Parliaments, Politics and People seminar: Patrick Little, ‘The dressing of a cucumber‘: the Scottish Union Bill of 1656-7

The ‘Parliaments, Politics and People’ seminar has returned for the new academic year. To start things off, the History of Parliament’s own Dr Patrick Little, Senior Research Fellow in the Commons 1640-60 section, reports back on his paper ‘‘The dressing of a cucumber’: the Scottish Union Bill of 1656-7’…

The constitutional relationship between England and Scotland was as topical in the mid-seventeenth century as it is today. The Cromwellian conquest of Scotland in 1651-2 was followed by various attempts to unite the two nations, with a union ordinance being passed by the protectoral council in April 1654. It is usually assumed that the bill debated in the second protectorate parliament in the winter of 1656-7 was merely a rubber-stamping exercise, upgrading the existing ordinance into an act, but a careful examination of the sources – including Burton’s diary and the Clarke Papers and, crucially a sheet of amendments in the Laing manuscripts at Edinburgh University – shows that it involved major additions that fundamentally changed the nature of the union. Under the amended bill, the Scots would retain their own law system with its traditional courts, the privileges of the burghs would be confirmed, the customs union would be extended to include the lucrative import/export trade, and guarantees given that taxation would only be with parliamentary consent. Such were the concessions that English MPs complained that the union bill put them at a disadvantage.

While the first part of this paper examined the nature of the proposed bill, the second looked at who was driving these changes. The crucial amendments do not seem to have originated with the Scots themselves. Although they engaged with the regime, and had their own ideas for reform, the various Scottish factions and interest groups had rather different agendas than that which lay behind the union bill. Nor was the amended bill the brainchild of the English council, whose Scottish committee, dominated by John Lambert, was opposed to giving more rights to the Scots. Rather, the changes seem to have come from the Scottish council at Edinburgh, guided by its president, Lord Broghill. The Scottish councillors had been pressing for similar concessions in previous years and they were prominent in the debates on the bill in parliament. They were also opposed to the military-based rule advocated by Lambert and his friends and seen most clearly in England in the major-generals’ scheme. Broghill and other councillors took part in the attack on the militia bill in January 1657, and went on to support the offer of the crown to Cromwell in February and March. Both of these measures reflected the opposition to military rule across the three nations.

The union bill was not discussed in parliament after mid-January 1657: the other more pressing political and constitutional debates had superseded it. In April the old union ordinance of 1654 was instead passed as an act without further discussion. By taking the easy path MPs were perhaps acknowledging that reformulating the union was fraught with complications, both constitutional and political. As today, the result was often frustration and lack of trust and ultimately stalemate. As the Cromwellian councillor, Philip Jones, complained on 4 December 1656: ‘I compare this to the dressing of a cucumber. First pare, and order, and dress it, and throw it out of the window’.

Join us tonight for our latest ‘Parliaments, Politics and People’ seminar. Victoria Anker of Edinburgh University will speak on ‘Parliament ordinances and remonstrances: legislative attacks on executive authority, 1642-46.’ Hope to see you there!

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