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Union of Parliaments: There was no "Parcel of Rogues"


Few topics have been as popularly mis-represented through the years as the Parliamentary Union of Scotland and England! In this study (part 1 of 2 which is here) by John Provan, who has an MA (Hons) in History, we examine the claim that Scottish politicians were "bribed" to vote for Union. As we show, only 31 politicians received monies – which most were already owed – out of a total Parliament of 227 members (or 247, or 249 if we include Queensberry, and Seafield, see Footnote 2).

 

Pic: An 1809 engraving shows James Douglas, the "2nd Duke of Queensberry and 1st Duke of Dover" presenting the Act of Union to Queen Anne in 1707.

 


NO "BRIBERY" and NO "PARCEL OF ROGUES"

The "parcel of rogues" couplet has reverberated profoundly since Robert Burns popularised it (see Footnote 1). It continues to shape public perception of how the Union of 1707 came about.


The idea that the Union of Parliaments was a product of English machinations, ultimately achieved through the distribution of large amounts of metaphorical "gold" to supposedly "corrupt" Scottish politicians, is a mainstay of Scottish nationalist lore.

 

It is easy to see why such an idea has become so commonly accepted. It fits into a grand narrative of Scottish victimhood – a story which can be traced back to the heroic struggles of Wallace and Bruce, and through to our own day of Scottish disaffection with the Westminster regime.

 

The idea that Scotland might have been a willing partner in Union appears unthinkable to many Scottish nationalists.

 

Yet there is scant evidence that bribery had any impact upon the decision of the Scottish Parliament to accept the Union. Indeed, it is questionable if any bribery occurred at all!

 

In fact, support for the Union was often backed by genuine political conviction.

 

As we will explain in Part 2 of this study, perhaps most significant was the desire to secure a Hanoverian succession, and to prevent a restoration of the Stuarts to the Scottish throne. There was also a desire for a strong Protestant and democratic Britain to be able to resist the Catholic empires on the continent.

 

More pragmatically, there was hope that access to England's large market and overseas colonies would bring Scotland unprecedented prosperity.

 

Meanwhile, underlying all these considerations was an embryonic form of British patriotism, rooted in a century of shared monarchy, culture and political experience.

 

As we reveal below, the evidence shows that no bribery was needed for the Scottish Parliament to vote for the Union.


"BOUGHT AND SOLD FOR ENGLISH GOLD"?

The myth that the Scottish Parliament was bribed to accept English terms of Union originated in the memoirs of the virulently anti-union, and pro-Jacobite politician George Lockhart of Carnwath.

 

Despite these rather shaky foundations, it has been perpetuated with great vigour by nationalist historians.

 

However, in a pioneering work, historian Christopher Whatley has challenged such views, noting that "The long-held and popular notion that the Scots were bought and sold for English gold seems not to stand up to close scrutiny." [1]

 

George Lockhart did indeed write that a sum of £20,000 had been sent under royal orders from the English treasury for distribution amongst Scottish politicians.


However, as Whatley observes, while Lockhart dedicated the bulk of his memoirs to attacking unionist arguments, he only briefly mentioned this alleged bribe in an appendix – apparently, not even Lockhart himself believed that bribery was the main driving force behind unionism in Scotland. [2]

 

Lockhart describes this alleged bribe as being distributed to around thirty members of the Scottish Parliament, out of a total of 227. (See the full list in Footnote 3 below.)

 

While this could arguably have been an attempt to secure what was anticipated to be a close vote, the grounds for viewing it as a bribe are highly questionable.

 

In fact, £12,325 of the £20,000 total went to a single man in the form of the Duke of Queensberry, who had declared his support for Union several years previously. [3]

 

Of the thirty politicians to receive the remainder between them, seventeen were heavily in arrears, and the sum they received was actually only a small portion of what the Scottish government owed them in unpaid wages. [4]

 

Furthermore, a number of those to receive payments had been outspoken unionists from before Queen Anne even took the throne, including such prominent figures as Cromartie, Marchmont and Tweeddale.

 

The Earl of Cromartie had been a staunch proponent for union since the Scots-led union negotiations of 1689, and remarked that "Nothing" would "alter me from being a Scotsman and a Brittain, and for the union". [5]

 

Other figures who received payments were in fact amongst the Union's staunchest opponents – the Duke of Atholl received £1,000 of Lockhart's alleged £20,000, yet voted against every single article of Union on which he voted. [6]

 

Similarly, the Earl of Eglinton received £200 (a small portion of what he was actually owed considering his arrears) yet split his votes fairly evenly on the articles. [7]

 

More damningly for the anti-Union politicians, Thomas Innes, the Catholic priest and confidant of the exiled Stuart pretender at Paris, recorded that King Louis XIV of France had been sending funds to Scotland "to brib our Parliament...as to hinder the two nations from being united". [8]

 

"THE EQUIVALENT" – RIGHTFUL COMPENSATION FOR DARIEN

Beyond individual "bribes" to a small number of politicians, some nationalist historians have further alleged that the "Equivalent" (compensation for the failed Darien Scheme) represented a broader attempt to"bribe" the Scottish people during a time of particular economic hardship.

 

Scotland's economy had been devastated in the decades leading up to 1707 through a combination of crop failures, wars, rising tariffs at its European markets, and most notably of all, the disastrous failure of its colony at Darien. Around £400,000 is estimated to have been lost through the Darien scheme, a figure that would translate to around £103 billion in today's currency. [9]

 

There is no modern precedent to begin to understand the financial ruin this caused; hardly a village in the kingdom did not have a group of ordinary people who had banded together to make the minimum £100 investment.

 

The Equivalent which was worked into the terms of Union guaranteed that the English government would pay £398,000 to Scotland; in a large part to Darien investors, but not wholly so.

 

While this might be construed as manipulating the Scots under duress, if not bribery as such, there is good reason to think otherwise.


It was actually the Scots who had proposed the idea several years earlier – it was the Scottish insistence upon it, and the refusal of the English to grant it, that led to the collapse of the 1702 union negotiations. [10]

 

And the Scots had good reason to demand it – enjoining England in Union meant submitting themselves to significantly higher rates of taxation, which would have been overbearing for Scotland's less affluent citizenry.

 

Union would have also involved the Scots taking upon themselves a proportion of England's considerable national debt, which had been accumulated through its expensive colonial wars. While there may have been an urgency in Scotland to secure the Equivalent, in the long-term, it should be viewed as rightful compensation rather than a bribe.

 

TO CONCLUDE

When the evidence is taken into account, there is little reason to believe that the Scottish Parliament was "bought and sold for English gold".


The myth was only ever based on an appendix in the memoirs of a single, staunchly anti-Union politician.


Only 31 of the 227 (or 247 see below) Scottish parliamentarians received any of the £20,000 sent to pay what they were due in arrears, most of whom had already either long ago declared their support for Union, or went on to vote against it.

 

Bribery simply cannot account for why the Scottish Parliament voted for Union.

 

SOME OTHER TRADITIONAL EXPLANATIONS

Outwith sinister accusations of bribery, traditional discourse has been willing to grant other partial explanations for Union which, if not noble, were at least pragmatic in their motivations.

 

Foremost among these was the ambition to secure free trade with England and its colonies; as early as 1681, the Provost of Linlithgow had proposed "ane union of traid" with the English. [11]

 

As the articles of Union were voted upon in the Scottish Parliament, even many of those who otherwise opposed the Union voted for Article Four, which secured this free trade. Indeed, those Union commissioners who were involved in matters relating to trade appear to have been significantly more likely to vote for Union. Of fourteen members of a parliamentary commission established to examine Scotland's finances in 1703, only one opposed the Union. [12]


Similarly, of twenty-one members of a council established in 1705 to redress Scotland's balance of trade deficit, fifteen adopted a strong pro-Union stance. [13]

 

Local economic interests also seem to have been a reliable indicator of voting preferences. For example, while around two-thirds of coastal burgh commissioners (who would benefit most from international sea trade) voted broadly in favour of the Union articles, only 37% of their inland counterparts did the same. [14]

 

Just as with the modern independence referendum, economics was a legitimate part of the 1707 Union debate.

 

Nonetheless, it would be wrong to presume that free trade arguments worked unequivocally in favour of the Union. There were fears that the removal of protective tariffs would worsen Scotland's balance of trade deficit.

 

Ever since the royal court had moved to London in 1603, Scottish nobles had been importing expensive luxury items, while the relatively primitive Scottish economy was exporting mostly cheap raw materials. It was feared that if the last economic barriers were removed, this trend would be accelerated, and lead to Scotland's ruin. [15]

 

Accordingly, James Hodges, who opposed an incorporating union while proposing a looser federal arrangement, argued that the frailty of the Scottish economy meant that it would need to enforce protective tariffs if it was to develop and compete with its much more powerful neighbours. [16]

 

Ultimately, such concerns influenced the terms of Union, for the Acts of Union themselves put in place a number of special tariffs to protect the Scottish economy within a wider policy of free trade.

 

Party politics have also been among the more traditional explanations for understanding Scottish voting patterns on the Union. There were three significant parties in the Parliament which passed the treaty and the later articles – the Court Party generally held sway, while the Country Party provided the main opposition; the smaller and more erratic Squadrone Volante were something of an enigma.

 

Certainly, the vote was conducted broadly along party lines – the Court Party supported it and the Country Party opposed it. Despite having opposed the Union up until 1706, the dramatic turnaround of the Squadrone Volante contributed significantly to the passage of Union.

 

While significant, these party politics were rooted in much deeper ideological conflicts which are explored in Part 2 of our examination of why the Scottish Parliament voted for Union.

 

REFERENCES

[1] Christopher A Whatley, The Scots and the Union, (Edinburgh University Press, 2007), p.xiv

[2] Ibid, p.50

[3] Karin Bowie, Scottish Public Opinion and the Anglo-Scottish Union, 1699-1707, (The Royal Historical Society, The Boydell Press, 2007), p.165

[4] Whatley, p.267

[5] Ibid[

[6] Ibid, p.268

[7] Ibid, p.267

[8] Ibid, p.260

[9] Ibid, p.173

[10] Bowie, p.73

[11] Whatley, p.125

[12] Ibid, p.197

[13] Ibid

[14] Ibid, p.304

[15] Christopher A Whatley, Bought and Sold for English Gold? Explaining the Union of 1707, (The Economic and Social History Society of Scotland, 1994), p.33

[16] Bowie, p.75


FOOTNOTES 

Footnote 1: Did Burns come up with the "bought and sold" quote when he wrote his poem in 1791? In an interview with The Observer, Whatley says the phrase was circulating long before, in relation to the Darien Scheme of 1698-99. As above, compensation for the Darien Scheme, known as The Equivalent, should be distinguished from the controversial "£20,000" payment which is examined in more depth below. Here is an excerpt from the interview:


Compensation for the Darien venture is sometimes called the great national bribe. But Whatley also challenged that view. 'It wasn't a bribe. It was a victory for the Scottish negotiators because they got what they wanted. That is why many walked away from previous discussions. But in 1706, they got something which they would never in any other circumstances have achieved: their money back plus five per cent for a failed scheme. I'm not saying we should be grateful to the English. Leave them out of it. Darien failed for various important reasons, including the location. But the compensation allowed Scottish investors to start from scratch within a new economic environment. I consider it a great negotiating victory, not a bribe to supine Scots.'

 

Most controversially, Whatley casts doubt on the origins of Burns's quote. 'Bought and sold for English gold,' is one of his most famous and has long been widely thought to refer to the Union treaty. Whatley points out that it in fact predates the Union, and was used in the late 17th century to condemn government ministers who supported [King] William on the Darien venture and were therefore seen to be in the pay of the English.

 

There is also a widely held view that had the Scots not accepted English proposals for the Union, the country would have been invaded. According to Whatley this is another convenient myth. He said troops were ordered to the border in 1706 but at the behest of Scottish politicians who were concerned about riots, disturbances and even the threat of the parliament being stormed.

Lorna Martin, "Betrayed? No, Scots wanted the Union", The Observer, Sunday 24 September 2006.



Footnote 2: PWJ Riley has written that it was 247 members in 1706. He says (see page 522 below):


Total membership depended largely on the eligibility and attendance of the nobility at any given time. For the full membership in 1706 it seems reasonable to accept the list of elected shire and burgh members together with those peers who had taken the oaths at any time since the last election and who were still alive. This calculation gives a total membership of 247 if Queensberry, lord commissioner in 1706, and Seafield, lord chancellor and president of the parliament, are excluded.


Footnote 3: The following "Appendix A" and "Appendix B" appeared in PWJ Riley, "The union of 1707 as an episode in English politics", English Historical Review, Vol.84, July 1969, pp.522-527.


Pages 526-527 are especially useful in listing the 31 members of the Scottish Parliament who were recompensed out of the £20,000, and how much they individually received.




 





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