The Union is a Scottish Invention
It is a favourite pastime of Scots on holiday to list proudly all the achievements and innovations we have given the world. Penicillin, telephones, televisions, Dolly the sheep…I argue that the creation of the United Kingdom should sit proudly alongside those great Scottish Inventions.
In 2014 there will be a referendum on Scottish independence. 2014 is also, of course, the seven hundredth anniversary of Scotland’s defeat of England at the Battle of Bannockburn, and is touted as an auspicious moment to hold such a poll. But it is also very revealing of an ongoing sleight of hand which confuses the issues at the heart of Scottish politics. For the nationalists have a way of hijacking Scotland’s history. It treats the nation as their personal fiefdom, and identifies the aims of the SNP with the will of the Scottish people as a whole. Things, as all of us know, are inevitably more complicated.
These days we are used to being presented with a familiar alternative: nationhood or Union? But is it really a matter of choosing one rather than another. Can't we have both? Isn't that the real lesson of Scottish history over the past few centuries?
In the simplified, cartoonish version of Scottish history which the nationalists promote, the Union is portrayed negatively as something that England imposed on an unwilling Scotland. But it's a lot more complicated than that.
Union, indeed, started out as a Scottish idea - and not simply as a justification of political realities. For unionism long predated the parliamentary Union in 1707. Indeed, it even came long before James VI’s accession to the throne of England in 1603. Unionism was invented in the 1520s, almost a century before the Union of the Crowns, in the work of the philosopher John Mair of Haddington.
For Mair, Union was an inspired visionary alternative to English Empire. Mair's Unionism is the original 'Third Way' in British politics. Where had the imperial claims and national counter-claims of England and Scotland led during the later middle ages? For Bannockburn had not put an end to Anglo-Scottish conflict. The dispute between an independent Scotland and an overmighty England had brought about two centuries of intermittent but economically destructive warfare in the south of Scotland and north of England. Some Scots, such as Mair, began to realise that Scottish independence had not brought peace to Britain; perhaps union might.
An Anglo-Scottish union, Mair thought, would achieve the same political benefits for Scotland as independence, as well as a range of social and economic goods which Scotland’s embattled independence on a small island alongside an ambitious England had conspicuously not delivered.
Mair's Unionism – like the Unionism of today - was not the opposite of Scottish nationalism, but a way of allowing Scotland to be Scotland within a British framework of institutions.
The SNP is not keen to be reminded the idea of Anglo-Scottish union has almost as long a pedigree as the idea of independence. Yet unionism is in some ways as Scottish as nationalism, part of the fabric of Scottish history for half a millennium, however much nationalists might attempt to monopolise patriotism in Scotland.
Mair's lesson for us today is that Scots do not need to make a choice between being true to Scotland and loyal to the Union. Unionism has been for most of its history a way of expressing and protecting Scottish values and institutions.
Two centuries after Mair, the Union of 1707 united the Scottish and English parliaments – admittedly against the run of public opinion at large - but it was not a sell out. Although the Scots parliament which accepted the Union was composed in large part of a corrupt 'parcel of rogues', it also contained practical statesmen and committed unionists. In the changed circumstances of the early eighteenth century, they did not try to implement the same blueprint as Mair in the 1520s. But they did honour the spirit of the Scottish unionist tradition. The Union of 1707 was not an English takeover - in some ways it was quite the reverse. In return for amalgamating with the English Parliament, the Scots were allowed a large measure of institutional autonomy, including their established Presbyterian Kirk and distinctive system of Roman law, as well as enjoying free access to England’s overseas empire.
Three hundred years later, the Union continues to preserve Scotland's national institutions, not only those which have survived – remarkably intact from 1707 – but also now a Parliament which is free to express Scottish values in legislation.
With independence, we’d have a lot to lose – but would we really have much to gain that we don't enjoy already within the Union?
Union or independence: the choice is much too stark. Scottish freedom, identity and autonomy are already enshrined within the Union.