Scotland and England – a short history

In my last blog I wrote about the implications of the recent Scottish Independence Referendum for the future of the United Kingdom. Since then I’ve received several e-mails and comments regarding Scotland’s relationship with England (and whether the recent Independence campaign has any family relationship to the spirit that led what were then the American Colonies to take steps towards independence some 240 years ago, give or take a decade).

The relationship between Scotland and England has been complex for as long as records have existed. England has always been the bigger and more powerful country, and back in medieval times she made a few attempts to assimilate her neighbour, some of which almost succeeded while others backfired quite dramatically. In particular, the Scots took such umbrage at Edward I (a sort of English Ghengis Khan) that in 1295 they formed a long-lasting alliance with England’s traditional enemy, France. Yet there were also periods of peace between England and Scotland – through most of the 13th century, for example, despite the outbreak of hostilities in the 1290s.

Troubled history notwithstanding, the Union of Parliaments in 1707 wasn’t an act of assimilation, but nor was it a marriage of equals. Scotland’s economy had virtually collapsed in the 1690s because of a failed colonial gamble – the “Darien Disaster” – and England more or less forced the Union by offering to pay off the debt. Scotland did pretty well out of the deal but there was a legacy of resentment, simmering under a veneer of contentment, which manifested itself mostly on the sports field – until around forty years ago.

The roots of the recent independence campaign lay in the discovery of oil reserves in the North Sea during the 1970s, mostly between the coasts of Scotland and Norway. Norway claimed her half and the UK claimed the rest – but some Scots said “Hang on, this oil lies under Scottish waters”, and the Scottish National Party suddenly became a political force with the slogan “It’s Scotland’s Oil”. In the 1976 general election, the SNP returned seven MPs to Westminster – such a shock to the establishment that serious plans for a devolved Scottish Assembly (a regional parliament) were drawn up. These were debated in Westminster in 1979 and were defeated, mostly thanks to the efforts of a Scottish Conservative called Alex Fletcher and a female devil incarnate called Margaret Thatcher.

Did those silly people imagine the Scots would be pacified by a parliamentary debate in London?

When Tony Blair’s Labour Party won a landslide majority in the 1997 general election, he and his colleagues set up a devolved Scottish Assembly in Edinburgh to keep the Scots quiet; it quickly came to be called the ‘Scottish Parliament’. Blair arranged for members of this Assembly/Parliament to be elected on a proportional representation basis, with the explicit intention of preventing the SNP from ever gaining an overall majority. (Scottish politics has been Labour-dominated for a hundred years.) He’d reckoned without a gifted SNP leader called Alex Salmond.

Guess what? By 2006, the SNP had more members in the Scottish Parliament than any other single party so they formed a minority government with Salmond as First Minister. In 2010, on the promise of an Independence Referendum, the SNP was returned with an overall majority. (And they have a few MPs in Westminster, too, to stir things up when necessary.) In 2012, the SNP published its independence manifesto and the debate began…

No reasonable person looking at the history of the past forty years, or the past thousand years, would conclude “Right, that’s settled, argument over”. But of course, politics is seldom dominated by reasonable people.

On the matter of the “rebel colonial spirit”, incidentally, my sympathies have always been with the signatories of the American Declaration of Independence (though I’m ambivalent about present-day Scottish independence). What Britain did in the 1770s was a betrayal of the principles held by one of the politicians I most admire, the elder William Pitt. Pitt had envisaged the nascent British Empire as an empire of freedom, in which by adhering to certain values – those enshrined in the Declaration, more or less – people throughout the world would govern themselves in democratic harmony, free from oppression by any other nation or government. The British government’s need for money to finance wars in Europe during the third quarter of the century led to the imposition of gratuitous taxes throughout the colonies, and gratuitous taxes are a pretty obvious form of oppression. I’d have rebelled, and so would William Pitt!


  • Given my knowledge of Scotland (to this point) has been from the play ‘Macbeth’, the musical ‘Brigadoon’, the movie ‘Braveheart’, and of course the novel ‘Perilaus’, thanks for a tidbit of what else has been going on there!

    Oil, hey? Figures. I kinda wish neither oil nor guns had ever been discovered/invented… (not that millions hadn’t suffered and died in earlier times for just as senseless reasons…)

    As for a notion of moving toward a society of freedom, in a way (optimistically) we continue to be trying. NATO and the EU are certainly steps in the right direction. Yet it always seems to be two steps forward, one step back… and sometimes one step forward, two back… I don’t think such can ever happen until Western society gets over their individual and collective indomitable egos. The trend the last twenty years (or forty? I may just have been too young (or self-involved!) to notice before that) has been to be… well, self-involved. Instead of, in the words of JFK, “what can I do for my country” (and/or society), we get “what have you done for me lately.” And, realistically, even if the US and the EU and NATO and all of the British Commonwealth nations could come together and create some great, enlightened, and free society–we would still have to deal with the rest of the world that has their own ideas and agendas…

    Bananas! (Or ‘Musk Oxen!’–your choice…)

    As for Scottish independence from England, I suppose I see it like an old married couple. They don’t necessarily want to go their separate ways completely–but they don’t really want to go on living in the same house either… maybe take separate flats across town from one another, but meet for lunch on Thursdays or the occasional Saturday night out…

    • Mark Henderson

      I like your old-married-couple analogy, Mishka; I suspect it isn’t far from the truth!

      As for the self-absorbed character of the West, it seems to me to have originated in the greed-is-good culture of the 1980s. The EU (and perhaps also NATO, within its own remit) is supposed to encapsulate the nobler western values – those of democracy, mor or less – but one wonders whether it’s also become greedocentric… Next blog, maybe!

  • Mark Henderson

    Yes, your observations are shrewd. The Tories would in a sense have benefited from Scottish independence, as you remark, though one of the core values of the Conservative Party is the integrity of the Union – so in that sense there’s a conflict between the moral and the practical. Labour would certainly have lost out, and they might still do so in the aftermath of the debate: the call for “English votes for English policies” will be impossible to resist, and the exclusion of Scottish votes in the House from matters pertaining only to England would be a serious problem for any future Labour government – though as I’ve remarked elsewhere, there are difficulties with the grey areas in “English votes for English policies”. In terms of political principle, the LibDems want a Federal United Kingdom, i.e. significant measures of self-government in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and different parts of England (north, south, Cornwall…) without outright independence. Ironically, considering the low political ebb of the LibDems, this is the policy that’s likely to be realised in the long term!

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