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Agenda: Lessons to learn from history on binding Scotland to the Union

History seldom repeats itself but patterns of human behaviour do; and they inform relationships of every sort.

Chancellor George Osborne has ruled out any possibility of an independent Scotland sharing a common currency with the rest of the UK. Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls, and Liberal Democrat Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander align themselves with his stance.

What are the three parties hoping to achieve and are they likely to be successful? In different times but in curiously similar circumstances, the English parliament passed the Alien Act, which received the royal assent in March 1705. It declared that, if Scotland, then an independent country with a shared monarchy and her own parliament, did not agree to negotiate terms for a closer union, or to accept the Hanoverian succession to the throne, which had been enacted by the English parliament in 1701, then by Christmas Day 1705 Scotsmen would be treated as aliens.

The threat was to destroy Scotland's trade with England in cattle, coal and linen and to affect adversely the inheritance rights of families with estates in England. The Jacobite George Lockhart of Carnwath reacted strongly:-

"This was a strange preamble and introduction towards an agreement. First, to propose an amicable treaty to remove grudges and animosities betwixt the two nations: but at the same time threaten the Scots with their power and vengeance, if they did not comply with what was demanded of them."

Even Daniel Defoe, employed at the time as a Westminster Government agent, referred to it as "an act ... the most impolitic, I had almost said unjust, that ever passed that great assembly."

Both Defoe and Lockhart realised that valid political decisions must be made freely, not through coercion or blackmail. Threats of economic sanctions do not sit well with protestations of friendship. In 1705 England was anxious to secure a closer or incorporating union to prevent a restoration of the Catholic Stewart line and to safeguard her security in her war against France.

The Scottish parliament had demonstrated a worrying independence of mind and had enacted its right to choose a successor to the Scottish throne, to impose conditions on any shared monarchy, and to give or withhold its consent to any war, treaty or alliance. Alarm bells were ringing at Court, and ministers embarked on a hardline policy to compel Scotland to accept full union and a monarch chosen by the English Parliament.

Did the plan work? In some ways it did for, in some five months, on September 1, 1705, the Scottish Parliament agreed to appoint a commission to negotiate for union. On the same day, the Duke of Hamilton, hitherto regarded as a strong opponent of union, proposed that the nomination of the Scottish commissioners should be by Queen Anne. A hasty vote was held and the motion carried by four votes. Thirty of the 31 Scots subsequently chosen by the Queen were Unionists. The inexorable drift to full Union began.

There were many other factors at work and many other defining events in the crucial autumn months of 1705. But the Alien Act sufficiently frightened the nobility (who held the great offices of state) to enlist the support of most for union. Yet Lockhart's anger was shared by the Scottish Parliament. Even at its most supine it demanded repeal of the Act prior to union negotiations. A few weeks later, recognising the strength of feeling, the English Parliament rescinded the Act.

What of today? The Westminster Government has chosen once more to use confrontation over the economy as a method of binding Scots to the Union. Yet decisions about the future of Scotland are to be made by its people. Whether the leaders of the Westminster parties in Scotland will articulate anything of the anger widely expressed by Scottish MPs of every hue in 1705 remains to be seen. And whether the Scots who claim to be "proud Scots and proud Britons" can continue to do so with conviction may yet prove to be the turning point in the referendum campaign.

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