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Thomas Craig's Radical Vision of British Union

Photo by AFFG: Armed Forces Day, George Square, Glasgow, 27-6-15.

In this article we examine Thomas Craig's 1605 progressive work, A Tract on the Union of the Realms of Britain – written shortly after the Scots King James VI became "King of Great Britain" – and which spoke of Craig's desire for the Scots and English to put away their differences and unite as Britons in a fully integrated "complete and perfect" union, which would see Britain "harboured in prosperity and security". Once again we see the theme of referring to "the original name Britain" to describe the nation which existed prior to its separation into Scotland, England and Wales.

Those who oppose the British Union sometimes claim it to be a remnant of an "imperial past", a supposedly suffocating and inflexible arrangement, which subjugates Scotland under a framework of Westminster governance.

Those who want to break up Britain have thus styled themselves variously as radicals and progressives, while seeking to portray unionists as reactionaries.

However, many of those who advocated for a full and incorporating union between Scotland and England saw it – as many of us see it today – as a thoroughly progressive measure, as one which would bring about an era of peace and social justice, and an end to the constant warring which had so blighted the two kingdoms.

A tract titled De Unione Regnorum Britanniae Tractatus [A Tract on the Union of the Realms of Britain] shows that these principles have existed in Scottish unionist thought for hundreds of years.

It was written in 1605 by the Scottish jurist Thomas Craig (c.1538 – 26 February 1608) who held some of the highest judicial positions in the country, and served as the Procurator for the Church of Scotland. Craig makes a positive case for political union between two kingdoms which had just two years previously come under the rule of a single king, the Scotsman James VI.

"Britain: Harboured in Prosperity and Security" From the beginning of the Tractatus, Craig makes a positive and forward-thinking case for union.

Like the fellow Scots of his time, he was tired of the wars which were constantly fought with England, often purely out of obligation to the 'Auld Ally' France.

Craig demonstrates a hope that the unification of Scotland and England under a single monarch will pave the way for lasting peace and security:

For, after the turmoils of the past, the conflict of civil war, the commotion of intestine discord, Britain, did she not realise her good fortune, has put behind her misfortunes and calamities, and lies harboured in prosperity and security.

Craig observes that ever since Caesar gave us our first written documents on the ancient Britons, they had always been divided amongst many petty kings.

This had resulted in never-ending warring between these rival kingdoms, and made the lives of the ordinary people brutal and unstable.

But as well as this domestic misery, it also left Britain vulnerable to foreign threats.

Craig demonstrates a good knowledge of the many migrations of peoples to the British mainland that had occurred over time, subjugating the native inhabitants and setting up their own petty states: at one and the same time there were usually in Britain eight Anglo-Saxon, three British [Welsh], and two Scottish and Pictish kingdoms.

In Craig's own day, the threat of foreign invasion was greater than ever. The absolutist monarchies on the continent, most notably the superpowers of Spain and France, had for centuries used the divisions between Scotland and England to threaten the British mainland.

British unification would allow for Britain to become secure within itself as an island nation, able to resist its tyrannical neighbours and preserve the liberty of all its inhabitants.

A Strong Yet Flexible Union Talk of war and domestic security might not seem relevant in today's political climate, but Craig certainly offers some insight on the contemporary union debate when he emphasises the need for a strong yet flexible union.

Today, there is some debate about what exactly the Union of Parliaments in 1707 was – whether it was a treaty between two sovereign states, an act of parliament, or something else entirely.

Although writing over a century before the Union of 1707, Craig insists that any union must be something much deeper than a mere treaty between states.

He demonstrates that there were three general treaty arrangements between states in antiquity: firstly, when a dominant power forces one upon a weaker neighbour; secondly, when two counter-balanced powers enter into a mutually beneficial agreement; and thirdly, when two friendly powers sign agreements out of a sense of amicability.

While Craig notes the amicable nature of the union discussions which took place between Scotland and England in his own time, he says that if a union is to endure, it must be seen as something much deeper than any of these sorts of treaties.

While a treaty suggests an agreement between two parties, Craig was insistent that a meaningful union would require these two parties to be merged totally, and cease to exist as individual entities:

By a union or coalescing of kingdoms we imply such a fusion as results when two kingdoms, peoples, or states become one.

Beyond the issue of legal standing, Craig goes on to argue that if the union is to be enduring, it must transform every aspect of social, political and economic life.

All those distinctions that had led to strife and division between Scotland and England were to be forever removed, and new laws, customs and even currency were to be introduced to cement their future together, and allow for strong bonds to develop between them:

there are eight essentials to a complete and perfect union - uniformity in religion, laws, customs, and language, common rights, a single government pursuing a consistent and impartial policy, identical discipline, the same coinage, weight and measures, and, above all, the same name.

History would appear to justify the call for such measures, as the civil wars which engulfed Britain just decades after the writing of this tract were triggered by the religious, legal and political grievances which the Scottish people had with Charles I as he ruled from London.

In our own day, the call for "consistent and impartial policy" also seems particularly poignant, especially as the many peculiarities of devolution stir up strife between Scotland and England.

Despite this, Craig also shows a pragmatic side, and suggests that it would be possible to retain certain distinct elements of Scottish character within his concept of union.

In particular, he seems to suggest that Scotland and England may be able to keep their own legal systems within a British state, noting that such arrangements would not necessarily hinder the building of stronger bonds between them:

I do not for a moment attach such importance to laws and institutions as to suppose that differences in regard to them can avail to prevent nations from forming alliances and mutual friendships of a lasting character.

Far from being insular in his thinking, Craig looked to the constitutional arrangements which existed on the continent for inspiration. He notes that within the French state, many regions retained their own laws and customs, for example Aquitaine, Normandy and Brittany.

Likewise, within the German-centred Holy Roman Empire, a patchwork of petty states and bishoprics held onto their own ancient customs. Indeed, it is pointed out, that even within Scotland itself, Orkney had continued to be governed by Norwegian law until 1587, less than twenty years before the Tractatus was published!

The most notable example given is that of the Spanish Empire, which retained a phenomenal diversity of laws and customs throughout its lands:

The Spanish empire at the present time is the aggregate of twelve or more kingdoms...It extends over Spain, the Baleaeric Islands, Sicily, Sardinia, Naples, Corsica, Milan, and the Belgian provinces, a single mighty empire united and incorporated under one sovereign. And yet every part of it has so far been left in enjoyment of its own laws and liberty...

This awareness of the diversity of political arrangements on the continent allowed Craig to develop a quite dynamic approach to union within Britain, where unity and diversity could coexist according to need.

So while in some aspects Craig envisions a very complete and incorporating union, in others, he shows a willingness to accommodate for a particular sense of Scottish distinctiveness within a British state.

A Fully Integrated and Fair Union

Despite allowing for distinctions of laws and customs to remain, Craig is insistent that in order for the union to endure, it must be both full and fair, removing any potential seeds of disharmony between the component kingdoms.

While nationalists today argue that union is a means by which England subjugates Scotland, Craig regarded union as the antithesis of subjugation – an amicable arrangement that removed forever any prospect of brute conquest:

If they were given the choice today, what would the English rather choose than to make themselves master of Scotland and to rule it as conquerors? Yet how much better than conquest is the present means of union?

Indeed, this distinction is what led unionists to build the Wallace monument – it was those like Wallace who had prevented Scotland from becoming some sort of feudal client state, and who had allowed for Scots to join together with their English counterparts as equals.

While Craig is adamant on the importance of a fair union, he is equally strong in his calls for a full and complete union.

Although some unionists of this day and age seem to believe that increasing devolution is the answer to preserving the British state, Craig takes the opposite approach, and argues that the two component kingdoms must totally put away their differences if they are to join together as one.

A Return to the Original Common Names of Britain and Britons

Having identified earlier the importance of a common name as one of his "eight essentials of perfect union", he goes on to spend considerable time discussing the importance of this matter for the new state:

...there is need of some new and closer bond if the memory of what has happened in the past is to be obliterated. Such a result can hardly be looked for so long as each country retains a name reminiscent of its ancient honour and prowess. What is chiefly needed is that every reminder of former enmities should be removed and buried, so that nothing may remain to wound either people; particularly since, if this union is to be cordial, we must enter into bonds of friendship and of lasting peace.

Craig goes on to identify the many advantages that a common name would bring: putting away past grievances, creating a stronger sense of unity, allowing for fair and impartial government, to name but a few. Nonetheless, his greatest concern is that without unity in name, the petty quarrels between Scotland and England would continue as before, and forever weaken the union:

So long as two different names exist, so long, and on the slightest occasion, a recrudescence of enmity may be expected; one side resolved to assert its superiority and the other to suffer no slight.

We have seen in our own time the consequences of which Craig warned!

The rise of Scottish nationalism and the resultant devolution process can tend to sow discord within Britain, creating a situation where different citizens have different rights, and different parliaments work in competition, rather than working together.

Amidst such circumstances, British unity naturally becomes increasingly strained.

For Craig, a solution is for the people of the new state to cease calling themselves "Scots" or "English", and instead to take upon themselves the common name of "Britons".

One interesting point is that Craig does not see Britain as some sort of artificial invention, as some Scottish nationalists today will claim. On the contrary, he viewed his proposed union as a sort of re-unification, returning the peoples of Britain to their original state:

Thus, if the antiquity of the Scottish kingdom be added to the resources and renown of England, each of them, auspiciously merged under the original name Britain, will gain in honour and lustre among the nations.

As well as recapturing an ancient nationhood, Britain would become one of the great powers of Europe, a strong island nation able to well defend itself against the absolutist monarchies on the continent.

Recapturing the Ancient Nationhood of Britain

Craig's work seems remarkably relevant to the modern debate.

At a time when devolution or outright separation are often seen as "progressive" and "liberating" measures from the supposedly "oppressive" Union, Craig reminds us of the alternative of a full and incorporating Union.

He argues that it is the way in which we can have impartial government; where the same rights and responsibilities can be shared equally throughout the nation.

His radical call to cast away the names of "Scots" and "English", and to be known only as "Britons" goes beyond what most modern unionists would suggest, yet he articulates passionately the relevance of understanding the ancient nation of Britain, and the importance of popularising the British identity in order to maintain and develop the strength of the Union.

Craig offers a glimpse of just how bold, assertive and radical was Scottish unionism at the time of the Union of the Crowns, and how radical it remains today!

Source: Sir Thomas Craig, De Unione Regnorum Britanniae Tractatus. Translated and edited by C. Sanford Terry (Edinburgh University Press, 1909).

This article is part of our series "Scottish Origins of British Unionism: The Jacobean Union and its Debate (1603 onwards)". You can find all our history articles at our British History Index.



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