Back to the future: Scottish parliaments in context

In the last of our series of blogposts on Anglo-Scottish relations, Dr Alastair Mann, Senior Lecturer at the University of Stirling, describes the Scottish Parliament project…

As we approach the momentousness of the 2014 referendum for Scottish independence the past seems to collide with the future in the oddest of ways. Seven years ago, in 2007/8, the Scottish Parliament Project, based at St Andrews University, launched the Records of the Parliaments of Scotland to 1707, (RPS)  a vast online resource that traces the records of Scotland’s old parliament from before Wallace and Bruce to the Anglo-Scottish Union of 1707. A great watershed in the History of Scotland and the British Isles, the merging of two sovereign parliaments such that the states of Scotland and England ceased to exist and embraced a marriage of political, economic and religious convenience, was now marked by a digitised edifice. This monument to the past, of 500 years and of 16 million words of surviving legislation and minutes, is a vital source for students and researchers; it is free to use. It is the most detailed cross-section of the lives and concerns of medieval and early modern people of Scotland. The National Records of Scotland (Edinburgh) now host the website.

2007 saw RPS launched at the end of a ten year project which began when Michael Forsyth, Conservative Secretary of State for Scotland, agreed to fund the research following an approach made by the project director, Professor Keith Brown, in June 1996. Only four weeks later John Major, then Prime Minster, announced in the House of Commons that the project would be funded. The context was that the Labour opposition, under Tony Blair’s leadership, was committed to establishing a devolved parliament in Edinburgh if they won the election the following year, and Conservative ministers, opposed to devolution, were keener to support Scottish cultural initiatives. Indeed, the announcement to support the project was made the day after it was also announced that the ancient Stone of Scone, the inauguration stone of the kings of Scots, would be returned to Scotland from its then resting place in London’s Westminster Abbey. When Tony Blair won his landslide victory in 1997 it was with the promise to hold referendums for a Scottish parliament and Welsh assembly, theorising at the time that devolution would be the weapon to defeat nationalism. In the Scottish referendum that followed in September that year, 75% of those who voted approved the creation of the new Scottish parliament, and the first elections and first session took place in 1999. So, to invert what the last Chancellor of Scotland, James Ogilvy, earl of Seafield, said when he adjourned the old parliament in March 1707 – it was the beginning of a new, not ‘the end of an auld song’. Subsequently, in cultural and also some political unanimity, MSPs from all political parties, and presiding officers David Steel (Liberal Democrat), George Reid (Scottish National Party) and Alex Fergusson (Conservative), offered support, and additional funding was forthcoming through three first ministers (all Labour) and the then (all-party) Scottish Executive.

RPS is a record worth studying: made in Scotland and made for everyone. Easy to use with its parallel translation of all the entries and acts (from old Scots and Latin to computer searchable English), carefully checked against the old registers written out by early scribes; it brings the past to the eyes of the present. Place and personal names are easily located along with countless themes from hunting, witchcraft, football and environment, to taxation, warfare, marriages and family law. As much as any modern assembly, the old parliament was a microcosm of the nation. Through its judicial, economic, social, security, foreign and (so central to pre-modern life) religious policy, it was everywhere or more accurately where it sought to go. Clearly, though, the political system before 1707 was not about indirect rule sanctioned by the majority of a universal electorate, but on the other hand it was not entirely unrepresentative. Nobles and clergy attended the single-chamber parliament by right of summons and officers of state as crown nominees. The burgh (town) and shire (county) commissioners (MPs) were elected, and there was much competition for seats. The members in the Scottish Parliament ‘represented’ their localities, shires, burghs, regional earldoms and landed estates. The link with parliament was always land or property, certainly. Land was in a ‘best worst’ position to represent the interests of the tenant farmers, craftsmen, fishermen and general populace. When a Fifeshire laird sought to use parliament to protect his interests in coal and salt he indirectly represented the interests of his coal and salt workers. This was no democracy and yet it was a system attuned to the needs of pre-modern society.

Parliaments and kings govern people as well as territory and so before 1707 they became involved in the social fabric: education at school and university, morality private and public, policies over the poor and idle, and legislation that protected minors, inherited wealth, rights of way and supported town authorities in a variety of initiatives to re-build urban areas, harbours and bridges after war, fire and flood, came on thick and fast. More generally, however, this also confirms the existence of a proud parliamentary culture and one that is as old as that of England.

Today the ‘Yes’ and ‘Better Together’ referendum campaigns both claim they are acting as ‘Scottish patriots’, and why not. Over the Anglo-Scottish parliamentary Union of 1707 this label could have been given to those who voted for and against the union, with both sides looking for the best means to secure Scotland’s economy, security and national religion. Some on both sides sold out but many others were men of principle. The choices in 1706/7 before the over 200 members of parliament who voted on the treaty of union were just as troubling, contradictory and divisive as those before us in 2014. The final vote that took place in January 1707 was also closer than it appears: while 110 members voted for union and 67 voted against it, some 46 abstained or absented themselves: thus 110 were in favour while 113 were not in favour. Well might modern pollsters have had fun with such a close race, and a fascinating one at that. If the roots of a divorce are found in the courtship and marriage that came before it, let me recommend the Records of the Parliament of Scotland as a means to understand the long history of England and Scotland – brothers, rivals, enemies, comrades, friends and neighbours.

AM

Alastair Mann is co-editor of the Records of the Parliaments of Scotland to 1707 and they can be found at http://www.rps.ac.uk/.

For a longer summary and comparisons between the old and new Scottish parliaments see his article ‘A Brief History of an Ancient Institution: The Scottish Parliament’.

See here for the other blogposts in our series on Anglo-Scottish relations

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About The History of Parliament

Blogging on parliament, politics and people, from the History of Parliament
This entry was posted in diplomatic history, Early modern history, England and Scotland, medieval history, Politics, social history and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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