FOR much of the last decade, the nature of Scotland’s relationship with England has been under intense scrutiny. But as we weigh up the relative merits of Union, ‘devo max’, federalism, and independence, it is worth remembering that Scots have been here before: similar debates raged throughout the century before the Treaty of Union came into effect in 1707.

Union, in one form or another, is an old idea – the great Scottish scholar John Mair was a vocal advocate for Anglo-Scottish amalgamation during the 16th century, arguing that Union would put an end to the Scots’ destructive habit of going to war with the English. But after James VI of Scots became king of England and Ireland in 1603, Union took on a new relevance.

Many Scots quickly concluded that simply sharing a king was unsatisfactory, since it was likely to impact upon Scottish governance, prosperity, and independence, while offering no tangible benefits in return. The question of how to recast the Anglo-Scottish relationship was consequently never far from the political agenda, and as Scots grappled with the issue, four distinct ‘models’ of Union gradually crystallised. Each of these, coming to the fore at separate points in the century, imagined a different future for Anglo-Scottish relations. Right up until 1707 it was not clear which, if any, offered the most plausible settlement.

The first of these was the one envisaged by James VI, who fervently hoped to forge England and Scotland (Ireland he left out) into a new and greater British kingdom. Even if he recognised that, in practice, this process was unlikely to be comprehensive, James was still aiming for an ‘incorporating’ Union – that is, the merging of Scotland and England into a brand new political entity, with both ancestral kingdoms ceasing to exist.

This was (on paper at least) the route that would ultimately be taken in 1707, but it was not one to which either James’ English or Scottish subject were amenable in the early 1600s. Faced with implacable resistance on both sides, he had given up on this idea by around 1607, contenting himself with cosmetic changes like a new flag and the symbolic, self-awarded title, King of Great Britain.

The second model was very different indeed. It was an idea sometimes known as ‘confederation’, and it was articulated and pursued most energetically by the Covenanters, Presbyterian opponents of Charles I who controlled Scotland during the Wars of the Three Kingdoms (1639-51). A confederal Union did not necessarily imply the creation of new structures or a new polity. Rather, the point was for Scotland and England to co-operate closely, co-ordinating their activities for shared purposes.

The key text of ‘confederal’ thinking was the Solemn League and Covenant (1643), a treaty between the Covenanters and the English Parliament that pledged co-operation in defeating Charles I and establishing religious orthodoxy across the British Isles. A confederal model implied that Scotland and England would continue to exist, but would work together as equals in a shared British space.

The attraction of this idea to Scotland, in the sense that it negated England’s otherwise overwhelming advantages in size, power, and wealth, was obvious, but confederation was less appealing south of the border. This, perhaps, explains why the ‘high point’ of confederalism was the early- to mid-1640s, when England was badly weakened by Civil War. Once something resembling the ordinary balance of power was restored, confederal Union rapidly lost its lustre.

If the Covenanting vision of Union sought to maximise Scottish influence within any Anglo-Scottish conglomerate, the precise opposite result flowed from the next model of Union – the Commonwealth. Following the conquest of Scotland by the New Model Army in 1651, the ‘Tender of Union’ removed all the main structures of Scottish national governance, to be replaced by direct rule from Westminster.

Key features of English political culture, most notably religious toleration, were imposed by decree. Where elements of Scottish distinctiveness were allowed to persist, for example in the legal system, new English supervisory structures were created. Alongside all this, the Commonwealth maintained a very heavy (although gradually reducing) military presence.

The Cromwellian model of Union, in short, was de facto annexation, predicated on Scotland becoming part of a greater English state and being subject to direct supervision. It was a model, naturally, that held limited appeal for most Scots, and its implementation depended entirely upon England having the will and wherewithal to sustain it. Neither of these impulses survived the restoration of Charles II in 1660, and so the Tender of Union, like almost every other feature of the Commonwealth state, was swept away.

The fourth alternative – ‘commercial’ Union – emerged in the late 1660s. The idea was to forge closer links between Scotland and England purely on commercial grounds – in effect, to develop something like a pan-British free trade zone, without much in the way of political Union to go with it.

Free trade held attractions on both sides, but also came with risks in the form of additional competition. With the encouragement of Charles II, the concept of commercial Union was actively discussed by panels of Scottish and English negotiators in 1668-9, but ultimately nothing came of the talks. This was partly because neither side was entirely persuaded by the proposition, and partly because the discussions were, to some extent, the product of temporary political pressures in both Scotland and England. When these moments of crisis passed, so did governmental interest in commercial Union. Nonetheless, the negotiations of 1668-9 had produced a model of Union, focused on trade rather than sovereignty, that was quite distinct from its Jacobean, Covenanting and Cromwellian predecessors.

Ultimately, these various ‘models’ of Union all foundered on two issues. Firstly, they required Scots to be confident that Union would not impact excessively on Scottish distinctiveness, or to be comfortable with its loss. Neither of these was forthcoming.

Secondly, each model needed the active interest of the English, rooted in a feeling that Union, whatever form it took, was of some advantage to them. With the temporary exception of the 1650s, such engagement was always missing.

Hobbled by Scottish anxiety and English indifference, the Union projects of the 17th century all proved dead letters. It would take the exceptional constitutional and geopolitical circumstances of the early 18th century to cut this Gordian knot. What remains to be seen is whether any of them can offer a solution to the constitutional wrangles of the 21st century, or whether Scots will ultimately decide that only a complete separation of the kind in operation before 1603 will do.

Dr Allan Kennedy is a professor of history at University of Dundee