“ABERDEEN JURIDICAL SOCIETY.
ADDRESS BY SHERIFF GUTHRIE SMITH.
Before a large audience, Sheriff Guthrie Smith delivered the closing address of the Aberdeen Juridical Society, in Marischal College, last night, on the subject of ‘Scotland and the National Government.” Mr Charles Ruxton, the president of the Association, occupied the chair, and was accompanied on the platform by Sheriff Dove Wilson, Mr John Robertson, advocate; Mr Alexander Yeats, Depute Town-Clerk; and Mr F. T. Garden, advocate.
Sheriff Smith, who was received with loud applause, said (after making some preliminary remarks) – Our jurisprudence, founded on very solid foundations, has been built up by many generations of lawyers and judges, representing at every period of our legal history the best intellect of their day, but no one pretends that it is incapable of further amendment. In this respect I believe the legal profession in Scotland has never failed to meet the just expectations of the public. Not merely have they assisted in promoting; in many instances the merit has been theirs of originating and suggesting measures for the improvement of our institutions. Henceforth full scope will be afforded for continuing in this path of public usefulness now that the management of Scottish business is to be removed from the Home Secretary, and committed to the charge of a responsible Minister of our own… I believe it will be found that the closer attachment of its different dependencies to the British Crown can be effected in no practical way except by a completer detachment from the central administration of purely local affairs, which are always best managed by those who have the requisite knowledge and the chief interest in seeing that they are properly attended to. For all this, I conceive we in Scotland have much cause for thankfulness. It will certainly tend to conserve our institutions, and it encourages us to go on with measures for making them more efficient, without the uneasy feeling that thereby we may be playing into the hands of those who would be pleased to see them ended rather than mended. Not many years ago, in some official quarters this feeling certainly did prevail. Scotland seemed to be of no account in the eyes of the Ministry of the day. The Lord Advocate, who occupied by himself a separate office of his own, with an appearance at least of independence, was removed to the Home Office, within hearing of the Secretary of State’s bell, and everything specially distinctive of Scotland was in danger of being swept away. Happily, however, the mood did not last long. Ministerial indifference, Parliamentary neglect, and official ignorance evoked a display of public feeling which has led to the settlement of the question of Scotch Administration by the reappointment of a Scottish Secretary with a power and authority which, if wisely used, cannot fail to be of great advantage to the country. The revival of this office recalls the circumstances under which the Treaty of Union was accomplished, and suggests the question which has often been put by despairing politicians – How the union with England has produced such opposite results in Ireland and Scotland? Having alluded to the well-known results in Ireland, and explained their causes, he went on to say – In Scotland, on the other hand, our condition at the time of the Union was altogether different. We had our own independent system of laws. Our king had become the English king, but for his Government in London we had small regard. We had an independent Legislature which had always faithfully reflected the spirit of the country. Between the two nations there was no real sympathy, and now that the desire was rising to found colonies and establish a foreign trade, England seemed less disposed than ever to promote or even to permit any schemes to be carried out which were likely to be to the advantage of this country. Accordingly, when the Darien scheme was started, the English merchants rose against it, and threw every possible obstacle in the way of its accomplishment. Probably, like many another sound enterprises, it was before its time, but we now can appreciate what immense advantages it would have conferred, both on these islands and the continent of America, if it had been allowed to succeed. It failed miserably, solely through the jealous opposition of the English, who were determined that the Scotch should have no lot or part with them, either in founding new settlements or in engaging in foreign commerce. Ultimately our richer and more powerful neighbour, possessing the ear of the Government in London, succeeded in their opposition, and the ruin of the Darien scheme, and practically, also, the ruin of the whole country, was complete. It was in these circumstances that, at the beginning of the century, the question of Union came to be discussed, the English scheming to get rid of their northern neighbour with its troublesome Parliament, and the Scotch prepared to sacrifice something of their independence in order to extend their trade, but never contemplating anything beyond a federal union. The prevailing feeling in the country may be gathered from the speech delivered by Mr John Spottiswoode at a meeting of the freeholders of Berwickshire, convened to choose a commissioner to represent them in the Parliament appointed to be held on 12th November 1702. ‘We cannot,’ he says, ‘fancy a more deplorable state than ours has been since King James the Sixth came to the throne of England. Our nation has been despised, our interests neglected both at home and abroad – our princes and statesmen under the influence of the English, who make us partake with them of the calamities of war, but we enjoy none of the conquests, and when peace is made we are not so much as named; so that the benefit of the treaties and leagues of commerce which we had before the year 1603 are lost, and we are more enthralled by the English than if we were conquered by them.’ He proceeds to indicate a wish for a union, ‘for as we are united in the head, we should likewise be united in the body;’ but ‘if that cannot be obtained without derogation to the dignity of this crown and country, it is necessary that measure be laid down for their entire disjunction after Her Majesty’s decease without issue.’ This idea, which was very generally entertained throughout Scotland at the time, was a masterly stroke of policy, and in the result secured for Scotland a union with England on terms far more favourable than would otherwise have been obtained. Having briefly delineated the events leading up to the passing of the English ‘Act of Settlement,’ the passing by the Scotch Parliament of the Act of Security, the subsequent passing of a counter Act by the English Parliament, and then the framing of the Treaty of Union. Sheriff Smith spoke of the rage and indignation of the people when the terms of the Treaty of Union came to be known, and referred to the petitions sent up by almost every town and parish to parliament protesting against the ratification of the proposed union. Nor was it, he added, difficult to show its apparent unfairness. In 1706, Scotland had a population of two millions, while that of England was really not six millions, and therefore of the 513 members which sat in the English House of Commons, we should have been allowed one-third, or about 170, instead of which it was proposed to give us only 30, a number increased at a later stage of the negotiations to 45. As regards the House of Lords, with its 500 English Peers, Scotland was to be allowed to send only 16. The hollowness of the argument that the treaty could not be legally violated was soon proved by events. By the Act of Union, the Scottish Privy Council had been left in existence as a necessary part of our separate Government. But in 1708 it was abolished by an Act ‘for rendering the union of the two kingdoms more complete,’ through the creation of one Privy Council for Great Britain. In 1713 the malt tax, which was first established in England in 1697, was extended to Scotland in the direct teeth of an Article of Union expressly prohibiting it. We still retained our Secretary of State for some years after the Union, but the Duke of Roxburgh, who then held the office, was dismissed, and Walpole sent down to Scotland Lord Islay, a brother of the Duke of Argyle, with general instructions to suppress the opposition to the measures of the English Cabinet. In a letter to Lord Islay Walpole discloses what was the intention of the Government with respect to the management of Scottish affairs. ‘It may not be improper,’ he says, ‘to acquaint you that the scheme is to put an end to the office of Scotch Secretary,’ and accordingly, although it was revived for a time in the person of Lord Selkirk in the year 1731, the office finally disappeared in 1746 with the resignation of Lord Tweeddale along with the rest of the Granville Cabinet. When the Pelham Ministry was formed it appears at one time to have been intended to appoint Duke of Argyle as Secretary; but the Duke of Cumberland, who since his successful suppression of the rebellion on the field of Culloden was allowed an authority in Scottish affairs out of all proportion to his abilities, and for which the disturbed state of the Highlands was the only excuse, gave his voice against it. The affairs of Scotland thus devolved upon the English Secretary of State for the Home Department, and naturally he took as his advisers the Lord Advocate and the Solicitor-General, and sometimes also the Lord Justice-Clerk. Then began with the rise of Henry Dundas, in 1766, the long reign of that family known as the Dundas Dynasty. he proved a very powerful Minister, and naturally attracted to his office of Lord Advocate many duties which were quite outside his proper official functions. The arrangement has so continued to this day; but it cannot be said that it has ever given satisfaction to the country, and no system can be satisfactory which makes the Lord Advocate a mere negotiorum gestor, obliged to take up official business which does not properly belong to him for no better reason than that the office of Secretary has for a century been allowed to remain vacant. The subject has been frequently mentioned in Parliament since the year 1855, and the revival and reappointment of a Scottish Minister, which is now in contemplation, may be described as one of those subjects on which men of all political parties are agreed… A deep love of Scotland, ‘our auld respectit mither,’ and of the memories ad associations which cluster round it, has come to be an important element in the formation of our national character. It is something more than a mere empty sentiment. To fully appreciate its force and value we have to go abroad and observe how much it influences Scotsmen in a new country, producing that marvellous capacity for getting on which makes them welcomed wherever they may go. In Australia and New Zealand, in Canada and the United States we find our countrymen occupying the foremost places, with apparently a special genius for all business connected with the handling of money. It is this fact, more than any feeling of the pride of race, which makes the preservation of our separate nationality a distinct gain to the rest of the Empire as well as to ourselves. As a shrewd American once observed to me when on a bright September day we sat on one of the slopes of the Rocky Mountains, surveying the splendid scene before us, and discussing the future of the Great Republic – the fact of a man’s being born and educated in Scotland was worth to him many thousand silver dollars, because everywhere is his nationality accepted as the proof and symbol of the qualities which command success. The restoration of a separate administration is therefore to be prized, because it secures to us for the future the Scotland of the past.”
– Aberdeen Free Press, Saturday 11th April, 1885.