On 1 May 2007 Great Britain is 300 years old. In the Act of Union of 1707, Scotland and England agreed to sink their bitter, age-old rivalries ‘and forever after be United into One Kingdom by the Name of Great Britain’.
Much of the Act was mundane and obvious – a single coinage, common taxes and the same weights and measures. More importantly, there was to be one Parliament and one monarch. And perhaps most significantly of all, at least as far as this readership is concerned, there would be one faith – described repeatedly in the Act as ‘the True Protestant Religion’.
Two particular measures safeguarded the maintenance of this religion. First, Catholics were ruled out of the line of succession. Not only was the Protestant House of Hanover to succeed to the throne when Queen Anne died, but ‘all Papists and persons marrying Papists shall be excluded from and for ever incapable to inherit possess or enjoy the Imperial Crown of Great Britain and the Dominions …’
Second, Scottish Presbyterianism was guaranteed. It was to be the ‘only Government of the Church within the Kingdom of Scotland’.
Some of the Act has been repealed. Other provisions survive but are looking decidedly shaky at the start of the 21st century. The introduction of the Scottish Parliament in 1998 has created anomalies at Westminster that may yet strengthen the cause of Scottish independence. At the same time, people are asking how we can have a rule on the statute books that denies the British Crown to a Roman Catholic.
So what should we do with the anniversary? Is it a cause for flag-waving and fireworks – or should we let it pass with quiet indifference? In particular, does it matter if the Act of Union survives or not?
English reasons for the Act
The Act came about in the first place because both sides had their reasons for union – but they were not the same. The English had cherished hopes of a merger since 1688, but the Scots only came round to the idea reluctantly (and even then there was rioting in Glasgow and Edinburgh!)
On the English side, the driving force was the need for political stability at home. Scotland had been a troublesome neighbour. Even though the countries had shared a monarch for over 100 years, there was no guarantee that their paths would not diverge again when Queen Anne died without a natural successor.
Scotland’s natural ally was France, from where James Francis Stuart (the Old Pretender) fondly eyed the prospect of returning to claim the throne. Catholicism was strong in the Highlands and there were long historical ties between France and Scotland.
In Louis XIV France boasted a monarchy that was the last word in extravagance (Louis wore a different pair of shoes every day) but which was also dangerously powerful, militaristic and absolutist.
English foreign policy was simple – curb French aggression. That policy found stunning success under Marlborough on the battlefields of Blenheim, Ramillies and Oudenarde. But in fighting the French at the front door of mainland Europe, England could not afford to leave open the back door of Scotland.
>From bitter experience she had learned that her northerly neighbour could not be trusted. Uniting with Scotland would therefore give England the control she needed.
The Scottish reasons for agreeing to the Act of Union were economic rather than political. In many ways they were bullied into it. England, Holland, Spain and France were already competing across the world for new markets. Scotland was itching to join the game of empire but found it difficult to get a foothold.
When the opportunity eventually arrived, the Scots went for it at full throttle. This was the ill-fated Darien project, a kind of Panama Canal without the water. They were to construct a ‘free port’ named New Caledonia and transport goods across the strip of land separating North from South America. It would save ships from the dangerous and costly trip around Cape Horn and make a fortune for its backers.
It was a disaster. It would probably have failed anyway, but the English took steps to make sure it did. An independent Scotland was bad enough, but a prosperous independent Scotland had to be prevented at all costs.
Hundreds of Scottish families were lost in the mosquito-infested swamps of Darien, as also was 25% of Scotland’s liquid capital – and with it her last remaining hopes of standing alone. A succession of poor harvests compounded Scotland’s misery.
At this point the English proposed a deal – unite as one kingdom and the debts from the Darien project would be cancelled. The Scots agreed.
A good deal of water has flowed down the Thames and the Clyde since 1707. Whatever the reasons for the Act of Union, it has certainly benefited both countries. For one thing it was an important foundation stone in the establishment of the British Empire – surely the greatest human empire the world has ever seen, despite the current fashion for belittling its achievements.
And when it came to building this empire, Scottish ingenuity, education and enterprise led the way.
Over the years the psychological ties have grown. Despite the recent resurgence of independence and nationalism, nobody seriously thinks that crossing the border means entering a foreign country, as it once would have done.
The lesson of history
History teaches that threats come and go. With hindsight we may blame our forefathers for exaggerating the dangers, but just because a particular threat eventually faded away does not mean that it was not real at the time.
Certainly, the menace from Catholic France at the beginning of the 18th century was a potent reality. To the politician of the day, Catholicism meant tyranny and absolutism. Legislation guaranteeing a Protestant succession was thus essential for national security.
Since then other more global threats have come and gone. At the beginning of the 19th century the danger was republicanism. In the 20th century there were threats from fascism and communism. And now at the beginning of the 21st century we are threatened by a strain of militant Islam gaining strength in our ethnic communities.
Such dangers faced by the state often threaten the gospel as well. From the oppression of 18th century Catholicism, to the rampant atheism of 19th century European republicanism – and on to the resurgence of both secularism and radical Islam in modern Britain – the gospel has been and remains under attack.
There are four things to say in response. First, take heart. Threats may come but they also go. In contrast, the gospel stands for ever. Against all the kingdoms and empires of the world, the kingdom of Jesus Christ will increase and can never be overthrown. The Lord tells us not to fear.
Second, remember that there is one true gospel, and all alternatives are dead-ends. We should not get hung up thinking that one particular dead-end is necessarily worse than another.
Some ‘other gospels’ seem to run parallel to the real gospel for a while before turning aside into yet another cul-de-sac. But the fact that they seem to have something in common with the true gospel makes them neither better nor worse than any other dead-end.
Third, we are called to be soldiers in today’s battlefield. Our battlefield is not the same as it was in 1707. The truth for which we stand does not change, neither do the weapons with which we must fight. But the enemy changes his uniform from time to time. If we are not careful we may find ourselves fighting the ghosts of history rather than engaging with our modern foe.
Entrusted to the church
Finally, we should ask whether the cause of the gospel is still strengthened by the Act of Union (if it ever was). Jesus Christ has entrusted to his church on earth the work of proclaiming and defending the gospel of his saving grace. He did not entrust it to the State or to the Crown.
For good or ill, the personal example of the reigning monarch of Great Britain has an undeniable authority of its own. But does the gospel need to be safeguarded in a formal way by an outward confession of loyalty by the Crown?
As the debate continues as to whether the Act of Union should be kept or abolished, it would perhaps be helpful for Christians to think through and discuss their own positions on the matter.