Posts tagged ‘Act of Union’

December 1, 2019

Iron-hearted Tories, bloated corruptionists, and hordes of other venal creatures – John Steill and William Wallace.

William Wallace at Aberdeen sculpted by William Grant Stevenson in 1888. Paid by John Steill of 38 Grange Road, Edinburgh.

‘Never was the destruction of an ancient state more complete and humiliating than that of Scotland; – never did a people consent so tamely to surrender their liberties, and submit themselves to the overbearing dictation of another kingdom, as the Scotch have done.’

These are the words of John Steill of Edinburgh. I knew that Steill left money to pay for the colossal statue of William Wallace which dominates Schoolhill in Aberdeen but nothing else. Steill would have loved Twitter, with a handle such as @Patriot for he was like the best of us, opinionated. But Twitter did not exist in Steill’s time and he had to make do broadcasting his views through letters to the press and published as pamphlets. His main interests were the union with England and Clearances in the Highlands and Ireland, all of which he vehemently disapproved. The press, mainly staunchly conservative and reactionary, vilified him describing his words as dangerous.

It was in 1844 Steill wrote his most famous letter, later pamphlet, attacking the union and to place it in some kind of perspective I clicked onto Wikipedia to see what else was happening in the UK in 1844. What I found was that nothing at all happened in Scotland that year. Any events worthy of note took place exclusively in England. I expect John Steill could have told me that.  Towards the foot of the Wiki page was a link to Scotland in 1844 which is odd since last time I looked Scotland was part of the UK – apparently an unworthy part but part all the same whose events were just not important enough to get a mention on the UK page.

The following year Steill took out his pamphlet

On the Necessity of Dissolving the Union between England and Scotland, and on Restoring Scotland to Her Ancient Supremacy As an Entire and Distinct Nation

For Steill signing the union between Scotland and England was

 ‘one of the blackest transactions in history’ which reduced Scotland to becoming a vassal nation and he questioned why any Scot would think it right that a once sovereign state could demean itself to become dependent on another –

not least as betrayal of all those Scots who fought and died for their nation – Scotland’s real heroes who

‘would utterly disown and despise us.’

Then as now apologists for the union insist it was good for the Scottish economy  – an argument that failed to dent Steill’s certainty that any margin of economic benefit was a very bad trade-off for the

‘the annihilation of our independence and very name as a nation.’

The economic advantage argument he states could be just as easily applied to justify slavery as slave owners insisted their people were well cared and even prospered under it.

Any prosperity created by Scots, Steill insists, comes not from being in union with England but through Scots using their intelligence and application to prosper.

Wreath on statue of William Wallace
Guardian of Scotland

Scotland has been the butt of an unremitting propaganda assault since before union where she is painted as uncivilised compared with England. The truth is Scotland far from being nation of savages, feckless and barbaric was one of the world’s best educated of nations with a long and significant literary tradition, its people clever, enterprising and outward-looking Europeans, more open to democratic principles than their English counterparts.

That this modern European state could find itself shackled to an insular and war-like country like England incensed Steill. England in union dominated and overwhelmed Scotland, insisted Scots travel to London to represent their Scottish constituents, no easy matter in the 18th century (even before the travails of Scotrail.) Having tackled the hundreds of miles to London over several days through difficult and uncomfortable conditions (still prior to Scotrail) Scottish MPs found their opinions drowned out by

‘iron-hearted Tories, bloated corruptionists, and hordes of other venal creatures…’

The equivalent of the little woman who could do nothing without the permission of her husband Scots were forced to seek approval for each and every policy to be introduced into Scotland from English MPs. That any Scot should regard this humiliation appropriate for a nation that was once successfully independent struck Steill as reprehensible. In short Scotland, abundantly equipped to being a normal self-governing nation was constrained by England in a way that was degrading and oppressive.

Steill writes that his country is the victim of tyrants – ‘selfish aristocrats’ who contribute nothing but are idle, spend their time hunting on horseback and living in luxury but who have power to ‘beggar, starve, and banish’ Scots men and women who do work and contribute to the wealth of the country.

Steill points to parts of Scotland devastated as a direct result of the actions of tyrant landowners and distant Westminster and advocates nationalising their estates – distributing the land between the people who live there and depend on it. Condemning landowners who sell their land as if it ever belonged to them Steill insists, correctly, they were just lineal descendants of elected chiefs with no special right of property in the soil of Scotland. The land these Highland lairds sold or cleared, he writes, was never theirs – it belonged to the people of to the clan or sept collectively.

Not impervious to the hardships of English people, either, Steill blames their situation on ‘an imperious obligarchy’ stretching back to William the Bastard and his ilk who claimed entitlement to pillage and destroy right across the British empire for their own enrichment.

As though he had Gordon Brown breathing down his neck Steill tackles federal parliaments being proposed to quell Scottish discontent over the dominance of England in union. Steill is not in favour of federalism which he argues still chains Scotland to England with all that such an unequal partnership brings – its only benefit is not having to send MPs to London to look after Scottish interests. Federalism is a ploy to keep Scotland as an appendage of England with Westminster regarded as the chief government where real power resides with minor parliaments dispersed around the UK as England sees fit. The English parliament at Westminster still gets to dictate how every part of the union will be taxed based on England’s needs not theirs and these subordinate parts of the UK would still be obliged to participate in England’s wars.

Steill had no time for ‘crazed “gown-men” and ‘treacherous nobles and gentry’ who sell Scotland short. These scoundrels ‘sold off their native land to her enemies’ – against the wishes of the greater population of Scotland who deplore Scotland’s fate of becoming a vassal state of England’s instead of ranking equally among the ‘States of Europe’ that was once her position.

He pleads for Scotland to become ‘free and unfettered … independent and absolute, not a controllable and subordinate’ region of the UK. Scotland, he insists, should levy her own taxes, enter her own treaties with foreign powers, have control over her defence and not be a state that interferes with other kingdoms – as England does.

Steill’s Scotland once she recovers her independence should apply universal suffrage for her people and get rid of ‘monarchy and hereditary feudal aristocracy, both these useless, tyrannical, and all-devouring institutions…’ in other words become a democratic republic free to run her own affairs.

Sculptor and his masterpiece

He concludes with a plea for Scots to demonstrate some of that spirit of the past that resisted when Scottish ‘rights were trampled on, and their national honour invaded.’ Those strengths are even more needed now, he argues, that Scotland has become a ‘contemptible province, stripped of her very name (is referred to as North Britain) , deprived of the power to remove those crying evils which afflict her, both socially and politically, and when she is left with no other memorials of her former dignity and independence but the moss-covered ruins of her palaces and citadels, whose gigantic fragments but too emphatically tell what Scotland once was, and what she now is.’

John Steill certainly had strong views but then so did those who defended the union. He was said to have been a pleasant man, intelligent and a great reader who kept a fine collection of books on Scottish history. When he died he left his money to his housekeeper, Margaret Strachan, with the proviso that what remained after her death went to erecting a sculpture of his hero, William Wallace. Money was also provided by him for repairs and upkeep of the monument, left in the hands of Aberdeen’s magistrates.

The monument he declared was to be a colossal bronze raised up on a large pediment. There would be nothing fancy or fussy about it but bold to properly represent the statesman and warrior. Aberdeen’s granite roughly hewed and imposing would be ideal for its ability to support the hero Guardian of Scotland.  

Around the base would be engraved words spoken by Wallace such as his interview with the English Ambassadors prior to the Battle of Stirling Bridge when the English envoy requested the Scots lay down their weapons and submit to the English king at which point Wallace would be pardoned of ‘all his treasons’ – i.e. where treason was defined as daring to protect his country from foreign aggression.  

Wallace, the leader who in England was called the ‘Master of thieves’ told England’s ambassadors ‘to go back to your masters and tell them that we came not here to treat, but to fight and set Scotland free’  and so these words are cut into the plinth.

It should be said this monument is magnificent and undoubtedly the most impressive Wallace statue in Scotland which means in the world. I find it impressive and I’m certain Steill would be pleased at how it turned out. However, I suspect he would have been both amazed and depressed that there are still Scots who are apologists for a union that continues to treat Scotland as a vassal state. Not an admirer of the press which he regarded as apologists and champions of the union Steill reserved much of his ire for the Scotsman with ‘its marked dislike to anything Scotch.’ He dismissed much of the press for being prejudiced against Scotland’s interests and for being “profoundly ignorant” – about Scotland – thoughts that echo through time and are just as relevant today. Yes, John Steill @Patriot would have savaged today’s toady and unprofessional press fawning over ‘iron-hearted Tories, bloated corruptionists, and hordes of other venal creatures…’

March 22, 2019

Remember that you are an Englishman and consequently have won first prize in the lottery of life. English/British/Scottish – discuss

Remember that you are an Englishman and consequently have won first prize in the lottery of life. (Cecil Rhodes)

That modest opinion may well have been shared by the majority of his kin folk but beneath it flowed an undercurrent of resentment that the message wasn’t being shouted loudly enough so the rest of the world could better appreciate it – and, importantly, the rest of Britain.

“Most English people have observed, with discomfort if not alarm, the persistent and united effort made by the Press of this country to stamp out the use of the words ‘England’ and ‘English,’ substituting for them ‘Britain’ and ‘British.’

Such was a claim which to most Scots was surely arresting in its absurdity. It was made in The Era, a British newspaper, in 1937. It claimed this was an attempt to –

‘obliterate the conception of England as a separate entity; to make the English masses, and the world at large, regard the four people of the British Isles as identical in character, temperament, and spiritual gifts.”

While it is undoubtedly true that a definition of Englishness is difficult to pin down, not unconnected with the fudging of English with British since the Act of Union, much of the populations of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales might scratch their heads when England complains of having its identity obliterated knowing the three smaller nations are the ones who have suffered greatest from this phenomenon. The four parts of the UK have lost their distinctiveness – some today even argue there are not four parts to the UK but one single entity. The writer back in the thirties is not so daft or politically devious but still he fails to recognise that when England and English became shorthand for Britain and British all those centuries ago the blurring of distinctions began but England’s greater population kept England at the forefront of the Union and perceptions of it while all but obliterating the unique identities of the three other parts of the Unions.

Blame for the confusion of identities within the Union, according to the writer in The Era, lies with the press and the BBC. His points to the BBC’s celebration of St Andrew’s Day, St Patrick’s Day, St David’s Day but not St George’s Day. I don’t know if the BBC mentioned Burns’ Night in the thirties but that could have been added to his list. I don’t know, either, if there is a Shakespeare Night or morning or afternoon, perhaps there should be. However, Shakespeare does get wall-to-wall coverage in programmes across the BBC so perhaps a Shakespeare afternoon wouldn’t be noticed, is not necessary or would be overload. What really got the author’s dander up was seeing Shakespeare described as a British poet. Gadzooks!

He’s right about Shakespeare. He was English. And pre-Union. At the same time that bad boy of literature, Lord Byron, is invariably referred to as an English poet although he is very much British – having a Scottish mother, was brought up in Scotland and retained his Scottish accent till the end of his days. Double gadzooks! Arthur Conan Doyle of Sherlock Holmes stories is frequently described as English and do we complain? – well, aye, but no-one takes any notice. Worst of all in the commentator’s view was seeing a picture of York Minister in a newspaper with the caption, “This Britain.” Welcome to our world, matey.

Not only England, but every Englishman is an island.
(Novalis, German poet d.1801)

Back to our author who complains that the ‘non-English peoples of Britain’ – ‘these peoples’ he calls us – that’s Scots, Irish and Welsh (whose population, he points out, make up less than Greater London) ‘have been given equitable representation in the English Parliament’ which begs the question – what parliament? English post-Unions? Surely an English parliament doesn’t exist? But it’s as we suspected – Westminster is or isn’t a British or English parliament? And then there’s his use of ‘given’? – the largesse of England towards non-English bits of – uhm, Britain is underwhelming.

The writer ties himself in a right Gordian knot – that has definitely no Aberdeenshire associations – when he writes that one of the four entities making up Britain, let us call it England, has and deserves to have the whip hand and the right to distribute ‘rights’ as it sees fit (and presumably withdraw them as it seems fit.)

In his defence the writer is clearly in support of Home Rule for the non-English parts of the Union for he says that if any wanted Home Rule ‘there would be no opposition from England’ – to which I say, if only.

The political independence lost by Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales to England, he claims, has been amply compensated by the economic advantages provided by being in the UK and being raised to a position within the world that would be impossible without being tied to England. You have to admire his gall if not his ignorance of the intellects, discoveries and influence of Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish over time – many simply classified as, uhm – English. Where is Voltaire when you need him? Ah, here he is –

We look to Scotland for all our ideas of civilisation.
(Voltaire)

If we were ever in any doubt that England is the leading entity in the Union our correspondent is on hand to sort us out – ‘if tomorrow Scotland, Ireland and Wales became as independent as Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, the prestige of England would not be lowered at all in the eyes of the world.’ His England, he claims, suffered 82% of the casualties in the First World War. His reference to casualties is as vague as it is nonsense, plucked out of the air for impact. Untangling English from Scottish, Welsh or Irish casualties who might have lived in England or been in English regiments and were counted as English is a mine field. Sheer fiction.

It is an anathema to the writer that the traditions and culture of the entities of the Union have had their differences flattened out. He deplores that the English, descended from peasants, have been ‘callously and blindly robbed of their ancient rights, not only by the Land Enclosure Acts, but by the whole monetary policy of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.’ He’s right you know. Finally he’s got a point.

An Englishman has all the qualities of a poker except its occasional warmth.

(Daniel O’Connell)

And so the debate over the Union, definitions of what comprises Britain and Britishness rumbles on. It began even before the Union was set up and has been defined by England and her interests. For many of us here in Scotland we have grown up in a Britain that is dominated by England and Englishness that are as alien to us as they are to people from other nations. Even the very language we use in Scotland is unacceptable as British and ridiculed if introduced into conversations in England (where we tend to speak a different version of the language spoken at home because we adapt to accommodate the English population of Britain) e.g. listen to SNP MPs rather self-consciously incorporate words that are part of our everyday speech when they debate in parliament and are greeted with smiles and cheers. Why should they be? They wouldn’t be in Scotland which last time I looked was part of Britain. I don’t think many in the Commons laugh at their use any more except possibly Scottish Tories who appear embarrassed by anything that is distinctly Scottish. In previous times it was different and Scottish MPs were frequently and cruelly mocked for the use of Scotticisms in the ‘English parliament.’

The Scotsman newspaper (surely an oxymoron) is a platform for pro-Union views which often touches on Scottishness/ Englishness/Britishness. In an edition in 1947 it was claimed that few English people think of themselves as British only English and for them the Union wasn’t important. The concept of ‘we’ as in we together who make up Britain had little meaning for them. The did not have a sense of being at one with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. What they understood as ‘the nation’ or ‘the country’ was and still is England. They had no notion on what went on elsewhere in the other entities of the UK and presumably imagined people of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales lived lives identical to theirs in England.

By contrast Scots have always understood the difference between Britain/England/Scotland and have had to endure the virtual suppression of Scotland as a partner in the Union. That struggle has not really succeeded and Scotland as a distinctive entity with her own character and needs that became invisible in 1707 is scarcely visible in today’s British press, BBC, Sky, ITN where Scottish events and news don’t figure and at Westminster English MPs outnumber Scots by 10 :1. Scotland’s influence in Britain is virtually nil. Not sure why I included ‘virtually’ – omit as you see fit.  Today there are only 74 Scottish MPs who will always be outvoted by England’s 541 MPs who naturally put the interests of England ahead of Scotland’s. When English people talk of the English parliament of Westminster they are spot on. Westminster’s traditions pre-date the Union, references there are to English politics, the built-in majority is English – the monarch in whose name the parliament sits is called Queen Elizabeth II despite there never having been a Queen Elizabeth I of Scotland. But then Scotland is an irrelevance in the union of Britain.

It is not surprising that the period following World War 2 provided an edge to the debate over Britain/England/Scotland for it was a war fought to defend the freedom of sovereign nations across the world from fascism. Scots lives were lost in that war where British soldiers have been described as English and the Union of nations that is Britain was presented to the world as England. It is the cruellest of actions to take someone’s life and deny their identity and existence but that is what happens in a union of unequals.

 

October 23, 2018

Against the grain: Scotland pays the English Exchequer

It was regarded as oppressive to Scotland – tax that is – the malt tax in particular was exercising minds over what was seen as the high-handed treatment of Scotland almost before the ink was dry on the Union agreement.

whiskey-still[1] - Copy

To pay for their war with France the English government had introduced a malt tax and when the Union was agreed Scotland was temporarily exempted from it.

Between 1713 and 1724 the malt tax was expected to be a temporary tax which was voted for or against annually. But it was imposed on Scotland ‘with great difficulty’ to the extent a ‘Scotch peer had moved in the other House to dissolve the Act of Union’ – and the vote was tight with 55 voting on each side of the proposition that the Union be dissolved.

Article 14 of the Treaty of Union of 1707 specified that no part of the UK would be burdened unfairly with duties but that due regard would be made to particular circumstances and ability to meet responsibilities. Yet only six years after the Union what had been the English parliament and renamed the British parliament did –

‘actually impose a heavy burden upon Scotland, without any regard to the circumstances of the case, viz. the inferiority of Scotch grain, or the ability of the people , in that part of the United Kingdom, to pay a tax, which in several places was nearly equal to the value of the raw article.’

In other words a tax was imposed on Scots farmers that amounted to almost the value of their crop of bear barley. Bear barley was the principle type of barley grown in Scotland because of its climate and soil conditions, to an extent, but it was not as productive or as valuable as barley grown in most of England.

Support for the Jacobite rebellion of 1715 to return the Catholic Stuarts to the throne of Great Britain was boosted by resentment over the London government’s high-handed treatment of Scotland and the crushing fist of the Hanoverian monarchy. That Hanoverian crushing fist was liberally applied to Highland Scots at Culloden and in the brutal aftermath with Hanoverian redcoats unremitting campaign of rape and slaughter when forts, roads and bridges were constructed throughout Highland Scotland to more effectively control and repress the population -which they did successfully.

With the Jacobite rebellion suppressed and voices questioning Scotland’s treatment within the Union bludgeoned into silence the malt tax could be imposed without fear. In 1725 some consideration was paid to Scotland’s problems paying the tax and differential taxes were temporarily introduced with Scotland paying 3d to England’s 6d on a bushel of malt. But sixty years on arguments over the government’s unfair treatment of Scotland raged on.

Scots famers resisted the tax by not informing excise officers they were growing barley and refusing them admission to their grain lofts. And for most of them they had the support of local justices of the peace.  The tax led to riots and their brutal suppression which resulted in deaths and transportations. 

The Scots clergy, however, who had been exempted from all taxes on what was grown in their glebes (land attached to manses on which various crops were grown to provide food and income for ministers and perhaps local people) and who had never been charged any malt tax before volunteered to pay nominal sums to prevent more unrest among their countrymen and women. This squirming hypocrisy was seen as betraying the interests of Scotland – that driven by their hatred of Catholicism they were content to support the Protestant Hanoverian monarchy – brought in to keep the Catholic Stuarts out of power.

Not many Scots were in favour of the Union – not that they had any say in the matter and from its inception it was apparent Scotland far from being an equal partner would be subordinated to larger England whose parliament became the Union parliament with all of its traditions retained as if it was still English.

Over half a century after the imposition of the malt tax complaints raged on that Scots were effectively paying twice as much tax as the English.

Here’s a flavour from the Paisley Herald and Renfrewshire Advertiser in 1867 –

‘A certain class of English newspaper writers, and of Englishmen generally, can never be made to understand why Scotsmen should ever speak of Scottish rights, or have any notion beyond being regarded as a somewhat insignificant appendage to England.’

The author referred to the Union as a source of tension between Scotland and England and the levying on taxes imposed by an English-biased parliament. Obviously before the Union Scotland had its taxes and England its own taxes so everyone was happy, or not.

From the Union taxation was decided by what was still regarded as fundamentally the English parliament and the author went on to state that London treated Scotland as if she –

‘were a conquered country, in so far as it (Scotland) has been heavier taxed than the other divisions of the larger and wealthier neighbour.’

The issue of the malt tax still figured among complaints – the annual tax that had become a permanent tax with its detrimental impact on Scotland (and Ireland) – more so than in England. The argument was now less on the quality and value of barley grown in each of the nations than on what barley, or rather its malt, was made into.

Scots and Irish people when not drinking water – remembering that drinking water was often polluted before piped supplies made it into homes (for many that was not until the 20th century) so they drank whisky. In England beer was the national drink. It wasn’t that people drank all day and night but those were the national drinks (tea, coffee and cocoa were expensive luxury imports and the majority of people could not afford to buy them.)

Malt in Scotland and Ireland was used to produce malt spirits – whisky. This didn’t happen in England. Malt spirits or whisky was therefore being taxed by the Exchequer through the malt tax which given whisky’s importance in the diet of Scots and Irish penalised them far more than English consumers.

The consumption of malt and grain spirits in Scotland, England and Ireland for the year ending 31st December 1866 and the revenue derived from them through the duties paid were –

In England 9,515,040 proof gallons; pop c 20 million
In Scotland 7,691,760 proof gallons; pop c 3 million
In Ireland 5,910,061 proof gallons pop c 6 million

The rates of duty were similar in all three countries i.e. 10 shillings per proof gallon making the amount of duty paid in England £4,757,520; in Scotland £3,845,879; in Ireland £2,955,031.

Taking the population of each country into account this worked out per head of population per gallon tax as –

England paid tax of 4 shillings 9 penny
Scotland paid tax of £1- 5 shillings 1 penny.
Ireland paid tax of 10 shillings

Scots were paying far more per head of population than the English. It was said that the English people would not have stood to be treated so unfairly as to pay greater tax than the people of Scotland and Ireland.

‘That any nation should be made to pay at the rate of £1.5.1 a head on a single article of consumption is unparalleled in the annals of taxation, and no Legislature in the world ever made such an unfair and unjust use of its power as has the Parliament of the United Kingdom.’

What would English people say if they were compelled to pay a tax of £1 a head for their ale? They would not stand for it and nor should they. But Scots were being unjustly taxed and their complaints fell on deaf ears inside the parliament in London.

It was argued at the time that if the English were taxed on their national beverage – beer – at the same rate Scots were taxed on their national beverage whisky – high duties on tea and sugar and other commodities which made them too expensive for the majority of the population could be reduced to make them affordable.

From England the argument came that it was a matter of choice what Scots drank and they could drink beer so their complaint of being unfairly taxed did not stand scrutiny. This failed to tackle the question of why one drink in one part of the Union was targeted to be highly taxed while another was not, notably England’s drink.

Given it was the Scottish beverage that was taxed at a higher rate and the tax collected in Scotland in proportion to the population was greater then Scotland should be relieved of the burden of taxation on other taxes, it was argued. Instead Scots paid the penalty of their whisky being targeted for high taxation and were forced to pay the same rate for taxes which were made common across the Union – in essence they were being dealt a double whammy tax obligation.

‘Were the case reversed it would amount to this, that the people of England would pay £20,000,000 more of taxation than they do, and the people of Scotland would pay not more than two fifths of what they at present contribute to the national revenue. This would amount to £1 per head saving in Scotland imposed through the special whisky taxation.’

Suppose, it was asked, that England was a whisky nation and Scotland a beer nation would it be likely the duty on whisky would have been 10 shillings a gallon and no duty on malt liquors i.e. beer? The opposite would be the case it was argued – ‘Englishmen would never have submitted to be taxed £1 a head higher than Scotsmen.’

Why do Scots submit to such gross injustice?

‘We are sometimes taunted as a nation, by English writers, for our inadequate provision for the poor, but the additional taxation wrung from us by a Parliament in which there are nearly eight Englishmen for every one Scotsman would double that provision, and leave the whole of the eight hundred thousand pounds assessed for that purpose in the pockets of ratepayers.’

There were Scots MPs in the London parliament but they were accused of not being much interested in sticking up for Scotland unlike many Irish MPs who argued in the interests of their country. On the subject of the unfair taxation laws Scots MPs were largely silent.

High taxation of malt spirits led to illicit distillation – making their national drink affordable to Scots and so criminalised them.

We no longer have a malt tax as such but whisky is still taxed at high levels – currently around 76% of the price of a bottle of whisky is tax that goes to the Exchequer in London. Every day the London government collects around £9 million from spirit drinkers in the UK.

I suppose the government in London saw it could get away with the malt/whisky tax paid by Scots to enhance the services and infrastructure around London and so when North Sea oil and gas came along in Scottish waters it was a lesson well learned that the Scots could be ripped off without their MPs complaining. And they were right.