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).

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