, a fellow dissenting voice of Hodges, proposed a similar federal arrangement as an alternative to incorporation.

Like Hodges, he looked to the union states of Europe to provide solutions to Scotland's predicament – the loose confederal association of the Swiss Cantons under the Helvetic League provided for Ridpath a proven and enduring model for Anglo-Scottish union; far preferable in his mind to the prospect of incorporation. [14]

In his 'Considerations upon the union of the two kingdoms' published in 1706, he argued for the creation of a single British parliament with the retention of a separate Scottish legislative assembly based in Edinburgh. Echoing Hodges distinction between "interfering interests" and "unitable interests", Ridpath suggested that this Scottish parliament should have authority to deal with matters particular to Scotland – most notably the kingdom's distinct legal institutions and, most significantly, its independent Kirk. [15]

This attempt to negotiate a loose union arrangement was typical of all of the most prominent opponents of the Union of 1707.

Much is made by nationalist historians of the anti-Union protest which occurred in Scotland as the Articles of Union were discussed in parliament.

The two most notable groups to organise serious anti-Union activity, and who at times attempted even to stage a revolution against the measure, were the Jacobites on the one hand, and hardline Presbyterians on the other.

Both groups had long been sworn enemies; indeed, they were more fiercely opposed to each other than they were to the Union itself.

But even in opposing the Union of 1707, the viewpoints they espoused show that both groups were in their own way pro-union; perhaps, under the right circumstances, even pro-incorporation. These anti-Union protestors were very much committed to the idea of Britain, but only one that would be created on their own terms.

The focal point of the Jacobite cause was the restoration of the Stuart monarchy and the undoing of the Glorious Revolution of 1688.

These dynastic loyalties are central to understanding Jacobite opposition to the Union of 1707. Hopes of a Stuart restoration hinged upon the preservation of the Scottish crown. This may well have happily coincided with genuine patriotic sentiment, but the Jacobites remained loyal to the Stuart vision of Britannic monarchy.

Indeed, it was the Stuart kings who had first made Anglo-Scottish union a serious policy - James VI had brought the issue before the parliaments of Scotland and England shortly after his succession to the English throne in 1603, while Charles II had fostered union negotiations as recently as 1670.

Long after the Union of 1707, Britannic monarchy lay at the heart of Jacobitism – the Jacobites may have suffered their final defeat on the Highland moors of Culloden, but only after an unsuccessful march south as far as Derby in an attempt to seize the London throne. Those Jacobites who opposed the Union of 1707 held dearly to this vision of Anglo-Scottish dynastic union.

The Presbyterian dissidents had their own drastically different concept of union, and a much fuller one at that.

Colin Kidd notes that "many anti-Unionist Scots Presbyterians were more deeply committed to the ideal of Anglo-Scottish union than the incorporationists themselves" – a fact sadly lost on nationalist historians. [16]

The most notorious group of dissenting Presbyterians were the Cameronians, stalwart defenders of both the National Covenant of 1638 and the Solemn League and Covenant of 1643. It was these Cameronians who famously burned the Articles of Union at Dumfries; their armed men standing in columns in a show of military discipline and unyielding defiance.

Yet their chief objection to the Union of 1707 was its institutional preservation of the Episcopalian Church of England. The Cameronians had sworn by the covenants to create a Presbyterian Britain under a covenanted king, and any union agreement which reneged on this principle was regarded as a betrayal.

Indeed, the very covenants themselves demanded an adherence to the principles of ecclesiastical and political union. The 1643 Solemn League and Covenant stated that:

"The Assembly having recommended unto a Committee appointed by them to join with the Committee of the Honourable Convention of Estates, and the Commissioners of the Honourable Houses of the Parliament of England, for bringing the kingdoms to a more near conjunction and union… that they may remain conjoined in a firm peace and union to all posterity..."

Another Covenanting document in the form of the Engagement of 1648 had been even more explicit in its call for a total, incorporating union:

"His Majesty, according to the intention of his father, shall endeavour a complete union of the kingdoms, so as they may be one under His Majesty and his posterity..."

There can be no doubt then that although these radical Presbyterians were anti-Union, they were very much staunch unionists, and certainly not proto-nationalists.

Their distinctly Scottish, Presbyterian brand of unionism is sadly unappreciated by Scottish society today. It did, however, take root in the unionist tradition of the Ulster-Scots just a short distance across the sea – the iconic image of Edward Carson signing the Ulster Covenant in 1912 is heavily indebted to this tradition, and the Ulster Covenant itself was formally titled 'Ulster's Solemn League and Covenant'.

Certainly, when it came to the Union of 1707, it is clear that rather than independence, alternative models of union provided the chief inspiration for voices of opposition in Scotland.

From the dynastic union of the Jacobites, to the covenanted Presbyterian Britain of the Covenanters, to the federal unions of Hodges and Ridpath, to the highly idealistic unionism of Fletcher of Saltoun, unionist thought was ubiquitous, even amongst the most staunch opponents of the Union.

Indeed, on the eve of Union in 1707, unionism in Scotland was widespread and diverse. We must remember the native credentials which it has in Scottish history. Unionism, in all its flavours, was often of a very Scottish character – the challenge for unionists in Scotland today must be to recapture this spirit.

[1] Kidd, C., Union and Unionisms, Political Thought in Scotland, 1500-2000, (Cambridge University Press, 2008), pp.67-68.
[2] Ibid
[3] Robertson, J., 'Andrew Fletcher's Vision of Union' in R. Mason, Scotland and England, 1286-1815, (John Donald Publishers Ltd., 1987), p.203
[4] Ibid, pp.203-4
[5] Ibid, p.203
[6] Kidd, p.70
[7] Robertson, p.206
[8] Ibid, p.212
[9] Ibid, p.214
[10] Ibid, p.215
[11] Ibid, p.218
[12] Kidd, p.73
[13] Ibid, p.69
[14] Ibid, p.72
[15] Ibid, p.70
[16] Ibid, p.74

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
5. John Clerk's History of the Union of Scotland and England
6. Opposition with a Unionist Flavour

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