How much of a Blessing has the Union been for Scotland?

[Treaty of Union Articles Contents]



Kilcascan, 18th Nov., 1871.  

   SIR – We frequently hear it said that the Irish people should rest contented with the deprivation of legislative independence, because the people of Scotland are contented with a similar deprivation. ‘You, Irish, should be satisfied with your Union; for the Scotch are satisfied with theirs.’ It would be about as reasonable to tell the Scotch that they ought to be dissatisfied with their Union, because we Irish are dissatisfied with ours. The Scotch would doubtless indignantly deny that they ought to regulate their judgment on their own national concerns by the judgment which Irishmen may happen to form on Irish affairs. Just so do we consider that we are competent to decide for ourselves the question of Irish Home Rule, without reference to the sentiments that Scotchmen entertain on the subject of the Scotch Union of 1707. 

   It is said that Scotland has prospered immensely since the extinction of her Parliament; and hence it is inferred that the Union has showered blessings over Scotland. Now, to tell a nation that her interests require the extinction of national self-rule, the transference to another nation of supreme control over her public concerns – to tell her this is extremely like saying, ‘You are a nation of fools, or knaves, or both; you are such blockheads that you are unfit to be trusted with the government of your own country. It is indispensible to your welfare that the supreme power should be wrested from your incompetent hands. Your country will go to ruin unless we consign you to the custody of a keeper better fitted than yourselves to take charge of your national interests.’ 

   All this is implied by the assertion that a country gains by the extinction of its separate legislature, and the absorption of its governmental functions into those of an assembly external to itself. I do not believe that the Scotch deserve the imputation of folly and incompetence involved in the assertion that they have been gainers by the destruction of the Scotch Parliament. I have so much faith in the general intelligence and the legislative capacity of Scotchmen, that I fully believe Scotland would have reached a great height of prosperity, even although her own nobles and commoners had continued to legislate in Edinburgh; exercising sole and unfettered control over Scotch concerns; and giving to their native metropolis and their native country the benefit of their residence, and of the expenditure of the annual millions which, thanks to the Union, they now withdraw from Scotland to London. 

   That Scotland has improved in many respects since 1707, is attributable, not to the Union which deprived her of Home Rule, but to the sagacity and industrial energy of her people. These qualities will achieve a large amount of general prosperity, in despite of exceedingly adverse circumstances. In the case of Scotland they have effected much, but not so much as they would have effected if the drawbacks of absenteeism, and of absentee legislation, did not exist. The beneficial force of persevering effort in defiance of formidable obstacles, is admirably stated by Lord Macaulay in his ‘History of England’:- 

   ‘In every experimental science,’ says his lordship, ‘there is the tendency towards perfection. In every human being there is a wish to ameliorate his own condition. These two principles have often sufficed, even when counteracted by great public calamities and by bad institutions, to carry civilisation rapidly forward. No ordinary misfortune, no ordinary misgovernment, will do so much to make a nation wretched, as the constant progress of physical knowledge and the constant effort of every man to better himself, will do to make a nation prosperous. It has often been found that profuse expenditure, heavy taxation, absurd commercial restrictions, corrupt tribunals, disastrous wars, seditions, persecutions, conflagrations, inundations, have not been able to destroy capital as fast as the exertions of private citizens have been able to create it.’ 

   It is quite true that a country may make considerable advance, notwithstanding great public calamities; but who will be so absurd as to assert that the advance is attributable to the calamities? or that the advance would not have been greater under favouring, instead of adverse, circumstances? Whatever advance Scotland has made under the Union, she would assuredly have made greater advance under Home Rule. Are we to suppose that if the Scotch Legislature had continued to sit at Edinburgh, the wheels of progress would have stopped? that in Scotland alone there would have been no tendency towards a perfection in experimental science? that Scotchmen alone would have made no effort to better themselves? Such a question needs no answer. The two principles which are truly pronounced by Lord Macaulay to be powerful agents of national prosperity would have actively operated to raise Scotland to a higher level of material greatness than she at present occupies; for their operation would not have encountered the obstacles which I shall place before you in quotations from Scotch authorities; while the public and private efforts of Scotchmen would have been ennobled and invigorated by the animating consciousness that Scotland was the sole arbiter of her own destinies. The first authority I shall cite is the Edinburgh Review for October, 1854. 

   It is well to remark that the reviewer is a Unionist, and that consequently his statements may be regarded as admissions: 

   ‘The immediate and palpable loss which she (Scotland) sustained by the removal of her parliaments was compensated by no perceptible advantage; on the contrary, many imposts were suddenly increased, and the inroad of a staff of English Revenue officers, wedded to forms and usages foreign to their habits, naturally became odious to her people. Nor was the abolition of her Privy Council, the introduction of an appeal from the Court of Session to the House of Peers, or the extension to the ‘ancient kingdom’ of English treason-laws and commissions of the peace, in technical language unintelligible beyond the Tweed, looked on otherwise than as a systematic abolition of all her most cherished juridical institutions… From the great expense attending their attendance, many of her representatives were absentees from the United Legislature, or, when present, took little part in proceedings conducted under forms new to them and little understood… Again, the equalisation of trading privileges entirely failed to bring that expansion of commercial activity which had been long and ardently anticipated. The old burghs became more stagnant than ever, and though individual Scotchmen made their way to England and the colonies, where by prudence and persevering sagacity, they generally succeeded to a remarkable degree, such instances only increased the jealousy and added pungency to the sneers of their Anglo-Saxon competitors. Pre-existing discontents were thus to some extent sharpened by disappointment, and the minds of the more impressionable were prepared for those Jacobite intrigues which it had been a main object of the Union finally to defeat. 

   ‘There was, however, a more enduring evil attending the arrangement.’ (The reviewer here quotes from Burton’s ‘History of Scotland.’) “Many of the calamities following on the Union had much encouragement, if they did not spring, soon that haughty English nature which would not condescend to sympathise in, or even know, the peculiarities of their new fellow-countrymen… The pervading historical character of the events immediately following the Union, is, that English statesmen, had they desired to alienate Scotland, and create a premature revulsion against the Union, could not have pursued a course better adapted to such an end. The position of the countries demanded a delicate and cautious policy. Scotland had to go through the immediate perceptible evils of a departed nationality, a decaying retail trade, and increased taxation; the countervailing benefits from extended enterprise lay in the future. A paternal Government would, on such an occasion, have carefully avoided everything that irritated national pride or prejudices, and seemed, however slightly, to sacrifice the interests or independence of the one country to the other… But in almost every one of the changes just enumerated, the offensive act was offensively done, and the country was ever reminded that she was in the hands of ungenial and uninterested, if not hostile strangers.” ’ – (Edin. Review, Oct. 1854; Article, Burton’s Hist. of Scotland from 1689 to 1748.) 

   The evils of the Scotch Union are here candidly admitted; but both Mr. Burton and the writer in the Edinburgh Review are of opinion that those evils were counterbalanced by the privilege of freely trading to every quarter of the globe with which England had commercial connection. It is true that the Union communicated that privilege to Scotland; but the question here arises, whether Scotland could not, in the progress of events, have obtained that privilege without paying such an exorbitant price for it as the surrender of her resident Parliament? I have not any doubt that she could have so obtained it. Ireland obtained the like privilege in 1779; and she obtained it through the action of the Irish Parliament, backed by the Irish Volunteer army. Shall we be told that Scotchmen could not do for their country what was done by Irishmen for theirs? 

   It is also to be borne in mind that half a century from the date of the Union had elapsed before Scotland availed herself to any considerable extent of the commercial privileges which that Act conferred upon her. The heart and soul of the nation were saddened and embittered by the extinction of their legislature; and the popular feeling, compounded of wrath, indignation, and depression, was in a high degree unfavourable to commercial enterprise. ‘At the period of the Union,’ says Sir Walter Scott, in his interesting paper on the Scottish Regalia, ‘every reader must remember the strong agitation which pervaded the minds of the Scottish nation, who could not for many years be persuaded to consider this incorporating treaty in any other view than as a wanton surrender of their national independence.’ 

   Coming down to our own time, the Edinburgh reviewer whom I have quoted says:- 

   ‘How far the Treaty of Union continues to be fairly observed in its spirit, or whether it has been gradually infringed in the letter, are questions again brought freely into discussion. It is alleged that the progress of imperial centralisation, or a niggardly parsimony, has absorbed many Scottish establishments which were reserved at the Union; that the business of that country is consequently neglected, or systematically overlooked, in Parliament and the government offices, where her laws, institutions, local peculiarities, and interests are ill understood and inadequately represented.’ 

   In Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine for December, 1838, there is at page 809 a remarkable article entitled ‘REPEAL OF THE UNION – NECESSITY OF LOCAL LEGISLATION,’ in which the writer thus delivers himself: 

   ‘No one, we imagine, will be so absurd as to pretend that the affairs of Scotland can be as efficiently managed by a legislative body sitting hundreds of miles from her territory, and having the interests of an empire dispersed over the whole face of the earth, and containing more than a hundred millions of beings, to attend to, as by a Parliament meeting in Edinburgh. The Imperial Parliament is, in truth, unfitted for that department of legislation called ‘local’ and ‘personal.’ Such legislation is best conducted on the spot, or as near as possible to the spot, which is to be affected. Witnesses are then at hand, information can be got with expedition and at little expense; the members of a local parliament can be dismissed and again called together with little inconvenience. The expense at present necessarily incurred for a Road, a Harbour, or a Railway Bill for Scotland is intolerable. The members of an Imperial Parliament, the great majority of whom must naturally feel indifferent regarding the failure or success of any such measure can with the utmost difficulty be got to attend, or even to remain in the House when the matter is under discussion; and it is even not easily accomplished to get a quoram of the committee to whom the bill is remitted to go through their routine duties. Then, all matters relative to Scotland are slurred over in the reports of the debates – first, because the reporters think a ‘Scotch’ bill, though vitally affecting Scotland, is of no public importance; secondly, because they cannot intelligibly report what they, in general, do not understand; and third, because ‘Scotch’ business is generally put off till past midnight, an hour at which, except on extraordinary occasions, the reporters, by a well-organised combination – Whig, Tory, and Radical reporters agreeing in this point –  retire from their labour. The consequence is, that there is hardly a measure, however important, affecting Scotland, of the grounds for passing which her population are duly informed… We have not, at this moment, out of eighty-nine Scotch nobility, one resident in Edinburgh, and very few of our considerable landed proprietors… What is meant by a Repeal of the Union with Ireland, we do not exactly understand; but if all that is intended is, that the Irish should have the management of their own exclusive concerns, we heartily wish them success; and we hope that when the people of Scotland shall see the necessity of a legislature in Edinburgh, the Irish will assist them in obtaining it.’ 

   So spoke Tait in 1838; and it is not an extravagant supposition that the sentiments I have quoted are held by large numbers of the Scotch people. Those sentiments are so consonant with national self-respect, with the national requirements, and with common sense, that it is hard to believe that they do not exist in the popular mind. They do not, indeed, find noisy utterance, probably because the difficulties in the way of recovering Home Rule for Scotland have hitherto appeared so great as to deter Scotchmen from embarking in an agitation for that purpose. The high Scotch aristocracy, familiarised with Scotch Provincialism, and habituated to the fascinations of a London life, would be likely to repudiate the notion of restoring to Scotland her resident legislature. So, also, would all Scotch officials connected with the Imperial Government. But whether the Scotch people as a whole are contented or discontented with their provincial condition, it is absurd and insulting to tell us Irishmen that our sentiments on Irish Home Rule should be regulated on the Scotch model. Our action will be guided, not by what Scotchmen think, but by our own knowledge of our own needs, of our own rights, of our own wrongs, and of our own condition. 

   It must be conceded that an Imperial reason could be urged in Queen Anne’s time for the Scottish Union, which did not apply to the case of Ireland. There was this important difference between the Scotch and the Irish case: The identity of the Sovereign of Ireland and England was an essential part of the Irish Constitution; whereas no such identity was required by the Constitution of Scotland. That Scotland and England were governed by the same monarch resulted from the circumstance of James VI. inheriting the English Crown in 1603. The Scotch Parliament, exasperated by some aggressive acts of England, passed the Act of Security in 1704, by which the Imperial connexion with England was to be severed on the death of the reigning Queen. This Act necessarily furnished an argument for legislative Union to all statesmen who desired to preserve the identity of the Crown of Scotland and England. I will not here inquire whether the influence that induced the Scotch Parliament to extinguish itself, could not with much greater ease have induced that assembly to modify the Scotch Constitution by making the identity of the monarch of both countries one of its essential principles. This, I conceive, could have been done by the Scotch legislature, and confirmed by treaty with England. The idea appears to have occurred six years after the Union had taken place, when the Earl of Finlater moved in the United Parliament a bill for its repeal. His lordship, on the 1st of June, 1713, introduced his motion by a speech representing the grievances of the Scotch nation, and concluded by moving, ‘That leave be given to bring in a bill for dissolving the said Union, and securing the Protestant succession to the House of Hanover, the Queen’s prerogative in both kingdoms, and preserving the entire unity and good correspondence between the two kingdoms.’ After an interesting and animated debate, Lord Finlater’s motion was supported by 54 peers, and opposed by 54; there were 17 proxies for the negative, and only 13 for the affirmative; so that the motion was defeated by the small majority of four peers. At subsequent dates, many Scotchmen took up arms to restore the House of Stuart, much more from a belief that their restoration would be followed or accompanied by the restoration of the Scotch Parliament than from love of the fallen dynasty. The insurrections of 1715 and 1745 were, to a great extent, attempts to Repeal the Union by force of arms. Thus the Union had its share in producing the horrors of civil war. 

   The facts and testimonies I have cited seem to render it somewhat questionable whether the great mass of the Scotch nation entertain that cordial and affectionate attachment to their Union which is confidently attributed to them. I wish Scotland well; I should be glad to see her self-governed; but we Irish should, I think, be guilty of an impertinence if we exhorted her to agitate for the restoration of her legislative independence. That is a matter of which she is herself the best judge. And Ireland is, in like manner, the best judge of her own vital need of domestic legislation, and of the course to be pursued for the recovery of her legislative rights. – I am, sir, your faithful servant, 

W. J. O’N. DAUNT.”  

– Dublin Weekly Nation, Saturday 25th November, 1871.

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