Scottish history: 9 steps from Union to Referendum

Dr Sean Lang charts the history of the Union from 1707 to the present day...

This article was first published online in September 2014

Battle of Culloden, 1746 (Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

1707: Act of Union passed by Scottish and English Parliaments 

King James VI and I had hoped to create a united kingdom of Great Britain, but the idea found no support in either of his parliaments. After Charles II was crowned in Edinburgh Cromwell led a successful invasion and under the 1651 Tender of Union, reinforced in 1657 by an Act of Union, Scotland was subsumed into Cromwell’s English Republic.

However, the two kingdoms separated again at the Restoration in 1660.  The 1707 Union was put forward in response to Scottish bankruptcy after the Darien fiasco [an unsuccessful attempt by the Kingdom of Scotland to become a world trading nation by establishing a colony called Caledonia on the Isthmus of Panama on the Gulf of Darién in the late 1690s] and English fears that Scotland might restore the Stuarts rather than accept a Protestant Hanoverian succession.

 

1746: Battle of Culloden – British government forces crush the largely Highland army of the Jacobite claimant, Prince Charles Edward Stuart

The “45” Jacobite Rising was a Scottish civil war: Jacobite support in the lowlands was minimal, and almost non-existent in England (the real focus of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s interest). 

Most Scots opposed the Jacobite rising, and many served in the Duke of Cumberland’s army that defeated the Jacobites at Culloden Moor. After the battle, the British engaged in the systematic eradication of traditional highland culture, though they eventually adopted an anglicised form of it for Highland regiments within the British army.

 

1856: The rebuilt Balmoral Castle opens as a royal residence for Queen Victoria and Prince Albert

Building on the huge popularity of the Waverley novels of Sir Walter Scott, the royal couple spearheaded a Victorian craze for Scottish traditional culture, virtually inventing much of it in the process.

Much of the current paraphernalia of clan tartans, dress kilts and the ubiquitous playing of bagpipes in fact dates no further back than the 19th century. This romanticised image of the Scots, epitomised in Queen Victoria’s highland servant, John Brown, came to dominate English perceptions of Scotland and would eventually be rejected by the later nationalist movement.

 

1885: Creation of the Scottish Office and revival of the post of Secretary for Scotland (promoted in 1926 to secretary of state with a seat in cabinet)

This was part of a wave of administrative reorganisation that also saw the creation of County Councils and attempts to introduce Home Rule for Ireland; it was not part of a move to introduce anything similar for Scotland, which was still treated essentially as a large, if distinctive, region of the United Kingdom. The post of Secretary for Scotland had existed in the early 18th century but had lapsed after Culloden.

Even though it quickly became standard practice, whichever party was in power, to appoint a Scot to the Scottish Office, it was still usual, including among non-English Britons, to speak of “England” when referring to the whole of the United Kingdom.

 

1967 Winifred (‘Winnie’) Ewing wins the Hamilton by-election for the SNP 

In an unexpected victory for a small fringe party that few at the time took seriously, Winnie Ewing overturned the previous Labour majority and began a surge of popularity for the Scottish nationalists. Although Labour soon retook the seat, she herself remained active in politics, first as an MP and later as MEP for the Highlands and Islands. 

In 1999 she presided at the opening of the new Scottish Parliament. Although the SNP’s fortunes fluctuated, and it remained on the political fringe within the United Kingdom as a whole, by the 1970s it had emerged as a rival to Labour within Scotland and retained a small but permanent (and vociferous) presence in Parliament.

 

1979 Referendum: Scots vote against devolution

The 1973 Kilbrandon Report on the make-up of the United Kingdom had considered but rejected a federal structure, but recommended devolution for Wales and Scotland. The issue was put to both electorates but failed to attract enough support. 

In Scotland, where the proposed powers of the devolved assembly were greater than in Wales, the Yes campaign won a majority but fell well short of the threshold of 40 per cent of the possible electorate required for establishing a Scottish assembly. Many assumed, wrongly, that the referendum had disposed of the issue for the foreseeable future.

 

1988 Mrs Thatcher addresses the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland

Mrs Thatcher’s economic policies had sharply divided opinion in Scotland just as they had in the rest of the United Kingdom. Her ‘Sermon on the Mound’ address to the General Assembly, in which she appeared to be preaching to them the theological basis for capitalism (in a 1980 television interview she had already put the Good Samaritan forward as an example of the practical usefulness of making a bit of money), quickly came to symbolise a gulf in understanding and attitudes that had opened up between even moderate conservative opinion in Scotland and the Conservative Party in England. 

Scottish alienation from the Tories was hugely strengthened by the Thatcher government’s decision to pilot the deeply unpopular Community Charge, or Poll Tax, in Scotland before introducing it across the rest of the United Kingdom.

 

1999 Opening of the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh 

After the symbolic return to Scotland in 1996 of the Stone of Scone and strong support for a Scottish parliament shown in a referendum held the following year, the Queen travelled to Edinburgh in 1999 to open a Scottish Parliament, the first to have sat since 1707.

It was largely the work of the Labour Scottish Secretary, Donald Dewar, who then became the first holder of the post of Scottish First Minister. Labour hoped and expected, naively, as we can say with hindsight, that the granting of a Parliament, with considerable devolved powers though still under Westminster’s supervision, would take the sting out of their SNP rivals.

 

2011 SNP wins an outright majority in the Scottish Parliament election

In 2011, to general surprise, the SNP, which had been governing in co-operation with the Scottish Conservatives, won 69 seats, a gain of 23, taking it well over the 65 necessary for an absolute majority.

Alex Salmond continued as First Minister, though he now began to claim greater authority to himself and his administration. He renamed the Scottish Executive the ‘Scottish Government’, and began negotiations with the prime minister, David Cameron, for a referendum on full independence. 

The 2012 Edinburgh Agreement laid down the terms, binding all parties to accept the verdict of a straight-majority referendum, with only one question on the ballot paper rather than Salmond’s preferred option of the offer of increased devolution, ‘Devo Max’, as an alternative to either the status quo or independence.

Dr Sean Lang is a senior lecturer in history at Anglia Ruskin University whose research interests include the development of British constitutional identity from the 16th century onwards.

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