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!