More of my musings on the Referendum and why I hope Scotland chooses Yes.
I don’t know much about the Act of Union of 1707 because I wasn’t alive then so I have to rely on what I read but I have learnt that it was hugely unpopular among all the various strata of society in Scotland at the time. I know that, later, Robert Burns would write about the Parcel of Rogues – the Scots who were bought and sold for English gold, all 31 of them, of whom only one was opposed to the union, who changed forever the course of Scotland’s history. I know The Act of Union was not as a result of anything resembling democracy. I know that the Act of Union followed the Darien Disaster, which bankrupted Scotland, in part, because of the English blockade off the coast of Darien. I know that England promised to compensate and did compensate many of those who had lost the most in the Darien scheme, unsurprisingly, the same people who would vote for the Union. And the bribes didn’t stop there. I encourage you to read about it. Daniel Defoe (of Robinson Crusoe fame) was a spy for the pro-Union camp and acknowledged that for every pro-union Scot there were 99 opposed. He would later admit that his prediction that trade and population in Scotland wold increase following the union was “not the case, but rather the contrary.” The union was a bad deal for Scotland from the very beginning.
I know that before the union the Parliament of Scotland was a unicameral body and the Parliament of England was bicameral with an upper house, The House of Lords, composed of only people with titles. And I know that the unified parliament followed and still does follows the English bicameral model. In 1707, Scots peers were invited to join the upper house (a privilege they obviously could not enjoy in Scotland); it is worth acknowledging that there were certained principled titled Scots who campaigned against the union – they were not seduced. Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun, a fierce opponent of union said that Scotland “suffered the miserable and languishing condition of all places that depend on a remote seat of government.” And a form of government foreign to Scots. Nothing has changed.
As an expatriate Scot living (and practicing law) in the US, I find that I look at what’s happening in my home country through an interesting lens. I compare. And here’s what I see. The United States, for all its faults, has a pretty good democratic structure, especially when you consider its size and diversity. The Federal Government is bicameral but unlike the British model, the members of both houses are elected. The lower house, the House of Representatives, is made up of 435 members representing each of the 50 States. The number of representatives from each State is reflective of that State’s population to the population of the country as a whole; so currently California has 53 representatives and Wyoming has three. Every ten years, following the census, the States’ numbers of representatives is reviewed and modified as populations change. To counter the massive imbalance and potential drowning-out of the voices of the smaller States by the larger states in the House of Representatives, the upper house, The Senate, has two, elected, senators from each State. So tiny Wyoming has the same number of Senators as mighty California. It’s not perfect, but its better than the hose of lords. Within each State, we find a similar federal system; for example, North Carolina has 100 counties, is bicameral and follows the federal model. Nebraska, on the other hand is the only State in the US that is unicameral; Nebraska chooses not to have an upper house. And so long as it doesn’t violate the one person/one vote Constitutional mandate is just fine. Again, for as much as what both Americans and non-Americans would like to change about the United States, its fundamental democratic structure is sound.
The United Kingdom’s is not. For as long as the house of lords exists, Britain cannot legitimately call itself a democracy. The house of lords is a chamber of government. It’s a group of people through which legislature must pass before becoming law. It’s a group of people which can block law that the elected body wants. It’s a group of people made up of those who are not only not elected but who are frequently ensconced in that chamber by members of the lower house to advance their cause in a non-democratic manner.
I don’t know what the population of the respective countries was in 1707 but I’ve read that England’s was about 5 million and Scotland’s about 1 million. England’s population today is about 55 – 60 million and Scotland’s is about 5 million. While England grew, Scotland shrunk and its eventual population-growth was severely set back by the Highland Clearances of the late 18th and early-to-mid 19th centuries. Lest we forget, the Highland Clearances were nothing other than a continuation of the post-Culloden ethnic cleansing carried out by an alliance of the absentee English landowners who got to call themselves clan chiefs and the British government. Entire communities, extended families who had lived together in a complex family structure for centuries, were being told by their “kinsman”: you have to leave; we’re making room for sheep. No one had ever treated these family members as tenants before. So the government sent in soldiers to enforce the private rights of the landlords over their tenants.
And to this day, no meaningful concession has made either to real democracy or Scotland’s lack of a true voice in the British governmental system. Nothing like the American senate to ensure balance. Scotland has more representatives per capita in the British parliament than England does but it’s nowhere near to counterbalancing the huge English voting block. And it shouldn’t be. It would be terribly unfair to England to deny it of what it wants to do because the people of Scotland don’t want to do it. Neither country should be telling the other country what to do and what not to do. But the current structure can’t avoid it.
Scotland’s independence is England’s independence. We’re different countries. We have different ideas on how things ought to be done. We recognize that things ought to be done differently if conditions are different. And we agree on so much. We have so much in common. Just like we have so much in common with peoples of different countries. But we don’t presume to tell each other how to govern ourselves.
To be continued…