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A Conjectural History (March 2007)

This article was first published on The Guardian's Comment is Free

This year marks 300 years of the union, but what would contemporary Scotland be like if the 1707 agreement had collapsed?



The BBC asked me to take part in a discussion about what would happen in contemporary politics had the union of 1707 collapsed. Which led to a "conjectural history", as the enlightenment literati would have put it, of 1707-2007.


As a result of the failed negotiations of 1707 a compromise was reached along Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun's "devolution" lines. This was a federal settlement, but subject to the same sort of strains which had bedevilled earlier aristocratic (12th and 13th century) and monarchic-union arrangements (1503, 1603). Memo: invading Scotland is easy, doing a deal with the natives easier; staying there is difficult, expensive, and stupid.

In Scotland political presbyterianism used English support, as in 1560, to end the Jacobite-Catholic threat in 1745, but in the later 1770s the English connection was wound down, through the influence of the American revolution and the loosening of English control over Ireland. Scotland's semi-independence was subsequently a control on England's overseas expansionism, not an accomplice.

The Scottish enlightenment became much more political, influenced by the "aristocratic republicanism" of George Buchanan and Fletcher. Its ethos was constitutional, secular and, with an input of Burnsian republicanism and increasingly deistic Presbyterianism, ultimately democratic. In the 1780s Scotland's urban, commercial elite did a deal with London and the state became another Hanover, with a diminishing role exercised by a bewildered royal governor in Holyrood Palace.

The energy once devoted to religious politics sublimated itself in the reform of Scottish local government in the early 19th century. Under utilitarian civil servants this produced powerful cantonal authorities controlling sanitation, social welfare and education, with an increasingly democratic franchise and the concession of votes to women in the 1870s.

Not surprisingly. For the "Commonwealth of Scotland" had at its head during the "Age of Mill", the country's philosopher-king. John Stuart Mill was welcomed back as first minister in 1859. The Community of the Realm, a limited but effective-enough States-General, covered foreign (largely commercial) affairs and transport. It refereed the real power of a flexible regionalism dominated by trading cities, by providing a state railway system and later an electricity network. Population followed European patterns of growth, rising like Sweden to nine million (from the common five million of 1900) by 2000.

Deprived of cash-seeking recruits, the British Empire was thus commensurately weak, and moves to autonomy were soon provoked among its members. By the late 19th century ("The Age of Gladstone" after Mill's successor, the father of the republic) the Scottish commercial elite with its mineral, finance and shipping interests acquired dominion status, followed by formal independence in 1905. (Wales went through an even more rapid transformation under David Lloyd George).

Neutrality in the first world war followed naturally, thanks to Scotland's close trading arrangements with other bourgeois neutrals: Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Switzerland and Holland. The result wasn't an over-concentration on useless armaments, but a balanced civic industrialisation adapted to what the country's foremost social thinker, Patrick Geddes, called the "neotechnic" epoch, when "carbon-power" was put under restraint. This compelled a northward migration of high-value-added services, and ultimately a leading role in the postwar settlement, which saw Edinburgh beat Geneva to house the League of Nations.

Scots bureaucrats and businessmen played an extensive role in the Anglo-French-directed creation of the west European alliance, though the populist backlash against "Euroscots" and "Eurojews" was one of the continent's darker chapters. Tragically, the need to settle the German and Russian questions and the associated rise of right and leftwing authoritarianism led to another conflict in 1939-45, in which Scotland and its troubled European associates took the US-English side in return for maritime and oil concessions.

Relations with England were subsequently sensitive and not always trouble-free, given the latter's slow progress towards a democratic constitution because of the residual power of political monarchism and the rightwing populism fostered by an (ironically often Scots-manipulated) press. This came to a crisis in such bizarre confrontations as the Charles-Thatcher imbroglios of the 1980s and 1990s, and the subsequent football-mania, which afflicted apparently rational sectors of the Anglo-bourgeois intelligentsia. The Scots drew a guilty breath: they had been there, and survived.

The subsequent English federal-regional settlement (the New Heptarchy Movement) did much to alleviate conflict and promote integration with Europe from the country's new capital at York. In this the "language issue" somewhat complicated the "environment issue". What the French termed "les Anglophones" (the four nations within The Islands) had overmuch power, Paris periodically alleged. This was something of a slander, given the expensive protection and encouragement of Welsh, Gaelic and the Irish. But weighing the environmental threats facing Europe, and the need to unite to fight against them, the rest of the continent found it could live with it.

And live it did.

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