Scotland’s Unhappy 300th

9 January 2007

Scotland’s Unhappy 300th

 By Gwynne Dyer

A forthcoming television documentary to mark the 300th anniversary of Scotland’s union with England is called “A Chip on Each Shoulder,” which pretty much sums up the attitude of the Scots towards England. Britain will get a Scotsman as prime minister when Gordon Brown takes over from Tony Blair this spring, but when Scotland votes in May for its own devolved parliament, there is a good chance that the separatists of the Scottish National Party will win the most seats.

It won’t necessarily mean the break-up of Britain. Even if the SNP comes in first, it would certainly have to form a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats. And even if almost half the people in Scotland vote for the SNP, it doesn’t mean that they all want independence: voting for the SNP is the only practical way to get rid of the current Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition, which has long outworn its welcome. Still, it would be an odd way to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the union.

It was on 16 January, 1707 that the Scottish parliament passed the Act of Union and put an end to itself, but the union with England wasn’t popular then either. The two countries had shared a king ever since James VI of Scotland succeeded the childless Queen Elizabeth as James I of England in 1603. In the following year he started calling himself “King of Great Britain,” resurrecting the old Latin name for the island, but the two countries stayed separate for another century.

Scotland’s reluctance was understandable, since it has always only had about a tenth of England’s population. It had its own history, its own laws, its own version of the Protestant faith (Presbyterianism), and no desire to be swamped by the richer and more numerous English. It could only be bribed into voting for union after financial disaster befell a large part of the Scottish bourgeoisie and gentry at the start of the 18th century.

Jealous of England’s growing overseas empire, the Scottish elite had persuaded themselves that Scotland also needed a colony in the New World, and invested heavily in a scheme to create one in Darien (Panama). It failed disastrously, having consumed about a quarter of Scotland’s investment capital, and many of the most influential people in Scotland faced ruin. Whereupon the English parliament offered to make good their losses if Scotland agreed to union — and of course these were precisely the people who dominated the Scottish parliament.

Scotland kept its own legal and educational systems, but what emerged from the negotiations was not a federal state; it was a unitary state with strong Scottish representation in the new “British” parliament in London. Most ordinary Scottish people rejected the union as a sell-out — a mob rioted and held Glasgow for a month — but they literally didn’t have a vote on the matter. And in the long run, the resentment died down, because the Act of Union gave the Scots equal access to the rapidly expanding British empire.

For over two hundred years, most Scots saw the empire as their own and prospered greatly from it, though they always had a chip on their shoulder about the English. Then the empire came to an end, Britain’s power went into relative decline, and Scottish dissatisfaction with the union with England started to grow. The rise of the SNP has been driven not by oppression or exploitation — Scotland gets almost 20 percent more public spending per capita than England — but just by a vague, pervasive sense of grievance.

From P.G.Wodehouse (“It has never been difficult to distinguish between a Scotsman with a grievance and a ray of sunshine”) down to the present, this has given rise to a litany of patronising English jokes about the petulant Scots. (“How can you tell when a plane from Scotland arrives at an English airport? They switch off the engines and the whining doesn’t stop.”) But now, apart from the budget subsidy, there’s no particular reason to Scotland to stay in the United Kingdom.

Most English people don’t care much about that one way or the other, but the Labour Party certainly does, because a parliament elected solely in England would have an almost perpetual Conservative majority. That’s why Tony Blair’s Labour government resurrected Scotland’s own parliament in 1999 after almost 300 years. He “devolved” power over health, education and most other domestic matters in Scotland to the newly created Scottish Executive — but Scotland kept all of its (mostly Labour) MPs in the parliament down in London too.

The idea of devolution was to kill separatism, but it also gave the Scottish Nats a chance to govern Scotland. The SNP has promised a referendum on independence if it wins power this May. It reassures nervous voters that an independent Scotland would still be safely contained within the European Union. It argues that revenues from North Sea oil (most of Britain’s share would end up on Scottish-owned seabed) would make up for the subsidies from English taxpayers. It could win — and then things would get quite exciting for a time.

But the North Sea oil is rapidly running out, and the Scots are a cautious, prudent people, so the excitement is unlikely to end in actual separation. Much Ado About Nothing, you might say.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 5. (“It won’t…union”; and”Jealous…parliament”)

TRANSLATORS NOTE: “Much Ado About Nothing” is the title of a Shakespeare play, but choose whatever phrase feels best.