The Union of 1707 and the art of the deal

For Scotland, Britain was built upon a bargain. Renewing that bargain needs England to engage

Scottish exemplification of the Treaty of Union. Public domain: sourced from Wikimedia Commons

One way or another, devolution as an idea and a reality has a long history in the United Kingdom. The issue of Irish Home Rule pushed the UK’s constitutional norms to its limit (and far beyond in Ireland). Devolution had an unhappy 50-year history in Northern Ireland until 1972. Calls for a Scottish legislature surfaced many times before one was finally created.

Nonetheless, Scottish (and Welsh) devolution in 1999 was a radical act with radical implications. Some who wish to keep the UK together regret it, at least within Great Britain. The devo-sceptics often paint it as an ahistorical rupture. But the historical backdrop to devolution is far from the most important sense in which it reflects a unionist tradition. And their objections miss both the need for a democratic expression of Scottish distinctiveness and two of the hardest challenges the Union faces now.

Britain was built upon a bargain. Scottish politicians secured Scotland’s distinctiveness in religion, law and administration, along with free trade throughout the new kingdom and its colonies. It was an incorporating union, with one parliament at Westminster. But it was altogether unlike the Tudor Laws in Wales Acts. The legislation of 1536 and 1543 incorporated Wales into the Kingdom of England. The Union of 1707 created a composite state, with a composite nation grafted on over time. Britain in its modern sense was forged in an Anglo-Scottish crucible.

That fact has expressed itself in different ways at different times. In the eighteenth century, the Church of Scotland, the Convention of Royal Burghs and local elites played their parts. The old Scottish Office was set up as far back as 1885 and expanded as the years went by. The Church of Scotland Act 1921 effected a compromise between an anti-Erastian Kirk and a sovereign Parliament. The UK never really had one National Health Service. The Tories stood as Unionists in Scotland until 1965. (They fought elections in the 1950s pledging to protect Scottish distinctiveness against socialist centralisation.)

Legislative devolution is different, because it creates an autonomous centre of political power. But it’s still in a long line of accommodations between the British state and the Scottish nation. It’s also a balance to English preponderance within the Union. It isn’t different because British politicians made a terrible mistake. It’s different because it’s a response for a democratic rather than an oligarchic age.

I doubt Britain could ever have avoided giving Scottish distinctiveness democratic expression. (And I don’t think it should. Devolution made good democratic sense.) But two consequences are, in my view, particularly underappreciated.

First, unlike previous measures, devolution does nothing to make how the British state itself operates more appealing to Scots. It only reduces the scope of its activities. But despite the role of Scottish MPs, British politics became less Scottish over time. Devolving more powers often made sense in policy terms. But it also took up all the political space marked ‘reducing Scottish discontent’.

UK governments show little interest in recognising a devolved role at the centre. The Welsh Government’s call for a UK Council of Ministers falls on deaf ears. They show no sign of, say, thinking creatively about our second chamber. (Why, unlike almost any other state with a territorial challenge, don’t we even discuss some extra seats for the smaller nations in a reformed Lords?) And the current UK Government seems determined to undermine the conventions on which devolution rests.

Second, as a new political system within the UK, devolution means politicians — and political noise. It has made the balancing act on which the Union of 1707 relies conspicuous outwith Scotland. That hasn’t been the case most of the time. But whether devolution is ‘fair to England’ is now a live question, with major consequences.

A century before the Union of the Parliaments, James VI’s Scottish courtiers attracted the ire of some English MPs. The later spasm of Scotophobia surrounding Great Britain’s first Scottish Prime Minister is well-known. ‘Into our places, states, and beds they creep/They’ve sense to get, what we want sense to keep’ was only its most famous expectoration. But that kind of thing declined as the Union bedded in. And England mostly paid little attention to how Westminster acknowledged Scotland’s distinctiveness. That has clearly changed.

Anyway, reforming a democratic UK so the devolved nations feel they have more of a stake needs proper consent in England. As a result, tackling the first problem means facing the second head-on. And the view that fairness lies in symmetry — embodied in ‘English votes for English laws’ — will crash headlong into the view that the UK needs to balance England’s size.

Neither view is objectively wrong. But taken to their logical conclusion, the two are incompatible. Many in Scotland take too little account of the fact that the rest of the UK is not a mere backdrop for Scotland’s debate. But most people in England — understandably, as almost no one has suggested otherwise — don’t grasp that the debate involves them too.

One way to look at the American Revolution is to say the British and their colonists were each confronted by the other’s real view of their relationship. The British idea of parliamentary sovereignty over the Empire and the colonial view of their legislatures’ rights within it had diverged. And pitted against each other, they proved incompatible.

There is a risk of something similar nearer home. But I don’t believe the gap between English and Scottish understandings of the state we share can hold forever, unarticulated and unaddressed, in a democratic era. Any modern Union bargain for Scotland will have to combine a high degree of self-rule with a fair degree of shared rule. Those are core features of federalism, whether the UK can ever be remade into a federation or not.

I don’t know whether the people of England would agree to anything like that or what they might want in return. But in the long run, the survival of the Anglo-Scottish bargain may depend upon their answer.

Liberal-minded social democrat seeks readers.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store