If you want to learn about your country’s history, it’s a good idea not to consult a politician. With a few honourable exceptions (Gladstone, Churchill, Jenkins), their grasp of the truth of their country’s past tends to be a tad woeful.
Such pathetic knowledge of British history has always tended to go hand-in-hand with anti-European feeling, for some reason. Britain’s one-time Labour Party leader Hugh Gaitskell, for example, objected to the country joining what was then known as the European Economic Community (EEC) or Common Market, as he considered that it would mean ‘the end of a thousand years of history.’ Somebody should have reminded him (or else, someone surely must have done) that the united kingdom of Great Britain has not a thousand years of history. Great Britain, as we know it, was born on 24 March 1707: that was the date when the respective Acts of Union agreed by the parliaments at both Westminster and Holyroodhouse received their Royal Assents, with the date for England (which included Wales) and Scotland uniting as one combined nation-state set for 1 May that year. You could say, moreover, that Britain’s political birth certificate was issued on 1 May 1707.
Like a lot of earth-shaking historical events, there was nothing inevitable about the Act of Union. For sure, the kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland had shared the same monarch since 1603, but each state still retained its own government. The previous attempt (in 1649-51) at a political union of all three kingdoms had produced not a united kingdom but rather a united republic under the Rump Parliament and then Oliver Cromwell. Then, when the Stuart monarchy was restored in 1660, the idea of Union, like the idea of a republic, became somewhat discredited. It would take the combined unrelated events of a problematic royal succession, a European war, and a failed attempt at setting up a colony in Central America to bring England and Scotland together under one combined government.
In 1700 Spain’s mad king Carlos II died without leaving an heir. He had been a member of the Habsburg dynasty (whose princes also controlled the Holy Roman Empire), but his death left two rival claimants for the vacant Spanish crown – one from the Habsburgs and one from the Bourbons (a member of which family sat on the French throne). The English government were prepared to countenance another Habsburg monarch in Madrid but not a Bourbon one – as that could lead to a united Franco-Spanish superstate at some stage in the future (complete with all the resources available from Spain’s empire in the Americas). There then followed a bloody civil war in Spain, which quickly spilled over to the rest of Europe (the War of the Spanish Succession), in which the pro-Bourbon side were supported by France and Bavaria, and the pro-Habsburg side were backed by – well, practically every other European power. William of Orange, who had ruled both England and the Dutch Republic since 1688, had spent his entire adult life fighting against the expansionism of Louis XIV, and didn’t need to be reminded twice of the dangers a Franco-Spanish empire would pose to his homeland.
Then, in 1702 William of Orange died after being thrown from his horse outside Hampton Court palace. Like his Spanish counterpart, William had died without leaving an heir, and to make matters yet more problematic for the English his successor, his sister-in-law Anne, had no direct heir, either. The last of her many children had died in 1700, and there was little chance of her having any more. Her closest surviving relative was the Catholic “Old Pretender”, Prince James Francis Edward, who had been living in exile since the 1688 Revolution, and, given the neurotic, knee-jerk anti-Popery that formed a key part of national life at the time, the last thing the establishment of the day wanted was a Catholic monarch who would behave as badly as Charles II and James II had done. Parliament at Westminster therefore passed the 1701 Act of Settlement, whereby the monarch would always be a Protestant, even if (as it turned out) they would have to go as far as Germany (in the form of Elector Georg Ludwig of Hannover) to have their next one.
In normal circumstances, the 1701 Act would have been left as it was, and nothing more would have been said about it. The circumstances of the 1700s were, however, anything but normal. The whole of Europe was at war, and England was up to her neck in it. It wasn’t enough to have a secure succession and stable government: the English government of the day also needed to make sure there was no trouble on the country’s northern frontier and that the Scots would (at best) stay neutral in the war. The 1701 Act didn’t apply in Scotland, after all, and there was nothing to stop the government at Holyroodhouse inviting the Old Pretender back to be their monarch. So, representatives from both governments started talks on setting up a political union of both realms.
The Scottish government, despite its misgivings about losing Scotland’s independence, proved to be more amenable to the idea of Union than the English had expected. The country was, after all, still smarting from the Darién disaster of 1698-1700, when faulty intelligence led the government in Edinburgh to sponsor a move to set up a colony on the Darién isthmus (present-day Panama). The expedition failed: the chosen landing site wasn’t suitable for colonization, and the colonists had to fend off attacks from the Spanish authorities and indigenous inhabitants, as well as tropical diseases and infernal humid heat. 400 colonists died, the survivors limped home after less than two years abroad, and the Scottish government had a massive hole in its coffers – the kind of hole that could only be filled by union with England, and sharing in the spoils of England’s overseas empire. Indeed, one of the terms on offer in the 1707 Union bill was, from the English government, the precise combined amount of money that had been lost by Scottish investors over the Darién expedition.
Despite all this, passage of the 1707 Act still required a great deal of bribery in order for it to pass: Edinburgh legislators’ palms were said to have been greased to the tune of almost a quarter of a million pounds in the run-up to the Bill’s becoming law. Even so, the Act was not popular in Scotland: there were riots in Glasgow, and Daniel Defoe, working there as an English spy, reported that ‘for every Scot in favour [of Union] there is 99 against.’
In short, the creation of the united state of Great Britain was anything but a glorious and heroic exercise: it was an exercise moreover in frantic deal-making and cynical realpolitik, in which a united Anglo-Scottish state was chosen by both countries as the least worst of a range of less-than-attractive options. Nonetheless, this hasn’t stopped some people – not all of them politicians – from waxing romantic about Britain and Her Place In The World (TM), as last February’s edition of Question Time in Torquay, among other Brexit-flavoured debates, showed.