‘There has been all along something odd in this affair’: The Malt Tax and the 1713 attempt to repeal the Union

300 years ago this month, arguments over the Malt Tax nearly brought the fledgling Union between England and Scotland to a quick end. Dr Robin Eagles tells us more…

Next year the people of Scotland will be offered the opportunity to vote for independence.  Over 300 years ago England and Scotland were formally joined as part of a broader policy of securing the succession to the throne for the House of Hanover. In 1707 there was, of course, no referendum. Although a number of Scots supported it for both political and ideological reasons, unsurprisingly, a significant number of Scots (and English) objected to the decision.

The extent of Scots’ discontent with some of the practical aspects of Union was soon apparent and in the early summer of 1713 there was a serious effort to bring the still infant Union to an end. The catalyst for this was the proposal to extend the Malt Tax to Scotland in a manner that the Scots insisted was an infringement of the terms of the treaty of Union. The 14th article had specified that the Scots would not be subject to tax on malt (important, of course, for whisky production) during the War of Spanish Succession. It was also conceived to be unfair as it was an additional duty that Scotland was well known to be in no condition to bear.

Rumblings over the issue were in evidence in advance of the new session of Parliament in April 1713. John Lorrimer writing to his uncle predicted that both Scots representative peers (there were 16 of these) and Scots MPs (numbering 45) were planning to unite to draw up a representation objecting to the imposition of the tax on Scotland. The representation went unheeded and on 11 May the Commons, deliberating in a committee of the whole house, voted to extend the tax to Scotland. Once again the Scots peers and MPs met to decide how to respond to the crisis. Already, some seem to have concluded that the only way forward was to seize the initiative and withdraw from the Union. According to Lord Balmerino,

‘All our consultations will be but silly stuff except they would unanimously take the resolu[tio]n which every man severally says he wishes – to bring in a bill for dissolution of the Union.’ [Letters of Lord Balmerino to Harry Maule, ed. Clyve Jones].

The result of this meeting at the Blue Post Tavern in the Haymarket, London, was somewhat unclear. The Scots MPs seemed inclined still to work towards securing a modified malt bill, while a number of the Scots lords were more firmly in favour of proceeding towards dissolution of the Union.

During the remainder of May the Commons continued to debate the details of the tax. As the days progressed tensions mounted. The Scots MP George Baillie accused the Whigs, who were in uneasy alliance with the Scots, of dealing ‘basely by us for they either left the house or voted against us.’ [Mellerstain Letters V]. Scottish efforts to impede the passage of the bill were also hampered by absenteeism, with George Baillie complaining that a dozen of his countrymen were absent from the house at the time. Hobbled by unreliable allies and absent colleagues, the Scots witnessed the bill pass the Commons on 22 May without any undertaking to ameliorate the terms.

With the battle in the Commons over, attention turned to the queen and to the House of Lords. During the remainder of May the Scots’ MPs and peers continued to meet regularly to consider their strategy. In their efforts they were again warmly encouraged by a significant body of Whigs and some anti-Union Tories who assured them of their support. The behaviour of the Whigs, who had espoused the Union so strongly, has been dismissed as little more than cynical political manoeuvring. For them it was a welcome opportunity to embarrass the Tory Oxford ministry as well as putting the administration under greater pressure over ratification of the treaty of commerce with the French, part of the Treaty of Utrecht.

On 26 May, following their latest meeting, a deputation of the Scots comprising the duke of Argyll and earl of Mar for the Lords, and George Lockhart and William Cochrane for the Commons, waited on the queen with a remonstrance outlining their grievances. Insisting that they were now a ruined people, the Scots informed the queen that they had no option but to seek the Union’s dissolution. Anne attempted to reason with the party, underscoring the difficulties all her subjects faced as a result of the recently-concluded war, but she refused flatly to countenance their request for the Union to be brought to an end.

Disappointed there, the battle moved to the House of Lords. On 1 June the earl of Seafield rose to his feet to move that a bill be brought in for terminating the Union. He outlined a series of slights that the Scots had endured since 1707, of which the malt tax was the final indignity. The response from the English peers who favoured the Union’s continuance principally underscored its importance in terms of protecting the succession. At this point the coherence of the Scots’ assault broke down as some of their English allies moved in favour of adjourning the debate and suggested that separate legislation should be drafted for protecting the nation. When the House came to divide, the bill for dissolving the Union lost by just 4 votes, and even then only because of the employment of proxies. A few days later the malt bill passed the Lords and was enacted on 10th June.

The failure of the Scots’ rebellion was largely down to their inability to secure the unqualified support of key members of the Whig opposition. For many of these the affair was simply an opportunity to embarrass the administration and when it came to the crunch were found to be absent from the House. Even for those who believed genuinely that something needed to be done to improve the condition of the Scots, several preferred to concentrate on securing an amended version of the malt bill rather than threatening the Union itself. This was perhaps most tellingly demonstrated by the protest against the passage of the malt bill on 8 June. Of the 19 peers to sign the protestation, 14 were Scots representative peers and one was a Scots peer with an English peerage (Argyll, sitting as earl of Greenwich). Only four of them, Lonsdale, Scarbrough, Somerset and Sunderland, were English.


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