Today’s post is the next in our series looking at Anglo-Scottish relations in the run-up to the Scottish independence referendum. Our own Dr Patrick Little Senior Research Fellow on the Commons 1640-1660 Section, discusses attempts at union during the Protectorate…
With the political spotlight on Scottish independence, historians have naturally tended to focus on the treaty and acts of union of 1707, when the Scots were ‘bought and sold for English gold’. Commentators have, however, ignored another experiment at union between the two nations that was tried fifty years before the reign of Queen Anne, during the protectorate of Oliver Cromwell and his son, Richard.
The ordinance passed by the protectoral council in 1654 and ratified as an act by parliament in 1657, began with the aspiration that union ‘might conduce to the glory of God and the peace and welfare of the people in this whole island’. The claim of Charles II to be king of Scotland was annulled; the saltire would be ‘received into and borne from henceforth in the army of this commonwealth, as a badge of this union’; all customs and excise taxes between the two nations were abolished, and other levies made ‘proportionable’ between them; and the complicated laws affecting land-holding and the ‘heritable’ rights that gave the Scottish nobility such influence were to be pruned back. Above all, the Scottish parliament would not be called – instead, 30 Scottish MPs, covering all the shires and the royal burghs, were now entitled to sit at Westminster.
That was the theory. In practice, the brief tenure of the protectorate – which lasted barely five more years until it fell victim of a military coup in May 1659 – meant that the union remained an aspiration rather than a reality. The parliaments of 1654-5, 1656-8 and 1659 did indeed include Scottish MPs, although over half those returned for the northern seats were actually Englishmen. The saltire, with the cross of St George and the harp of Ireland formed part of the protectoral coat of arms. Free trade was established, and worked well enough to provoke grumbling from the ports of north east England, who now had rivals in the coal and salt trades. Moves to unravel the legal system were more hesitant, however, and the main thing that kept the Scottish noble in check was massive indebtedness rather than law reform. Worse still, there were still immense tensions between the two nations, not least over religion, and the hoped-for amity between the two was never achieved.
The irony was that the English, rather than the Scots, were the main opponents of the Cromwellian Union. This can be seen in the debates in parliament in 1659, when critics of the government were concerned that MPs from north of the border were government placemen, who could hold the balance of power if they voted in a bloc, influencing legislation that affected England as well as Britain. Almost without exception, the native Scots who contributed to the discussions spoke in favour of the union, with one, William Ross of Drumgarland, MP for Dumfriesshire, making the extraordinary statement: ‘I think myself at home when I am here’. One wonders what Alex Salmond would have said in reply to that!
You can read the other blogposts in our series here:
More to follow soon!