Friday, 31 May 2013

Early years of the British Union

The Union of Scotland and England is officially portrayed as being between two equals, but the reality indicates otherwise.

The true outlook of the English ruling class was made clear shortly after the Union of 1707, when Britain’s First Lord of the Treasury, Robert Harley, asked the new British Parliament, “Have we not bought the Scots, and may we not claim the right to tax them?” It was the same Robert Harley (Earl of Oxford and Earl Mortimer) who, prior to the Union, had sent a number of spies to Edinburgh with the remit of informing on the activities of the Scots. One of the spies was Daniel Defoe, who would later find fame as the author of Robinson Crusoe, which was based on the real-life experience of Fife sailor Alexander Selkirk who had been shipwrecked and marooned for four years on an uninhabited island off the coast of Chile.

Within the British Union, Scotland has never been an equal partner with England. In 1707 the English parliament believed Union was simply the most convenient, and least bloody, means of removing a potential enemy on its northern border. In ‘buying’ Scotland, England concluded a deal it saw as a ‘win-win’ – not only was a historic enemy pacified, but Scots were now to be at the call of London in England’s foreign wars, including against France, a nation that had always enjoyed friendly relations with Scotland.

Initially, though, things didn’t go quite as England had planned. Within eight years of the Treaty of Union, many Scots rose to support the French-backed James Stuart in his claim to the British throne - the Scottish and English crowns having come together in 1603 when James VI of Scotland assumed the English throne on the death of the childless Queen Elizabeth.

James Stuart was a descendent of James VII of Scotland (James II of England), who had been deposed in 1688 by an army led by Dutch-born William of Orange (who was married to King James’ daughter Mary). The 1715 ‘Jacobite’ uprising – taking its name from Jacobus, the Latin form of James - was an attempt by the House of Stuart to reclaim the British throne.

It would be entirely wrong to portray the 1715 Jacobite uprising (or the later one in 1745) as being conflicts between Scotland and England. In fact, what lay behind the Jacobite rebellions was a dispute between two aristocratic dynasties over who should rule ordinary Scots and English, and over which religion – Catholic or Protestant – should prevail.

The mixed nature of the opposing armies is shown in reports of the Jacobite advance into England. It was recorded that they picked up around 1,500 English recruits as they marched through Lancashire. However, the Jacobites then suffered a significant defeat to a Hanoverian army, which included members of the Clan Cameron, at the Battle of Preston. The House of Hanover had assumed the throne in 1714 when German-born George I succeeded Queen Anne, who had, herself, succeeded her brother-in-law William of Orange in 1702.

Ultimately, the Stuart attempt to reclaim the throne was defeated and James escaped back to France in February 1716.

The 1745 Jacobite rebellion saw James Stuart’s son, Charles Edward Stuart, also make claim to being the legitimate sovereign of Scotland and England, as the descendent of the deposed King James VII (James II of England). Like his father before him, Charles Edward Stuart – known as Bonnie Prince Charlie or the Young Pretender – called for the support of ordinary men and led an army into England, reaching as far south as Derby. Again, Scots and English fought on both sides, in armies thrown into battle to defend the claims of two aristocrats, both of whom professed to be their rightful lord and master.

Unlike the earlier uprising, the aftermath of the 1745 Jacobite rebellion was to have devastating consequences for ordinary Scots, including many who had not even supported it.

Once again, forces loyal to the Hanoverian British monarch pushed the Jacobites back into Scotland, culminating in a bloody battle at Culloden, near Inverness, on April 16 1746.

Again, this was not a fight between Scotland and England. Contemporary accounts record a significant number of ordinary Scots fighting on the side of the British monarch and government, while the Scottish Jacobites were augmented by English Episcopalians, alongside Scots and Irish regiments of the French army.

British forces were led by Prince William Augustus, the Duke of Cumberland and son of King George II. Culloden was a decisive defeat for the Jacobites, but it was what happened following the battle that was to have a deep impact on the Highland way of life, and on Scotland’s place within the British Union.

Having won a resounding victory, Cumberland then ordered his men to scour the battlefield, killing anyone they came across, whether they were wounded Jacobites, fleeing Clansmen or innocent bystanders. The ‘justification’ for such brutal action was a claim that the Jacobites’ battle orders had contained the instruction that ‘no quarter’ should be given to British forces. However, the copy of the battle order containing the ‘no quarter’ instruction was a British forgery.

Marching under the British flag, Cumberland’s men then turned their attention to the area around the battlefield, hunting down any Jacobites who had managed to escape and killing them. Many innocent villagers and farm-workers suffered the same fate. Similar atrocities continued in the weeks and months following the battle, with hundreds of ordinary Scots killed and more burned from their homes.

Understandably, the brutal actions of British soldiers earned their leader the name ‘Butcher Cumberland’, with many Scots, to this day, referring to “the Butcher’s apron” to describe the British flag under which atrocities were committed.

The British parliament, containing just 45 representatives from Scotland – all of them members of the aristocracy - then enacted punitive legislation designed to curb the power of the clan system and prevent any further Highland-initiated uprisings against the British monarchy and establishment.

However, the new laws had much deeper consequences, leading ultimately to the destruction of the supportive social structures of the traditional Highland way of life and paving the way for the landed-aristocracy to carry out the act of ethnic cleansing that was the Highland clearances.

* Originally published as part of the Hidden History series in the Scottish Socialist Voice (Edition 418).

Friday, 24 May 2013

BBC Scotland bias

The anti-independence bias of BBC Scotland was laid bare last week.

Of course, the BBC does not overtly state “don’t vote for independence”: its actions are much more subtle than that, such as presenting British Unionist propaganda and scare stories as if they are fact, while practising censorship by omission through simply not reporting many positive independence stories.

Seemingly small matters, such as the use of particular words in reports, can leave a significant impression on viewers. For example, anti-independence stories emanating from British Unionist politicians are reported with gravitas, implying that they are founded in fact and not to be challenged. Contrast that with positive independence stories, which, if reported at all, are described as ‘claims’ being made by the SNP or Yes campaign.

This type of subtle persuasion – directing us towards a particular position - is nothing new for the BBC. For years, work-place disputes were reported in terms of the bosses making ‘offers’ (reasonable) while the workers made ‘demands’ (unreasonable). Go on, pick your side.

Early last week Holyrood magazine published an interview with former Labour MP Dennis Healy. Mr Healy was Chancellor of the Exchequer from 1974 until 1979, the period that covered the first Scottish Devolution referendum.

Please bear with me while we briefly go slightly off-topic, but it’s worth noting before we go on with the bias of BBC Scotland that the UK Labour Government of the late 1970s robbed Scots of devolution by imposing an undemocratic minimum requirement for pro-devolution votes. Labour decided that at least 40% of the entire Electoral Register had to vote for devolution or Scotland would not get it. This meant that people who had died but whose names were still on the Electoral Register were counted as having voted ‘No’. In the actual vote, comprising those who were alive enough to make it to a Polling Station, a majority of Scots voted for devolution (51%) but Labour’s manipulation of the rules – the first time in UK electoral history that a simple majority had not been sufficient to win – meant that Scotland had to wait a further 18 years before we got a Scottish Parliament by way of a second devolution referendum, this time without the undemocratic 40%-rule.

Now, the reason Dennis Healy’s interview with Holyrood magazine is pertinent to the bias of BBC Scotland is that the former Labour MP was the UK Chancellor who received the McCrone Report in 1974. The report was compiled by a Whitehall Treasury official, Professor Gavin McCrone, and was supposed to rubbish the idea of an independent Scotland. The SNP was riding the crest of wave in the mid-seventies and the UK Government instructed McCrone to research the economic position of an independent Scotland, with the intention of sinking the SNP ship by showing how poor Scots would be if they were ever daft enough to vote for independence.

Professor McCrone did his work, but his findings were not what the UK Government wanted to hear. Amongst other things, the McCrone Report stated that an independent Scotland, with control of North Sea oil revenues (90% of which lie in Scottish territorial waters), would have “embarrassingly large” financial surpluses, resulting in Scots having one of the highest standards of living in the world, while England (without Scotland’s oil) would have to borrow from its wealthy neighbour – Scotland.

The Labour Government, of which Dennis Healy was a senior member, marked the McCrone Report as ‘Secret’ before burying it in the Westminster vaults. It only came to light in 2005 following a Freedom of Information request.

To compound their underhand actions against Scotland, successive UK Governments then branded Scots as ‘subsidy-junkies’ reliant on hand-outs from England, when they knew full-well that the entire UK economy was actually reliant on revenues generated from oil fields in Scottish waters of the North Sea.

The significance of Dennis Healy’s interview with Holyrood magazine is that, almost 40 years after his government ordered the McCrone Report should not be made public, the former Chancellor of the Exchequer finally admitted British politicians had known an independent Scotland would have a very successful economy, and that they had duped Scots into believing otherwise.

Mr Healy told the magazine: “I think we did underplay the value of the oil to the country [Scotland] because of the threat of nationalism but that was mainly down to Thatcher. We [Labour] didn’t actually see the rewards from oil in my period in office because we were investing in the infrastructure rather than getting the returns and, really, Thatcher wouldn’t have been able to carry out any of her policies without that additional five-percent on GDP from oil.”

Of today’s British Unionist politicians and their scare-stories against Scottish independence, the former Labour MP said: “I think they are concerned about Scotland taking the oil, I think they are worried stiff about it.

“I think we [England] would suffer enormously if the income from Scottish oil stopped but if the Scots want it [independence] they should have it and we would just need to adjust, but I would think Scotland could survive perfectly well, economically, if it was independent.”

Finally, with regard to the ‘subsidy-junkie’ taunts directed at Scots, Dennis Healy described them as “myths” perpetrated, he said, by opponents of independence.

Clearly, such a significant intervention into the independence debate by a former UK Chancellor of the Exchequer is a major news story, but not to BBC Scotland. In all, Mr Healy’s comments merited a 15-second passing-mention during a report on another political story on last Monday’s Reporting Scotland.

Imagine if a former senior member of the SNP said the party had lied about the benefits of independence and had buried a report that showed the British Union was good for Scotland. It would have been the lead story on BBC Scotland news and would have featured for weeks on Newsnight and every other political or current affairs programme transmitted by the publicly-funded state broadcaster.

The day after BBC Scotland failed to report the comments of Dennis Healy, Reporting Scotland led with an anti-independence story that stated European Union laws would mean Scottish students could lose-out to non-Scottish students at universities north of the border after independence. The BBC was not deterred from running the story by the fact it had previously broadcast another anti-independence story that asserted an independent Scotland would not be allowed membership of the European Union. See, once you start telling fibs, you’ve got to remember what you said before.

Of course, BBC Scotland maintains it is impartial. The man tasked with ensuring impartiality is the broadcaster’s Scottish Head of News and Public Affairs, John Boothman. Mr Boothman, originally from Kilwinning, is a former Labour Party activist: his long-term partner is Susan Deacon, an ex-Labour MSP and Health Minister.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Bought and sold for English gold

In the first of a series looking at the history of the Union from 1707 to now, Campbell Martin looks behind the myths to see who actually profited from the Union, finding some striking parallels with today.


Contrary to some modern versions of the story, Scotland was not bankrupt when England came calling in 1706 with plans for a British Union.  It is correct to record that many Scots nobles had lost fortunes through backing for the Darien Scheme of 1698 to 1700, but the country of Scotland actually had a relatively prosperous economy - one contemporary writer noted economic growth of 2.5 per cent in the year prior to the Acts of Union.

The Darien Scheme was an attempt by wealthy Scots to copy England’s imperialism by establishing a foreign colony.  They chose the area of Darien on the Isthmus of Panama. 

Had the Scots nobles not been blinded by their vision of the great wealth they expected to accrue from their colonialist ambitions, they might have stopped to ask why the all-conquering Spanish had left Darien alone.  Essentially, the area was swampland.

A great deal of money and many Scottish lives were lost in the failed attempt to establish a colony in the Americas.  But the financial losses belonged to individual investors in the Darien Scheme, not to the nation or exchequer of Scotland.

However, the failure of Darien certainly played a major part in the subsequent union between Scotland and England.

From the perspective of ordinary Scots, the union with England was marked by treachery.  Robert Burns best described the situation in his work ‘Parcel O’ Rogues’:

Fareweel tae aa oor Scottish fame, Fareweel oor ancient glory,
Fareweel e'en tae the Scottish name, Sae fam'd in martial story.
Now Sark rins ower the Solwaysand, An' Tweed rins tae the ocean,
Tae mark whaur England's province stands,
Such a parcel o rogues in a nation.

What force or guile could not subdue, Through many warlike ages,
Is wrought now by a coward few, For hireling traitor's wages.
The English steel we could disdain, Secure in valour station,
But English gold has been our bane,
Such a parcel o rogues in a nation.

Oh would e're I had seen the day, That Treason thus could sell us,
My auld grey heid had lain in clay, Wi' Bruce an loyal Wallace.
Wi pith an power, till my last hour, I'll mak this declaration,
We were bought and sold for English gold,
Such a parcel o rogues in a nation!

The members of the Scots parliament who sold-out their country were motivated by self-interest.  The fact Scotland would disappear as an independent nation mattered far less to them than the accumulation of personal wealth.  Many of the Scots nobles who backed union with England were the same individuals who had lost fortunes trying to emulate the English colonialist model through the Darien Scheme, and what actually took place in 1707 had striking similarities to the economic crisis of today.

Currently, ordinary men, women and children are paying the heavy price that stems from the collapse of global capitalism, an economic system based on exploitation and greed.  In order to accrue ever greater personal wealth, bankers and speculators in financial markets exploited and fleeced everyone, from other banks to men and women desperate for a mortgage to put a roof over the heads of their children.  Then, when their corrupt system collapsed, they looked for a bailout – and so it was with the Scots who voted for union with England.

Many of the so-called nobility in Scotland saw union as providing trading and financial opportunities by allowing access to England’s growing colonies, but the principle attraction was the offer of English money to offset losses caused by the failure of Darien.  It was not the nation of Scotland that required a financial bailout in 1707, it was private individuals - the capitalists of their day who, motivated by greed, had sought to exploit and fleece others, only for their corrupt venture to collapse.

By far, the most highly-paid of the Scots nobles willing to sell-out their country was the Duke of Queensbury, acknowledged as being largely responsible for the successful passage of the Act of Union through the Scottish Parliament, who received from the English the sum of £12,325, broadly equivalent today to £1,718,000.

Other payments made to the “parcel o’ rogues” who voted for union with England ranged from £1,104-17s-7d (equivalent to £154,000 today) paid to the Earl of Marchmont, down to £11-2s (£1,500) pocketed by Lord Banff.

In all, records show England made payments to 30 Scottish Earls, Dukes and Lords to buy their support for union: the total figure paid was equivalent to around £3m today, which means Scotland’s independence was sold for little more than the £2.7m tax-free lump sum paid in 2008 to disgraced former Royal Bank of Scotland boss Fred Goodwin on his resignation.

Originally published in the Scottish Socialist VoiceEdition 417 (May 10 2013).