Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Such a Parcel of Rogues in a Nation

Today is the 300th anniversary of the effective date of the Act of Union, whereby the English and Scottish Parliaments merged into one national legislature and created the United Kingdom of Great Britain. Under the act Scotland was allowed to retain its court system and its national church (known in the United States as the Presbyterian Church). But Scotland's independence effectively ended with Union, which liquidated the Scottish government and incorporated the country into the English economy as well.

The two kingdoms had shared a sovereign since 1603, when Elizabeth I died childless and James VI of Scotland accepted the English Crown, becoming England's King James I . Eighty-five years later, however, a small group of English Protestant aristocrats and generals, in league with Prince William of Orange, deposed James I's Catholic grandson, James II, in a bloodless coup d'etat. James II's daughter Mary and William of Orange, her husband and cousin, became co-monarchs of England and Scotland, and the English Parliament legalized their rule on the condition that they accepted a Parliamentary bill of rights. Among other provisions, the English Bill of Rights stipulated that no Catholic could ever again be King or Queen of England, and that the Crown would henceforth pass only to James II's Protestant heirs: either Mary's children, William's children by a later marriage, Mary's younger sister Anne, or Anne's children.

However, Mary died childless in 1694, and William did not remarry prior to his death. Anne, who reigned as Queen Anne from 1702 to 1714, made a concerted but unsuccessful effort to produce an heir: she had eighteen pregnancies, of which thirteen ended in miscarriages. None of her five children lived past the age of ten. The author of The Sickly Stuarts makes a convincing argument that Anne probably had lupus, a disease which in pregnant women often leads to late-term miscarriages. In any event, by 1700 (when Anne's only surviving son, pictured above with his mother, died) it was clear there would be no Protestant Stuarts to succeed Anne. It was also clear that her nearest Protestant male relative was, in fact, German: specifically, the Elector of Hanover (future King George I). Determined to keep England Protestant, Parliament passed a law in 1701 settling the English and Scottish Crowns on the House of Hanover after Anne's death. Scotland's Parliament balked at accepting a German King, and England's aristocrats and gentry worried that Scotland might proclaim its loyalty to the Catholic Stuart heir, the soi-disant James III. To head off this possibility, England's Parliament imposed full legislative and economic union on Scotland in 1707, bribing Scotland's MPs into accepting the settlement and granting them 45 seats in the English House of Commons and sixteen in the House of Lords.

The union eventually brought considerable economic benefits to Scotland's gentry and aristocracy, in the form of a free-trade agreement with England and access to England's overseas empire. Many Scotsmen became prominent traders and officials in the American colonies, while others grew rich marketing American staple crops and loaning money to Virginia tobacco planters. Yet there was always a subcurrent of nationalism in Scotland, expressed by Robert Burns in a 1791 poem and, closer to our own time, by one of George Orwell's correspondents, who wrote in 1947 that "Scotland experienced her Yalta in 1707 when English gold achieved what English guns could not do. But we will never accept defeat." (Orwell, Collected Essays, Journalism, and Letters [Boston, 2000 (orig. pub. 1968), 4: 284]) Scottish nationalists finally won a symbolic victory in 1999, when Tony Blair's Labor government rewarded them for their help in the 1997 general election by creating a separate Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh. As far as I can tell, though, it wields about as much power as the average American high-school student government. I suspect there are still many Scottish nationalists who would agree with Mark Renton's assessment of Scottish identity.