Friday, 2 May 2014

307th Anniversary of the Founding of the Kingdom of Great Britain

The "King's Colours," the national flag of the Kingdom of Great Britain- originally designed on the orders of
King James VI and I to be used on English and Scottish ships on the high seas.
Yesterday was 1st May, the 307th anniversary of the union of the Kingdom of England and the Kingdom of Scotland to found the new Kingdom of Great Britain. Of course, the two kingdoms had been united under the same monarch since James VI, King of Scots, ascended to the throne of England on 24th March 1603. James VI and I was the first monarch to style himself "King of Great Britain," and had coins minted in Scotland proclaiming himself such; but in England, where his power was not so absolute, coins proclaimed simply as "King of England," and James was officially King of England, Scotland, France and Ireland (Kings of England having claimed the French throne, at least de jure, since 1340, and continuing to do so until George III relinquished the title in 1800) until his death.

Anne, Queen of Great Britain, the first monarch of
a united Kingdom of Great Britain
On the 1st March 1707, however, the Acts of Union passed by the Scottish and English Parliaments came into force; both Parliaments merged into a new British Parliament and Anne, Queen of England, Scotland, France and Ireland became Anne, Queen of Great Britain, France and Ireland. Wikipedia helpfully provides the following quote from historian Simon Schama on the union; "What began as a hostile merger, would end in a full partnership in the most powerful going concern in the world ... it was one of the most astonishing transformations in European history." Certainly, this did begin as something of a hostile merger. Queen Anne had been a key supporter of further integration of her kingdoms since coming to the throne in 1702 at the age of 37,  declaring it "very necessary" to conclude a union of England and Scotland in her first speech to the English Parliament. This was in part influenced by the risk of Scotland and England finding themselves under separate monarchs after Anne's death, if she had no children, as the Act of Settlement 1701 designating the Protestant Electress Sophia of Hanover as Anne's heir applied only to England and Ireland, which was not then a truly autonomous kingdom as Scotland was. The Scots, an influential minority of whom wished to preserve the rights of the Stuart dynasty to the throne rather than allow the German Hanovers to take over (and why not? The House of Stuart was a homegrown Scottish dynasty, after all, so such loyalty was more warranted in Scotland than in England), passed the Act of Security in 1704 that reserved for the Scottish Parliament to choose its own monarch following Anne's death, and not the same successor as the one chose by England unless certain conditions were met.

These conditions included the full freedom to trade in England for Scottish merchants. At the time, Scotland's economy was in trouble, the ambitious Darien scheme aimed at establishing a Scottish colony in modern day Panama and making Scotland a major international trading power. Unfortunately the Spaniards had scuppered the idea, and Scotland, having invested a quarter of the money circulating within its borders in the scheme since those slimey Dutch and English investors had pulled out, found itself in rather serious debt. Making money was therefore top of the Scots' minds at the time. England decided to fight back with the Alien Act 1705 which threatened Scotland with economic sanctions and declared Scots in England to be aliens (i.e. foreign citizens, despite being subjects of the same Queen, with limited economic and social privileges). Scotland, given a choice between negotiating a full political union with England or withdrawing the Act of Security, opted for union. A new joint Anglo-Scottish commission was set up to negotiate the terms of the union, and the Acts of Union were passed by the Parliaments of England and Scotland.

Floral badge of the Kingdom of Great Britain,
incorporating the Tudor rose and a
Scottish thistle.
There was little appetite for union in Scotland at the time. Indeed, Parliament had to impose martial law in order to suppress the anti-unionist riots, the Convention of Royal Burghs which represented the interests of the citizenry of Scotland's principal trading towns submitted a petition against the union, and on the day the treaty was signed, the carilloner in St Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh, rang the bells in the tune Why should I be so sad on my wedding day? However, the bride and groom of this arranged marriage did in time come to love each other, it would seem. Great Britain has proved a successful project, becoming the heartland of the industrial revolution and centre of the largest empire in human history, stretching around the globe so that it could be said that the sun never set upon the British Empire. Scots would play a major role in the rise of this empire, and far from the modern historical narrative of Scottish nationalists that Scotland was the first victim of English imperialist aggression, often Scotsmen were the driving force behind Britain's rise to imperial glory. It almost seems that having failed to build an empire on their own, the Scottish elite concocted a dastardly plan to feign submission to the English and then achieve their ambition of a Scottish Empire under the pseudonym of "Great Britain" and with English money and manpower to aid them. In 2002, author Michael Fry published a book, The Scottish Empire, chronicling Scottish involvement in the rise of the British Empire and bringing to light the Scots' status as partners, not servants, of the English in bringing Christianity, parliamentary democracy and afternoon tea to the world.

Although the Scots may not have entered the union willingly, in the long term they clearly benefited from it. Today Scotland retains the benefits of being part of a major world power, being defended by one of the world's most powerful militaries and being a part of the world's 6th largest economy, but has also regained much of its autonomy with its own parliament at Holyrood once more. It's a good deal. Scots should not just vote against independence this year for the perks, however; I hope they vote to remain British because they are proud to be British, and because since 1707, we Scots, Englishmen, Welshmen and even the remaining Irishmen in the United Kingdom have built a shared British identity that we can be proud of- without sacrificing our local identities. As a proud son of Scotia and Britannia, I wish you all a happy "Union Day." Long may it endure!

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