Douglas and the Act of Union


If Scotland had said No - A Douglas as king?

Michael Fry, writing in Scotland on Sunday, 14th january 2007, wonders what might have been

IT ALL went wrong in the end. It went wrong despite the fact that, by January 1707, the government of Scotland had come tantalisingly close to its goal of winning consent from the Parliament in Edinburgh for a Treaty of Union with England.

The head of the government, William Douglas, Duke of Queensberry, had tried every trick in the book to win over individual members of the opposition. He offered them money from a slush-fund thoughtfully provided by the English and jobs in a United Kingdom of the future.

And for a while this seemed to be working. Back in November 1706 the government had won the initial vote on the principle of the treaty, if by less of a majority than it hoped.

But as the details of the treaty came up one by one for debate, the feeling of unease grew in a Parliament being asked to vote itself out of existence.

Finally, in January 1707, came a break in the government's shaky coalition for the Union. The sticking point was the 22nd article of the treaty, setting out Scotland's future representation at Westminster. Meagre it was too: 45 MPs in the House of Commons, against 513 Englishmen, and 16 peers in the House of Lords, out of more than 200 members there. The crucial debate in the Scots Parliament proved a triumph for James, Duke of Hamilton. As leader of the opposition he had so far been a disappointment, not to say a failure.

But when Hamilton stood up in the Parliament on the fateful day, though battling against a toothache, he made such a brilliant speech, witty and moving at once, that the house went straight on to defeat the 22nd article by a decisive majority. It was so basic to the deal between England and Scotland, the product of long, hard bargaining by the original draftsmen on each side, that the whole treaty fell.

The Chancellor of Scotland, Lord Seafield, had feared some such disaster. He had ready his advice to Queen Anne in London about what course to follow now. He wrote out the opinion, bound to be unwelcome, that the Union could just never get through this Scottish Parliament.

The Parliament was not merely adjourned but shortly afterwards dissolved. The general election which followed gave a huge majority to the nationalists in Edinburgh, from an electorate furious at the attempt to sell the nation out. England and Scotland were not now going to come together in one country in 1707. In the event they never did.

It is interesting to speculate what would have followed if those proposals for Union had gone through after all. Three centuries later Scotland might have turned into 'Scotlandshire', in effect a mere county of England, with 2,000 years of history just a memory. Perhaps people would still have dressed up in kilts and tartans, but it would all have been meaningless.

Luckily things took a different turn, and the eventual resolution of the crisis between Scotland and England proved in the end at least as beneficial to both as a Union could ever have been. The depth of the crisis at the time should not be doubted. In 1707 England was at war with France, one of many wars both nations would fight.

Scotland formed part of the strategic calculations not only of Queen Anne and her ministers in London but also of King Louis XIV and his courtiers in Paris. In the war the English and their allies were pressing against the frontiers of France, which had suffered crushing defeats at the Battle of Blenheim and Ramillies. One possible counter for the French was to open a second front, and for a while Scotland seemed a possibility.

The Scots disliked their arrogant and bullying southern neighbours. Many hoped that, when Anne died, they might restore the legitimate line of Stuarts in the person of the Jacobite claimant, James, son of the James VII of Scotland deposed and exiled to France by the Revolution of 1688.

The English had, meanwhile, already decided that the legitimate line of Stuarts should never come back. It was Roman Catholic, and they wanted only Protestant monarchs. By the Act of Settlement of 1701, the English determined their crown should pass on Anne's death to the House of Hanover, which had the next best claim.

But what were the Scots to do on Anne's death, now a Union of Parliaments was off the agenda? They had always refused to accept the Hanoverian succession for themselves, even though it might solve their problems with England. It had seemed bad enough being ruled by monarchs who, though Scots in origin, had become to all intents and purposes English, and resident in London since the Union of Crowns in 1603. To have Germans ruling them from London could only make things worse.

One alternative was to recall young James, the Jacobite pretender. But though Highlanders supported him, Lowlanders did not. Civil war might follow his accession, or invasion from the south. In the end the Crown came to hover over the brow of the Duke of Hamilton himself. The blood of the Stuarts ran in his veins too. In the 15th century one of his ancestors had married a daughter of James II, King of Scots. It gave him not a wonderful claim to the throne, but unlike the rest of the candidates, Hamilton was a born Scotsman.

An Act of Settlement named him and the heirs of his body to follow Queen Anne. Hamilton himself was never to become king, as he died in an ill-conceived duel in 1712, but on Anne's death in 1714 his young son succeeded as James VIII, King of Scots, while his distant cousin from Hanover became King George I of England. This arrangement suited both nations perfectly well and they have continued to live as friendly neighbours ever since.

By the same deal as established the Hamiltonian succession, free trade opened up between Scotland and England. Its terms also included the English colonies, and commerce with America began to offer solutions to deep-seated economic problems. Glasgow became the biggest destination in Europe for the import of tobacco. The profits laid the foundation for the industrial revolution during the 19th century.

It may seem a paradox that the end of the Union of Crowns heralded easier relations between England and Scotland, though the way forward was not always smooth. The French finally made their move by assisting the Jacobite pretender to land at Peterhead to make a bid for the throne in 1715, in the first year of young James VIII's reign. But the fact that this 13-year-old boy was himself a Scot made the whole nation rally round to face down a foreign intervention. The loyalist victory at the Battle of Sheriffmuir put an end to the Jacobite cause. There were rumours of a further invasion as late as 1745, but nothing came of them.

With old feuds being allayed under a native dynasty, Scots entered an era of peace and prosperity such as they had never known. As well as good political relations with England, cultural links blossomed with France and the Continent.

The result was the Enlightenment. For wider circulation in Europe, authors not using the old Scots tongue often preferred French. David Hume's Traité de la Nature Humaine and Adam Smith's Enquete sur la Richesse des Nations figured among such works. Sir Walter Scott even reached a mass readership, in Scotland and in Europe, with his La Mariée de Lammermoor, his L'Ancienne Mortalité, his Gantelet-Rouge and his La Belle Jeune Fille de Perth. Once translated into English, he became popular in England and America too.

While keeping up cultural contacts in Europe, Scots fought their wars with the English. This meant they were also able to exploit opportunities in the English Empire. They had the best of all worlds.

King Douglas I (1769-1799) raised regiments and sent them to America to help the English in their unsuccessful effort at quashing the colonial rebellion which created the United States. Before his accession to the throne, the diplomacy of King Alexander IV (1813-1852) forged the alliance between England and Russia that won the war against Napoleon. King Alfred (1895-1940) liked commanding his little Scots navy, though by the middle of his reign most power of governance had passed to the Parliament on Calton Hill in Edinburgh.

And so we come to the present monarch, King Angus. He ushered in an especially distinguished phase in the history of the royal House of Hamilton. A great part in it has been played by his brother, Prince James Douglas-Hamilton, now about to retire after a long spell as a leader of the Tory party. The Tories remain, as they have been since 1707, the sternest defenders of Scottish independence. They insist that Scots and English, though the best of friends, are better apart than together.


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This page was last updated on 12 October 2021

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