Vox Populi: ‘Elections, voting and representation in early modern Scotland’

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On 20 November 2012, the Centre was pleased to welcome Professor Keith Brown, who discussed ‘Elections, voting and representation in early modern Scotland’ as part of the ongoing Vox Populi seminar series. Below is this listener’s brief summary of the lecture.

Professor Brown began his lecture by contextualising the spread of democracy in the post-1945 world. There was significant success in democratizing post-colonial institutions and authoritarian states like West Germany and Japan, and there is now a relative trust that elections are legitimate expressions of popular consent and also hold governments’ accountable. There is a distinctly Anglo-centric approach to explaining the emergence of democracy in the British Isles, with a ‘Whig-ish highroad’ back to Magna Carta but this is mainly down to a missing Scottish alternative, which Professor Brown sought to highlight.

In early modern Scotland, there were a lot of elections going on and representative politics was found in churches and local burghs. These elections generally could not be described as ‘free’. For example, in 1617, legislation was passed allowing for elections of bishops and archbishops but these were ‘recommended’ by the king. Despite this, they were still important examples of some popular engagement with the political sphere that set a precedent for later participation.

Parliament in this period was not viewed as an opposition to the king’s governance but as a partner. There has been a long-running discussion on the apparent ideological problems thrown up by the seemingly opposed concepts of parliamentary sovereignty and the Divine Right of Kings. Prof. Brown suggests that these were not necessarily mutually exclusive and monarchs like King James VI did rely on parliament and saw its benefit, despite his belief in Divine Right.

Burgh and shire elections were restricted to wealthy artisans and landowners in early modern Scotland but there was a growing engagement throughout the period. In 1587, legislation was passed allowing 40 shilling freeholders to vote in shire elections which facilitated greater representation for lesser noblemen. In 1661/81, many burghs in Scotland elected representatives not supported by the king and there was a growing feeling that free elections could be a significant threat to the monarch.

Though not entirely endorsing the idea, Prof. Brown highlighted the ‘participation hypothesis’ – increased involvement in public process, such as jury service, increases civic awareness and may led to greater participation in elections. Certainly within Scotland there were many professional clubs for lawyers and doctors, coupled with many Freemason lodges, the latter involving elective leadership. There was also a growing number of coffee houses in Edinburgh and Glasgow which contributed to an ever-increasing civic space.

Another contributing factor to the growing awareness of representation was the church. There was a staunch Presbyterian defence of elections of ministers and John Knox himself argued that church elders should be ranked by who achieved the most votes. There were kirk session elections though there is a lack of evidence regarding their functions. In rural areas, elected elders may have served for life and could have had a deferential relationship with local nobility, suggesting elements of corruption.

Prof. Brown concluded by again noting the lack of a Scottish alternative to the English story of democratic culture. He stressed that while elections in early modern Scotland could appear corrupt or devoid of real engagement, our modern obsession with central government may mislead. Local elections may well have been recognised as of premier importance and either way, they helped to spread the habit of democratic behaviour.

After the lecture, one audience member commented on the apparent lack of adversarial elections in early modern Scotland – one candidate ideologically opposed to the other. Prof. Brown pointed to the elections that occurred in 1689 and 1702 that were definitively partisan, though party politics may have fizzled out in the later 18th century.

Summary by Ross Crawford (PhD Researcher)

The Centre‘s seminar series continues next Tuesday with John Cairn’s lecture on ‘Slaves and slaveowners in Eighteenth-century Scotland’. This will be held in Room 202 of 3 Uni Gardens at 5.30pm. The Vox Populi series will continue in the new year.

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