Scotland 1707-1914: The Union adjusts and consolidates

Scotland 1707-1914: The Union adjusts and consolidates

by Alan Sked
article from Monday 21, September, 2020

1707 WAS NOT the first time that history suggested the merging of Scotland and England. After the death of Alexander III of Scotland in 1286, it was planned that his three-year-old grand-daughter and heir, Margaret, the daughter of King Eric II of Norway, would marry the heir to the English throne, Edward of Caernarvon, the future Edward II. A marriage contract was drawn up and ratified as the Treaty of Birgham, which seems to have been drafted by Scots since it protected both a separate Scottish identity and Scottish special interests. Unfortunately the ‘Maid of Norway’ died during her voyage to Scotland in 1290. Just think of all the bloodshed and ill-will we might have been spared had tiny Queen Margaret survived. 

As it was, the Union of England with Scotland did not happen until centuries later in 1707. It soon brought huge gains for Scots, the only losers being the Jacobites and those Highland clans who supported them. Romantics and nationalists today decry the treatment of the Highlands (the end of the clan chief system, the outlawing of the tartan, the military occupation) after the Forty-Five yet they blind themselves to the fact the clans involved had needlessly but deliberately instigated a civil war aimed at overthrowing the established government and dynasty against the wishes of the overwhelming majority of the Scottish people. 

As has been stated, the vast majority of Scots profited from the Union fairly quickly, which is what they had been expecting. To quote one writer: “The Treaty   of Union was the only way that Scots of the time could see of guaranteeing the future of Scotland, given current notions of progress. Furthermore, if union had not gone through, there was a possibility of civil war, let alone war with England.” There was also the certainty of national impoverishment and hunger. The same author (Keith Webb) adds: “Further, the mildness of Cromwell’s regime some fifty years earlier had remained in the popular mind as well as some of the trade benefits flowing from this. A not so distant example of full union existed.” 

The benefits of Union were soon to be seen. Between 1728 and 1760 linen output increased fivefold; Glasgow owned 67 ships in 1735 but 386 in 1776; tobacco imports increased tenfold between 1724 and 1771; while between 1723 and 1800 the number of animals sold increased threefold and average weight per animal doubled. Later on, between 1845 and 1865 Scotland was producing about one quarter of Britain’s pig-iron; by 1910 one third of all Britain’s steel ships were built on the Clyde; while by the turn of the century the industrial output of Scotland was one-seventh of that of England and Wales combined. Nor was it just the owners and managers who were profiting from all this industrial progress.  In 1906 the wages paid in many Scottish industries were considerably higher than those paid in England: shipbuilding, carpets, baking and confectionary, building, milling and the boot and shoe industry were all examples of this and the money earned by women was higher in nearly all industries. In 1900 the taxable receipts for Scotland as a percentage of the United Kingdom total was 11.9 per cent, a figure considerably in excess of the proportion of the United Kingdom population that was Scottish. Meanwhile, Adam Smith and David Hume and other writers of the Scottish Enlightenment (which some revisionist historians now argue continued into the nineteenth century) had changed the way in which Western thought evolved. 

None of this meant of course that the Scottish identity of Scots disappeared. The Union was never meant to bring that about. After all, the essential cultural foundations of Scotland had been preserved – the Kirk, the educational system and the legal system. And if there was no longer a Scottish ruling dynasty, Queen Victoria’s obvious love for the Highlands endeared her to her Scottish subjects. Throughout the whole history of the Union, moreover, Scots were to be found occupying all the highest political posts in the land. Scottish prime ministers before the rise of Scottish nationalism included the Earl of Bute, William Gladstone (pictured), Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, Ramsay MacDonald and Sir Alec Douglas Home. Scots were always aware that Scotland played an important part in the British political system and regularly elected MPs from the major British political parties to represent them in Parliament. They could take pride in their British identity but they remained Scots.  

The outside world, given the huge Scottish diaspora across the globe, also saw Scots as a unique species (rather like the Jews), with characteristics such as steadiness, reliability and sound judgement based on a formidable range of skills such as excellence in medicine, science, engineering, banking, soldiering, teaching, preaching and philosophising – they were a strange mixture of Presbyterian reserve and self-confidence, as husband and wife social historians the Checklands once put it. And this ideal type, they believed was reinforced by the biographies of those great Scottish names from the Regency and Victorian periods – Sir Walter Scott, Dr. Thomas Chalmers, James Mill, Thomas Carlyle, David Livingstone, and Robert Louis Stevenson. 

Domestically, on the other hand, Scots were often split over religion, the effects of industrialisation, and between Highlanders and Lowlanders. Yet despite economic and social as well as religious and political differences, none of these matters generated any demand for independence. This was occasionally raised by extreme radical movements as during the French Revolution but pamphlets of the Friends of the People, for example, which began in Scotland in 1792, wrote of ‘Britons’ rather than ‘Scots’. Chartism, it is true, had a following in Scotland, but its main aim was the reform of the British Parliament, where, it should be noted, Scottish MPs between 1707 and 1850 voted as a bloc on only three occasions. Meanwhile the post of Scottish Secretary had been abolished in 1746. A National Association was created in 1853 but suffered from the stigma of being lumped with the Irish, of failing to organise any grass-roots organisation and was immediately overshadowed by the outbreak of war in the Crimea. Nationalism in nineteenth century Scotland was in fact often vicarious – offering support to Lajos Kossuth and Guiseppe Mazzini. It held little attraction for the vast majority of the Scottish population. 

Gladstone’s conversion to Irish Home Rule, on the other hand, changed matters. What might be good for the Irish might also be good for the Scots and even the Welsh. Gladstone’s Liberal Party, moreover, was dominant in Scotland and Scottish Liberal MPs might now take up the cause of Home Rule for Scotland. The Conservatives, of course, were adamantly opposed. Balfour said: “We object to Home Rule whether it begins with Ireland and ends in Wales or begins with Wales and ends in Ireland.” Derby said: “No Scotsman, except a handful of Celtic enthusiasts in the Highlands wants a separate parliament for Scotland.”       

Ideas about Scottish Home Rule, however, were now bound to emerge ranging from the establishment of a separate Scottish Grand Committee to allow Scottish MPs to discuss Scottish legislation to plans for a federal Britain. Scottish independence, however, was seen as utter lunacy. In any case, between 1889 and 1914, Home Rule in various forms was debated fifteen times in Parliament and four bills were introduced. In every case after 1893 a majority of Scottish MPs voted in favour. And in 1913 a Home Rule Bill passed its second reading. 45 Scottish MPs voted in favour, 8 against. It was suspended when the First World War broke out. 

Before about 1912, however, Home Rule was never taken seriously by Parliament. The number of people pushing the cause was small. In Parliament home rule debates were rarely attended by more than half of MPs and on several occasions the House was counted out there being insufficient MPs to continue debate. The Liberals after about 1912 grew more serious about the subject. They had taken over the Scottish Home Rule Association and the Young Scots Society had become a Liberal Party ginger group. Had it not been for the First World War Scotland may well have achieved Home Rule in 1914. 

Meanwhile, the number of Scottish MPs had been increased to 72 in 1885, the Scottish Secretaryship had been restored that same year, the Goschen Formula regulating Scotland’s financial contribution to the UK was established in 1888, while what became known as the Scottish Grand Committee was established in 1907.  The nature of the Union changed then before 1914 but only a little. There were mostly minor constitutional adjustments rather late in the day to deal with the increasing pressure of parliamentary and government business. 

The real mystery is the late emergence of Home Rule as a Liberal policy – clearly as a result of the Irish Question – and its success in gaining parliamentary support in 1913. How much support did it have among the Scottish population? 

Clearly it in no way undermined support for the Union which was offering obvious benefits. And separatists were regarded as a lunatic fringe. The problem for supporters of Home Rule was that the First World War not only killed off their bill. It also killed off the Liberal Party as a party of government. After 1918 the government of Britain would be dominated by the Conservative Party and the Tories simply had no time for Home Rule, which would have to wait for Tony Blair many decades later. The constitutional status quo outside Ireland remained unchallenged. 

This is the third part of a series, If you missed it Part ONE can be found here and Part TWO here.  

Alan Sked was educated at Allan Glen's School in Glasgow, before going on to study Modern and Medieval History at the University of Glasgow, followed by a DPhil in Politics at Merton College, Oxford. Sked taught at the London School of Economics where he became a leading authority on the history of the Hapsburg Empire, also teaching US and modern intellectual history and the history of sex, race and slavery. Alan Sked is now Emeritus Professor of International History at the London School of Economics.

Portrait of William Ewart Gladstone (1809-1898) painted by John Everett Millais (1826-1896) in the collection of Christ Church College, University of Oxford, via ARC Museum.

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