By Lord Charles Bruce

THE Declaration of Arbroath – as it has passed into history – was devised essentially as a diplomatic initiative to persuade Pope John XXII to withdraw a further act of excommunication against King Robert the Bruce. It creates a compelling argument to convince the most important court of arbitration in Europe of Robert Bruce’s legitimacy to rule as King of Scots, and the right of Scotland to self-determination. Originally consisting of three letters – from the King, the clergy and the nobility – only the latter survives.

Taken in a European context, however, the Declaration, signed on April 6, 1320 and with its 700th anniversary on Monday, is a fascinating example not only of medieval statecraft, but also of the evolution of constitutional law. What sets it apart from contemporary documents is a deposition clause which requires a King to rule in the best interests of his principal stakeholders, who retain the right to depose him if he should prove deficient. This was perhaps the first attempt to define civic humanism, where the right to rule is a conditional grant of the people.

Thus it can be argued that the Declaration is one of Europe’s most important state documents of the medieval period. Although its relevance is clearly cast in the context of Scotland’s desire for peace and security in a period of great turbulence, it is also a work of profound scholarship, drawing on a wide sweep of European history to provide an unarguable case for self-determination. Indeed, the senior Scottish clergymen who composed the Declaration were well aware of the most up to date thinking on constitutional theory which emerged from theological scholars teaching at the University of Paris in the 1280s. Foremost of these was John Quidort, a follower of Thomas Aquinas who wrote, that “Kingly power is from ...the people who give their consent and choice”.

But above all it proves the power of rhetoric. It draws on speeches made in classical Rome. It also demonstrate the way in which language should be used to give inspiration for all time, such as Churchill’s wartime speeches which mobilised “the English language and sent it into battle, a spearhead of hope for Britain and the world”. Perhaps this is how we should recognise the importance of the Declaration: it was conceived primarily as a diplomatic weapon, but potentially with more firepower that the Scots could ever hope to deploy on the field of battle.

Although the Declaration clearly was composed in the context of 1320 as a masterpiece of political rhetoric, its influence can be traced over subsequent centuries through the writings of Scottish chroniclers or constitutional scholars such as George Buchanan or Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun. Its timeless expressions of liberty and opposition to tyranny were repurposed by the Covenanters in 1638 and again in 1689 when the Scottish Parliament enacted the Claim of Right.

It is argued that these documents were scoured for suitable phrases by the drafting committees of the American Declaration of Independence, and the constitution of the United States. Almost 40 per cent of the 56 signatories of the Declaration could claim Scottish ancestry. Indeed, over half of the delegates attending the convention in Philadelphia in 1776, representing 10 of the 13 fledgling states, were of Scottish birth. In 1998 the United States Senate acknowledged the circumstantial evidence of this connection passing Resolution 155, which declared April 6 to be celebrated forever as Tartan Day.