Vox Populi: ‘National Opinion and the Union Question in the Union of the Crowns’

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On 30 October 2012, the Centre was pleased to welcome the University of Glasgow’s own Dr. Karin Bowie, who discussed ‘National Opinion and the Union Question in the Union of the Crowns’. This lecture was part of the ongoing ‘Vox Populi’ series and below is this listener’s brief summary of the lecture.

Between the Union of the Crowns of 1603 and the Act of Union of 1707, there was an ongoing philosophical debate in Scotland over who or what represented the voice of the people. The looming political union with England was the most obvious source of this disagreement, with many Scottish elites fearing the possibility of Scotland becoming a mere province of England. So, did an elected parliament represent the views of the people? Or was popular sovereignty with more direct participation required before a union with England was reached? These questions provided the backdrop for most of Dr. Bowie’s lecture and of course, these issues still hold relevance today.

Between 1603-1707, there were 8 separate meetings between Scottish and English negotiators over the terms of the Union. In 1604, treaty of union talks were held which outlined Scottish anxieties about a potential full incorporating union. In 1640/1, a Covenanting Scottish parliament, due to the reign of Charles I, sought to transfer powers from the king to parliament. In 1641, a peace treaty was signed between the Scottish parliament and Charles I after invasions by Scotland , a treaty Charles I did not find favourable.

In 1643, the Solemn League and Covenant was signed, in which the Scottish and English parliaments, both rebelling against Charles I, agreed to a military alliance and religious reform across the British Isles with an all-encompassing Presbyterian faith. The Covenanting regime already sought popular support around this time, with oaths sworn by ordinary citizens to uphold the Covenanting ideologies.

After Cromwell’s military conquest of Scotland, the nation was invited to join a new Commonwealth of England Scotland and Ireland but the defeated Scottish parliament had no part in these talks. Nevertheless, representatives were still called, underlining the need for their presence when a nation discussed union. After the restoration of Charles II, parliamentary powers were squeezed by the king and the newly royalist parliament (frightened by the Cromwell years) were happy to allow this. In 1663, all trade agreements were managed by the king and by 1668, trade disputes between Scotland and England were also his to assess. In 1669, a full union was proposed and representatives were called to discuss the terms, though not from parliament.

The legal opinions of the time were varied. Sir John Nisbet, who spent time as Lord Advocate, placed limits on the authority of representatives. Sir George Mackenzie (‘Bloody Mackenzie’) observed that ‘Parliaments cannot overturn fundamentals’ and ‘The Constituent is to be consulted and a special mandate is required’. Both men were opposed to a closer Union but emphasised the increased involvement of constituents even to the extent of an all-encompassing ‘mega parliament’, which Dr. Bowie noted was a strongly populist opinion for the time.

Around the 1689 revolution, there was strong Unionist sentiment in the Scottish parliament and a draft Act by one of the representatives called for Scots to be a free people within King William’s realm. In 1702-3, Queen Anne authorises union talks, though she names her own negotiators, thanks to the ill-advised, unintentional aid of the Duke of Hamilton. Here, the union is drafted.

In 1706-7, doubt is cast on parliament’s ability to represent people, with Nisbet and Mackenzie’s ideas coming to the fore, combined with Whig concepts. There was distrust of the Scottish parliament and fears that it had long been ‘dancing to London’s tune’. Pamphleteers like George Ridpath argued that parliament cannot transfer the ‘original rights’ of the Scottish people and he invoked the Declaration of Arbroath to prove this point. The Country Party demanded a recess of the union talks, which Bowie emphasises should not be seen as a mere delaying tactic but an attempt to reach a truer consensus. Around this time there were many petitions by burghs and shires signed by hundreds of ordinary inhabitants.

James Hodges argued in 1703 that no ‘just power’ could compromise the people and in 1706, parliament could not resign sovereignty even if ‘impower’d by their constituents’. He included all free-born men and women in this, a relatively unprecedented opinion at the time. There may have been some rhetoric on his part but he clearly argues for greater representation. These ideas may have been generated from the fact Presbyterianism was established on popular preference, with this concept extended to encompass union agreements.

The Unionist response to the anti-Union sentiment was to ‘remind’ of the dangers of democracy. George Mackenzie’s nephew, the Earl of Cromarty, directly responded to Wylie and argued that members of parliament have the power to decide the nation’s fate because their power was devolved from the king, which was given to him by the people. Sir David Dalrymple claimed the Great Assembly would essentially be mob rule and the only reason petitions are allowed is fear of the mob.

Overall, there was clear distrust of parliament around the union talks, particularly between 1670 and 1707. There was a general call for more direct consent which would allow for a mandate in this pre-democratic age. Dr. Bowie concluded by noting the relevance of this debate to today. There is a general opinion that populism was defeated by the union of 1707 and the thread of a democratic Scotland, began in Declaration of Arbroath was cut. However, Dr. Bowie notes that opponents of the Union shifted their opinion of parliament across the century, depending on the circumstances, so there is clear ambiguity to this interpretation of an uninterrupted line of democratic thoughts.

Some questions after the lecture raised more interesting issues. One question on the nature of the female voting powers endorsed by Hodges led to Dr. Bowie noting the dissenting culture of Presbyterianism that allowed, nay encouraged, female involvement. Another point raised was the specifications of the ‘free-born’ and whether this idea extended to all citizens. Dr. Bowie informed us that it did not, but the concept did stretch to those who held independent estates, burgesses and artisans. Though obviously not the whole country, this is perhaps more representation than one may expect.

The Centre‘s seminar series continues next Tuesday with Stephen Driscoll’s lecture on ‘SERF 1 – Royal Forteviot: landscape setting and political contexts’. The ‘Vox Populi’ series continues on Wednesday 14th November, with Keith Brown’s lecture on ‘Elections, voting and representation in early modern Scotland’.

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