The End of an Auld Sang

On the 16th January 1707, with a raise of a sceptre, the Kingdom of Scotland ceased to exist. The vote on Parliamentary Union with England had passed with a resounding majority. It was a hard won political battle, by no means unanimous, which many believed would never be won. As the events in Parliamentary House in Edinburgh drew to a conclusion, Lord Seafield, a keen supporter of the Union, remarked: “Now there’s the end of an auld sang.”

For better or worse, Scotland was yoked in its political future to England. The three hundred years since have not exactly been a time of bitter slavery, or repression, or even aggressive colonial rule, as some nationalists have suggested, but a time which on balance has been more favourable for Scotland than most would like to admit. By sacrificing control over its own affairs, the Union brought (or bought) Scotland new wealth and greater financial stability. A new optimism flourished in the streets, and in the universities, and gave birth eventually to the Enlightenment: a period of intense and spectacular intellectual growth centred on the Universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow. Edinburgh especially became a hothouse of creativity with the cross-fertilisation of ideas taking place as much in university debating chambers as in claret-fuelled discussions in salons and living rooms across the town.

During this period in Scotland after the Union, tremendous advances were made in areas like moral philosophy, ethics, economics, engineering, literature, geology, and the botanical sciences. Some of them, it is not an exaggeration to say, changed the world for ever and gave birth to the modern age. For a while, during the 18th century and into the 19th, Scotland was at the cutting edge of world culture. Many of these new ideas found their way across the Atlantic and were put into action in the founding of the new nations of the USA and Canada. Several important institutions there, from universities to the structure of government, were established by Scots, or their descendants, or based on principals outlined by prominent and influential Scots thinkers.

A great amount of controversy still surrounds this chapter in Scotland’s history. The feeling of those opposed to the Union can be neatly summed up in Robert Burns’s poem Parcel of Rogues which begins:

Fareweel tae a’ wir’ Scottish fame, fareweel oor ancient glory,
Fareweel e’en tae wir’ Scottish name that’s praised in martial story,

and concludes:

We were bought and sold for English gold,
Sic’ a parcel o’ rogues in a nation.

Many people still see the Union as a mostly negative thing. They hold that the country was betrayed by greedy merchants and nobles, that Scotland’s culture, history and heritage were compromised and cast aside in favour of selfish advances, and that we were sold out by our own people into the hands of the ‘auld enemy’.

One of the curious facts about British history is the avidity which many Scots had for the Union. Indeed, many of the institutions we hold to be uniquely English, or British, were the work of Scots, or managed by them. Two of the most easily recognisable symbols of British Empire are, arguably, John Bull and Rule Britannia. John Bull is the chubby, ruddy-faced patriotic cartoon character with a Union Flag-wearing bulldog. Rule Britannia is a kind of unofficial ‘national’ anthem, which celebrates Britannic world domination with lines which describe Britain as “the dread and envy” of all inferior nations who are “not so blest as thee”, and contains such emotive images of Britain as a “Blest isle! with matchless beauty crowned”. Both were inventions of Scots. John Bull was created in 1712 – a mere 5 years after the Union – by Sir John Arbuthnot, a Scottish physician. Rule Britannia was written by James Thompson, a poet from the Scottish Borders.

Perhaps some Scots recognised such a debt of gratitude in the wake of the Union that they felt they needed to out-English the English. Not a point of view guaranteed to win you many friends these days.

Unfortunately, the last hundred years have seen a sharp decline in Scotland’s fortunes. In particular, the final few decades of the 20th century saw Scotland ruled and directed by an unpopular government which it had overwhelmingly rejected. Throughout the 1980s and 90s, mere handfuls of Conservative MPs were returned to Westminster from Scottish constituencies, yet under the electoral system they were allowed to continue to govern in Scotland, at times, it seemed, unfairly – even contemptuously, as with the experimental introduction of the hated Poll Tax in Scotland a year before it was introduced in England. Traditional industries such as manufacturing and engineering were dismantled often with nothing to fill the void, wrecking entire communities. The education system, once the model for countries across the western world, saw its recent significant improvements and advances become debased and eroded by almost constant political interference and under-funding.

Clearly, the Union, which had served Scotland well in its early stages, was beginning to sour. A rising tide of discontent among the people of Scotland and a new political will for self-determination took hold, carried by a new sense of optimism following the landslide victory for a new Labour government. Finally, in September 1997, Scotland’s voters were given the opportunity to have a greater say in their destiny. A referendum was held in which the Scottish electorate decided overwhelmingly in favour of the creation of a Scottish Parliament. The Union would remain intact, but the people of Scotland would be given a greater share in the decision-making process that for so long had been in the hands of politicians in Westminster. They would vote for their own Members of a Scottish Parliament, to be based in Edinburgh, who would more directly represent their views and concerns.

It was, to paraphrase Lord Seafield, the beginning of a new song.