The referendum on Scottish independence slated for 2014 is so far generating little interest. The broadsheet media occasionally summons up the resolve to report findings of an august think-tank or the veiled threats of potential apocalypse befalling all of us from politicians on both sides. The level of coverage will no doubt increase dramatically the closer election day comes but journalistic fads are as nothing at the Manchester Historian and we are always ready to consider the historical context.
Scotland joined the Union in 1707, largely because of the economic and trade benefits on offer, with the latter being especially important. The Act of Union granted Scotland access to one of the more prosperous trade areas of the time. The mercantile world at the start of the eighteenth century was one governed by protectionist economic practices. Governments attempted to control the balance of exports and imports in their country’s favour; free trade was an anathema. This market structure limited the opportunities for Scottish merchants, although the illegal trade, dodging customs and tariff lines, was rife. England’s access to American colonies and other exotic trade networks was ruthless protected by a series of Navigation Acts which were enforced by the equally vicious Royal Navy and Customs and Excise.
The influential Scottish merchant class, especially in Glasgow, were well aware of the advantages to their interests to be derived from Scotland becoming part of England’s trade area and they pressed hard for the union. A perfunctory glance at the Act itself shows that the majority of the articles in the bill were to do with economic matters. The union was not really about softening of national antagonisms, cultural assimilation or political intent: the Act was signed because of the pressure of elites who had a weather eye on their business interests.
So if England and Scotland came together in national union for economic reasons, what can this tell us about the probability of a break-up of the Union 307 years later? All voters (Scots only, of course) will be aware of the potential magnitude of this referendum. A clear affirmation for independence from the electorate will leave HM Government little room to snuff out their demands. Even this awareness, however, will rarely lead to terribly carefully-considered vote choices. Voters overwhelmingly cast their ballot based on whether they feel content with the real economy or not. When voting in this referendum, Scots will think about whether the economic deal they get from being part of United Kingdom is satisfactory: if they are reasonably happy, then the Union will hold and if they aren’t the SNP will win. So, for the United Kingdom to carry on, the Better Together campaign must hope that Scots make the back-pocket calculation that they are better off in rather than out.