The Issue of Centralisation

[Treaty of Union Articles Contents]



(From Blackwood for September.)

   To say that Scottish nationality is a dream without an object, is to deny history, and to fly in the face of fact. The Union neither did nor could denationalise us. It left us in undisturbed possession of our national laws and of our national religion; and it further provided, as well as could be done at the period, and most anxiously, for the future maintenance of those institutions which the State is bound to foster and preserve. If it had been intended that in all time coming the Imperial Parliament of Britain was to have full liberty to deal as it pleased with the internal affairs of Scotland, certainly there would not have been inserted in the treaty those stringent clauses, which, while they maintain the institutions of the past, lay down rules for their regulation in the future. These were, to all intents and purposes, fundamental conditions of the treaty; and to that treaty, both in word and spirit, we look and appeal.

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   The object of the Treaty of Union was to establish uniformity of trade and privilege, internal and external, throughout the United Kingdom; to equalise taxation and burdens; and to extinguish all trace of separate interest in matters purely imperial. But it was not intended by the Union to alter or innovate the laws and institutions of either country – on the contrary, these were strictly excepted and provided for. The previous acts, both of the English and Scottish Parliaments, remained in force, applicable to the two countries; but, for the future, all legislation was to be intrusted to one body, ‘to be styled the Parliament of Great Britain.’ Referring again to the Treaty of Union, we find anxious and careful provision made for the maintenance in Scotland of three national institutions, the Church, the Courts, and the Universities; all of which the united legislature was bound to recognise and protect. In short, the whole spirit and tenor of the Treaty is, that, without altering national institutions, equality should be observed as much as possible in the future administration of the countries.

   It cannot be pretended that the Union implied no real sacrifice on the part of the Scottish people. London, to the exclusion of Edinburgh, became the seat of Government. Thither the nobility and wealthier gentry were drawn, and there a considerable portion of the revenue of the country was expended. That was the inevitable consequence of the arrangement which was made, and the Scots were too shrewd not to perceive it. But, on the other hand, the advantages which the union offered, seemed, in prospect at least, to counterbalance the sacrifice; and it was understood that, though the Scottish Parliament was abolished, and the Great Offices of State suppressed, the remnant local institutions were to receive from the British Government that consideration and support which was necessary to maintain them in a healthy state of existence.

   It is almost to be regretted that the Treaty of Union was not more distinct and specific on those points; and that no stipulation was made for the expenditure of a fair proportion of the revenue raised from Scotland within her bounds. That such a guarantee would have been advantageous is now evident; for, instead of diminishing, the tendency towards centralisation has become greater than ever. No Government has tried to check it – indeed, we question whether public men are fully aware of its evil. 

   As a country advances in wealth, the seat of Government will always prove the centre point of attraction. The fascinations of the court, the concourse of the nobility, the necessary throng of the leading commoners of Britain during the Parliamentary season, are all in favour of the metropolis. To this, as a matter of course, we must submit, and do so cheerfully; but not by any means because we are in the situation of an English province. It never was intended to make us such, nor could the whole power of England, however exerted, have degraded us to that position. London is not our capital city, nor have we any interest in its aggrandisement. We do not acknowledge the authority, in matters of law, of the Chief-Justice of England – we are altogether beyond the reach of the southern Ecclesiastical Courts. These are not accidental exceptions; they are necessary parts of the system by which it was provided that, in all things concerning our local administration, we were to have local courts, local powers, and a local executive. We complain that, in this respect, the spirit of the treaty has not been observed. Our Boards of Customs and Commissioners of Excise have been abolished; the revenues of the Scottish Woods and Forests are administered in London, and applied almost entirely to English purposes; and a like centralisation has been extended to the departments of the Stamps and Post-office. 

   But lest it should be said that these are grievances more shadowy than real, let us take the case of the Woods and Forests mentioned above. The hereditary revenues of the Crown in Scotland amount to a very large sum, all of which is sent to London, but hardly a penny of it ever returns. Holyrood, Dunfermline, Linlithgow – all our old historical buildings and objects of interest, are allowed to crumble into decay: because the administration of a fund which ought to be devoted to such purposes is confided to Englishmen, who care nothing whatever about the matter. By one vote in the present year, £181,960 were devoted to the repair and embellishment of Royal palaces, parks, and pleasure-grounds in England; but it seems by the statement of the Chancellor of the Exchequer that there are no funds available for the repair of Holyrood. Of course there can be no funds, if all our money is to be squandered in the south, and an annual expenditure of nearly £10,000 lavished upon Hampton Court, where Royalty never resides. Of course there can be no funds, if £40,000 is given for a palm-house at Kew, and upwards of £62,000 for Royal parks in England. But there are funds, if we may believe the public accounts, arising from the revenues of the Crown in Scotland, though most unjustly diverted to other than Scottish purposes. It may be, however, that, very soon, no such funds will remain. A large portion of the Crown property situated in Scotland has been advertised for public sale; and we may be sure of this, that not even a fractional portion of the proceeds will be applied to the north of the Tweed. Now, if the management of this branch of the revenue had been intrusted to a board in Edinburgh (as it formerly was, before the Barons of Exchequer were abolished), we venture to say that, without asking or receiving one shilling of English money, we could have effectually rescued ourselves from the reproach to which we are daily subjected by strangers, who are not aware of the extent to which centralisation has been carried. They look with wonder and sorrow at Holyrood, with her ruined chapel, and the bones of our Scottish kings and queens exposed to the common gaze, and ask whether they really are among a people famous for the enthusiasm with which they cleave to the memories of the past, and to the recollections of their former glories. Peering through the bars of that charnel vault where the giant skeleton of Darnley is thrown beside the mouldering remains of those who once wore the crown and wielded the sceptre of Scotland, they can recall no parallel instance of desecration save the abominable violation of the sepulchres of St. Dennis by the base republican rabble. And who are to blame for this? Not certainly the Scottish people, but those who have diverted the revenues applicable to purely national objects, to the maintenance of English palaces, and the purchase of London parks. 

   Centralisation has deprived us of several important offices which could have been filled quite as economically and efficiently for the public service in Scotland as in the south. We are by no means in favour of the extension of useless offices, but there is a vast difference between such and places of responsibility, where local knowledge becomes a very high qualification. It is impossible that a board, sitting in London, can give the same satisfaction to the people of Scotland, or conduct business so effectually, as if it was located among them. But, besides this, it seems to be a settled matter that Scottish official appointments are to be remunerated on a different scale from that which is applied in England and in Ireland. Why is it that our officials – in the Edinburgh Post-office, for example – are paid at a far lower rate than those who perform the same duties in London and in Dublin? Is it because Ireland contributes more than we do to the revenue? Let us see, the revenue of Scotland for the year ending 1852 was £6,164,804, of which there was expended in the country £400,000, leaving £5,764,804, which was remitted to London. The revenue of Ireland for the same period was £4,000,681, of which there was expended in Ireland £3,847,134; leaving a balance merely of £153,547. Have the people of Scotland no reason to complain whilst this monstrous inequality is tolerated? 

   Let us now turn to the Universities, which in the eyes of a Government so zealous as the present affects to be in the cause of education, and to Lord John Russell in particular, ought to be objects of considerable interest. Let us see how they have been treated. In the year 1826, a commission was appointed by George IV. to examine into the state of the Scottish Universities, and to report thereon. The commissioners, of whom the Earl of Aberdeen was one, made a report in 1831, to the effect that, in general, the chairs were scandalously ill endowed, and that adequate and complete provision should be made in all the Universities, so that the appointment to the chairs ‘should at all times be an object of ambition to men of literature and science.’ Four or five bulky blue-books of evidence, &c., were issued; but the only party connected with literature who derived any benefit from the commission was the English printer. Not a step has been taken in consequence by any administration, although two-and-twenty years have elapsed since the report was given in! Sir Robert Peel had no objection to found and endow Popish Colleges in Ireland, but he would not listen to the representations made on behalf of the Protestant Colleges of Scotland. In consequence, the emolument drawn from many chairs in Scotland is under £250 per annum, even in cases where the crown is patron. Such is the liberality of the British Government in regard to Scottish education in its highest branches, even with the most positive reports recorded in its favour. As for museums, antiquarian and scientific societies, and the like, they are left entirely dependent upon private support. We do not say that a Government is bound to expend the public money upon such objects as the latter; but it is at all events bound to be impartial; and really, when we look at the large sums devoted every year as a matter of course to London and Dublin, while Edinburgh is passed over without notice, we have a right to know for what offence on our part we experience such insulting neglect. This is a matter, moreover, which ought not to be lightly dismissed, inasmuch as, if Edinburgh is still to be regarded as a capital city, she is entitled to fair consideration and support in all things relating to the diffusion of arts and science. We do not desire to see the multiplication of British museums; but we wish to participate directly in that very lavish expenditure presently confined to London, for what are called the purposes of art. If we are made to pay for pictures, let us at least have some among us, so that our artists may derive the benefit. We have all the materials and collections for a geological museum in Edinburgh, but the funds for the building are denied. Nevertheless, a grant of £18,000 per annum is made from the public money to the geological museums of London and Dublin. 

   Passing from these things, and referring to public institutions of a strictly charitable nature, we find no trace whatever of State almonry in Scotland. Dublin last year received for its different hospitals £23,654 of state money. Edinburgh has never received the smallest contribution. Can any one explain to us why the people of Scotland are called upon to maintain their own police, while that of London receives annually £131,000, that of Dublin £36,000, and that of the Irish counties £487,000; or why half of the constabulary expense in the counties of England is defrayed from the consolidated fund, while no such allowance is made to Scotland. We should like very much to hear Mr Gladstone or Lord Palmerston upon that subject. 

   It is anything but an agreeable task for us to repeat the items of grievance, of which these are only part. There are others highly discreditable to the Government, such as the continued delay, in spite of constant application, to devote any portion of the public money to the formation of harbours of refuge on the east and northern coasts of Scotland, where shipwrecks frequently occur. But enough, and more than enough, has been said to prove that, while subjected to the same taxation, Scotland does not receive the same measure of allowances and encouragements as England, and that the system of centralisation has been carried to a pernicious and unjustifiable length. If these are not grievances, we are really at a loss to know what may be the true meaning of that term. To many of the English public they must be new, as we have no doubt they are startling; for the general impression is, that Scotsmen, on the whole know pretty well how to manage their own affairs, and are tolerably alive to their own interest. That is undeniable; but the peculiarity of the case is, that we are not permitted to manage our own affairs. England has relieved us of the trouble; which latter, however, we could not grudge to bestow, if allowed to do so. But our grounds of complaint are not new to statesmen and officials of every party. Representation after representation has been made, but made in vain. The press of Scotland has, year after year, charged the Government with neglect of Scottish interests, and warned it against persevering in such a course, but without effect. The unwillingness of the people to agitate has been construed into indifference; and now, when the national voice is raised in its own defence, we are taunted with previous silence…

   Another point, and it is one of vast importance, is to insist that, at the next adjustment of the representation, Scotland shall send its just proportion of members to the House of Commons. At present, whether the test of revenue or of population be applied, we are inadequately represented as contrasted with England. We pay more than a ninth of the whole revenue of the United Kingdom, but we have only a thirteenth part of the representation. It is quite necessary that this should be remedied, so that our interests may be properly and efficiently attended to in the Legislature. We care not what criterion is taken – whether that of revenue or that of population – but we have a right to demand and expect, that in this matter also we shall be dealt with according to the same measure which is applied to England. According to the last census, each of our Scottish members represents an average population of 54,166; whilst one member is returned for every 35,845 of the population of England. The apportionment ought to be made according to some clear, intelligible principle – not by a mere flourish of the pen, or an arbitrarily assumed figure. With a responsible minister, and an adequate representation, attention to the interests of Scotland would be secured; and it is the bounden duty of every man who wishes well to his country to bestir himself for the attainment of these objects.”

– Aberdeen Press and Journal, Wednesday 7th September, 1853.

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