- The Union: England, Scotland And the Treaty of 1707
- Birlinn Limited and Interlink Publishing Group, 342 pp.
History Revisited: The Matter of Scottish Independence
The story of modern Britain – at least one of the stories – begins some three hundred years ago with the 1707 Treaty of Union between England and Scotland. However, in England, as author Michael Fry notes, the May 1, 2007 anniversary “…is not a date likely to loom large even in the minds of most people interested in history as in standard works on the period, it generally takes up no more space than other domestic developments in Britain, the Act of Settlement, for example, and less space than the War of the Spanish Succession, one of the great stepping stones to global power for the United Kingdom about to be born.”
Fry proposes that there is no such problem among Scots, since the Union stands as a central event, perhaps the central event for good or ill, in the two millennia of their recorded history. Further, that the treaty ranks along with the Wars of Independence, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and, of course, the Age of Empire as one of the keys to understanding “what Scotland is and what Scotland means, or how her always uncertain history may yet run.”
To be sure, the Treaty of Union is not without issue. As numerous scholars have suggested – Julian Hoppit (2003) in particular comes to mind – acceptance of the terms of the treaty by the Scottish and English parliaments in effect extinguished each of them, created a new British legislature at Westminster, and introduced a wholly new state, the United Kingdom of Great Britain. Moreover, the treaty could not subsequently be challenged or renegotiated under the terms of international law because the parties to it no longer existed as international entities.
But, in The Union: England, Scotland and the Treaty of 1707, Fry pursues an arguably fresh approach to the origin of the United Kingdom, and focuses on the years which led up to the Union, setting the political history of both countries against the backdrop of war in Europe and the emergence of imperialism. He does so by comparing the fate of Scotland with that of other small nations, and finds his stride in the human and political stories drawn from the plots and conspiracies, the reports from battlefields, and – with delightful editorial skill – the impassioned debates of the Scots Parliament. He persuasively argues against the long-held assumption that the economy was of overwhelming importance in the Scots’ acceptance of the terms of the treaty, showing how they were in fact able to exploit English ignorance of and indifference to Scotland – as evident now as then, Fry opines – to steer the settlement in their own favor. The implications of this, Fry concludes, have influenced the dynamics of the Union ever since, and are only being fully worked out in our own time.
To his credit, Fry paints an accurate, if, at times, tongue-in-cheek historical preamble to the treaty noting that, like most other nations of Europe, Scotland had witnessed its own struggles between king and nobility, although “somewhat less severe because the king was often a child, his father having usually suffered a gruesome and premature death.” But this aside, constant external threats to national existence made for greater internal stability than England or France enjoyed “till their kings could impose royal absolutism on aristocratic aggrandisement.” The unique result in Scotland, therefore, was to place king and people on an easier footing than could ever be possible in England or France, where monarchs sought to overawe their subjects.
In the hands of a lesser writer, a 340-page volume on a 300-year-old treaty could conceivably become simply another tedious exercise in forgotten characters plodding through forgotten times. Yet this is certainly not the case in The Union as Fry skillfully avoids any suggestion of ennui by peppering the text with dozens of historically accurate and splendidly witty character sketches. For example, we are treated to the colorful story surrounding the death of William of Orange – King of England, Scotland and Ireland – who died of pneumonia in 1702, a complication from a broken collarbone, which itself was a complication of falling off a horse that had stumbled on a molehill. And then there is the image of William’s sister-in-law and successor, Queen Anne, who “waddled along to Parliament to see what was holding up” the Union between the Scots and the English. Finally, there are the vignettes of the parliamentary debates on the Union including a particularly visual image of the house chatting away as Lord Belhaven – who rose in steadfast opposition to the measure – “asked for time to shed a silent tear.”
Still, wry historical levity aside, Fry – who was educated at Oxford and was once a candidate for the Scottish Conservative and Unionist party – is clinically serious about his purpose. With this book, he casts aside his long-held Tory beliefs and makes a thoughtful and passionate case for Scottish independence. “Readers acquainted with my previous works may be surprised by the conclusion I reach at the end of this one….I decided the way to approach the Union was to take nothing for granted but give a close reading to the evidence, as free of prejudice as I could render myself, and let it lead me where it might.” While Fry recognizes that this epiphany does not necessarily concur with either side in the debate on the Union, he clearly believes that the government of Scotland must begin to deviate from the main lines of policy laid down in London.
Fry ends the book with some final thoughts on devolution – the Crown’s 1997 granting of limited self-government to Scotland. “We have inherited a vast apparatus of state from the unionist past. It is all dressed up in tartan with nowhere to go,” he states. “It wastes its time and money on trivialities, on efforts at micro-management of personal lives.” He adds that deeper problems of Scotland, such as redefining its character and purpose, are hardly even seen, let alone solved, and that, “We have done no more than contrive a revised version of the Union of Crowns between 1603 and 1707 – which by any standards counts as the most wretched era of Scottish history.”
In the final analysis, The Union emerges as a well written, well-referenced, and highly entertaining political treatise. And although the book will certainly not end the public debate, it is fair to say that it brings forth a stimulating and compelling argument that, if taken in the spirit in which it was written, just might present an implicit corrective to the continuing dialogue on Scottish independence.