Britain: The Act of Union 1707

This year marks the 300th anniversary of The Act of Union between Scotland and England. This was accompanied by the merger of the parliaments into one Westminster Parliament. The separate Kingdoms of England and Scotland had shared a monarch since the "Union of the Crowns" in 1603, but retained separate parliaments.

The ruling elites of the respective countries were suspicious rivals. The English aristocracy feared the Scots might align themselves with England's enemies, most notably the French. This mutual distrust led to at least 300 years of bloody conflict between the English and Scots prior to the Treaty, going as far back as Edward I, "The Hammer of the Scots".

The formation of nation states and a national consciousness really emerged with the development of capitalism, with its national economy and market and the creation of a powerful mercantile class. This was particularly advanced in England and the Dutch republic. The English Crown was forced to side with the rising bourgeoisie as a counter-weight to the vested interests of the aristocracy. The English bourgeoisie were strongly Protestant, which suited their class outlook, as R.H. Tawney describes in this book 'Religion and the Rise of Capitalism'. Towards the end of the 16th century, the English establishment became anxious to end the possibility of any restoration of the French-backed Stuart monarchy which had been overthrown but continued to "plot" against the English monarchy.

The French prince

The Stuarts ruled Scotland for 300 years in total. In 1548 Mary Queen of Scots (Stuart) travelled to France to marry Danphin, the French prince. This was an arrangement that would ensure a Catholic alliance against England. But the Danphin died and Mary returned to Scotland. During this period, Scotland was in the throes of the Reformation, social unrest and an increasing Catholic-Protestant divide. The ruling caste embarked on a course of compromise and it was decided Mary would marry a Protestant, Lord Darnley. The Catholic Stuart line was overthrown, but Mary bore Darnley a son, James, who would become King James VI of Scotland and James I of England.

James was baptised in the Catholic faith, which threatened the Protestant-ascendancy in England and continued the threat of a French - Scottish accord. In the end the Stuart dynasty was overthrown by Cromwell's English bourgeois revolution, who crushed the rebellious Scots in 1651. Following the Restoration, the English Establishment carried out their 'Glorious Revolution' and invited William of Orange to become King, and James and his army were routed at the Battle of the Boyne two years later.

Privileged position

The nobility in Scotland jealously guarded their privileged position and they enjoyed exclusive autonomy in the religious and legal processes. With the English ruling class engaged in war with France and others over colonies, there arose the need to eliminate the real threat from the Stuarts and their French link. This provided the impetus behind the Act of Union in 1707.

Scotland was a small player in the grand scheme of things. In fact the small Scottish bourgeoisie were not enthusiastic for a union. Most of the money in Scotland was foreign and the Scottish ruling class could only look on jealously as their counterparts in England availed themselves of the plenum of riches in other continents.

Arguments from the anti-Treaty side claimed the union would have an adverse affect on production of linen, wool and other manufactured goods. Free trade would destroy Scotland, they claimed. Many who enjoyed the privileges and advantages provided by the feudal society were opposed on the grounds that their status would be lost.

To facilitate the move to a new order and to implement the required plans, sudden and sharp measures were called for. In return for access to the lucrative super-exploitation and slave-trade in the colonies "owned" by the English aristocracy, the Scottish nobility were encouraged to form a union of parliaments. The Scots nobles would continue to enjoy control of their own judiciary, their own banking institutions, heritable titles, and an exemption from civil court actions for debts. Their number in the unified parliament was also to be excessive in relation to their larger neighbour, England, giving them 45 MP's in the Westminster Parliament as well as 16 Lords. All this and the bonus of enjoying the privilege of free passage in shipping lanes and equal access to the English colonies. The proposals met with resistance by the population who envisaged a loss of identity and exploitation by the English. It is often claimed that the nobility of Scotland were quislings who sold-out and accepted bribes. Scotland's most famous poet, Rabbie Burns wrote, "We're bought and sold for English gold - such a parcel of rogues in a nation..."

Bribery did play a part but the money was not substantial, and anyway, the Scottish aristocracy was not averse to bribes in other matters.  Earlier threats by England to "treat Scots as aliens" or even invade were serious. In reality, the removal of trade tariffs and the advantage of ravaging the colonised continents to allow the ruthless exploitation of resources and territory together with the retention of important institutions was the determining factor. In January 1707, the Scottish parliament voted 110-67 to ratify The Treaty of Union. In the article of the Treaty pertaining to freedom of trade and movement, the parliament voted 156-19, reinforcing the argument that self-interest was the main motivation of the pro-unionists.  To appease the growing civil unrest - much of it whipped up by Presbyterian priests who feared a reintroduction of imposed Bishops, a loss of democracy in the church and its Anglicisation - the Scottish Parliament passed an act, "Securing the Protestant Religion and Presbyterian Church Government".

On May 1st 1707, the Treaty of Union became enshrined in law by an Act of Parliament. Despite the on-going Jacobite Rebellions led by Bonny Prince Charlie, they were eventually defeated at Culloden Moor, signifying the completion of the bourgeois revolution and the consolidation of the union.