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The myth of the Most Successful Union

"The most successful union in history." That's what the No campaigners would have us believe of the United Kingdom.

Unionists are good at myths. Take 1603 and 1707, for example. Along with 1314, they are most celebrated dates in Scottish history.

But they're an odd trio. One symbolises the desperate, generation-long, struggle to keep Scotland on the map. The other two mark its removal, a whimpering end to almost a thousand years of sovereignty.

However, a remarkable myth, taught to every Scottish child, has sweetened this very bitter pill.

In 1707, we're asked to believe, the Scots and English sat down at the bargaining table as equals to jointly agree their shared future.

The outcome, it seems, was a triumph for the canny Scots over the dullard English. All the Sassenachs got out of it was the security of their northern border.

They were absolutely terrified of us, you see, and were prepared to pay an enormous price for peace. So we got access to their trade and their empire and took up seats in the London parliament. But we remained 'Scotland' with our own distinctive educational, legal and religious systems.

Another, more negative, spin of this myth is that in 1707 Scotland was bankrupt, broken, starving - its economy ruined by an insane project to establish a trading colony in a tropical swamp.

No doubt 1707 is where our national cringe started: we were just too wee, too stupid, too poor to run our own affairs.

The harsh reality of 1707 is that the terms of the union were dictated by the English government. Queen Anne even selected the Scottish negotiators! An English invasion was threatened. It was a formidable piece of intimidation. Malborough's armies had just beaten the best Europe could put up against him.

It was a cheap victory for England. There was no need for a costly invasion. Scotland's elite was easily bought off. I doubt if allowing Scotland to keeps its schools, churches and some legal peculiarities caused the English negotiators sleepless nights.

In return, England not only pacified an awkward neighbour but gained access to Scotland's natural and human resources. So much, like the oil in the late 20th century, was taken with very little return to Scotland.

The truth is the union of 1707 incorporated Scotland into England. Oh, fancy names like United Kingdom of etc. etc. were dreamed up but the English and the rest of the world have never bothered with these unless required to be on their best behaviour. Why bother when 'England' will do?

Nor was Scotland broken and starving in 1707. Indeed, the people of Scotland, its guilds and local councils, protested bitterly against the union. For the first 50 years, its impact was negative. It was only from the middle of the 18th century that Scots began to benefit from Britain's industrialisation and its plundering of the world.

Such benefits were exhausted by the start of the 20th century as Britain's imperial grip weakened and its economy was overtaken by rivals. If political matters were decided by logic alone, our independence referendum would have taken place in 1914, not 2014.

Another myth has grown up around the Union of Crowns in 1603. We love to inform the world that the first monarch of the United Kingdom was a Scot. The way we tell it, a Scottish monarch, more or less, conquered England.

The unpalatable reality is that in 1603, the English crown incorporated the Scottish crown and put an end to it.

The numbers tell the story. James VI couldn't wait to abandon his lineage to become James I of England. Our current monarch is Elizabeth II, not Elizabeth I as she should be if there really had been a union of crowns. As any English person or foreigner will tell you, Elizabeth is Queen of England (ie United Kingdom, Great Britain or any other quaint cover story you Scots choose to believe in.)

The so-called union of crowns undid Scotland. With James VI went royal patronage and political power. In the course of the next century, the Scottish state was hollowed out. By 1707, the capacity to resist throwing in the towel had gone.

Historians like Professor Geoffrey Barrow stress that the Scots' historical resistance to English conquest was founded upon not just the leadership of a king like Robert Bruce but the patriotism of its social and political leaders - what he calls 'the community of the realm of Scotland'. After 1603, that community was enfeebled, bought off, anglicised and broken up.

The further narrative of these myths is that without the unions of 1603 and 1707, Scotland could not have progressed. So hapless are Scots in these myths, they might possibly have regressed into some kind of dark age, their mineral resources undeveloped, Glasgow's favourable geographical location for the Americas' trade unexploited.

The example of small, independent European states suggests otherwise. In the nineteenth century, Belgium experienced the fastest rate of economic growth in Europe. Antwerp was a powerhouse of international trade.

The Danish rate of growth was not far behind, its agricultural sector booming. In 1938, the New York-based Life magazine calculated that Sweden had the highest standard of living in the world.

Then there's Norway - the great 'what if' of alternative histories of Scotland. Rural de-population avoided in the 19th century, its oil resources carefully harvested in the twentieth for the benefit of present and future generations.

It's time to put the myths aside. If the UK is a successful union then all indicators of poverty, health, housing and incomes suggest that very few of the benefits have come Scotland's way.

Of course, we can do without the Braveheart myths as well. But the Bannockburn commemorations this year will at least remind Scots they definitely don't lack the capabilities possessed by Belgians, Danes, Swedes and Norwegians.

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