Act of Union

The Act of Union of 1707 united England and Scottish government. This led to government for both countries being based in London. THe idea of a ‘perfect union’ of England and Scotland had been mooted following the unification of the Crowns in 1603. James VI of Scotland’s accession to the English throne as James I led to questions being raised about the practicalities of such an Act of union. Such a union was not immediately wished for by many in either country, by the early 18th century political thoughts on union had changed. 

The Act of Union in 1707 created joint government for England and Scotland

James did not pursue an Act of Union. Instead, he made smaller adjustments. He styled himself King of Great Britain. The flags of England and Scotland were combined into an early version of what we know as the Union Flag. Union itself was not discussed in any depth until the Glorious Revolution. As William and Mary’s accession in place of James II was debated in Scotland, the idea of a union was once again raised. William III was in favour, the House of Lords in London dismissed the idea though.

Politically an Act of Union was of little interest to the English until 1700. The 1689 Bill of Rights had William and Mary on the throne and succession to Anne agreed. There was no immediate need to change anything. The Scottish economy was weak due to the Darien Scheme, the Crown was secure. However, in 1700, Anne’s son, Prince William, the Duke of Gloucester, died. This changed the political situation regarding the Crown. While England was sure of its commitment to a Hanoverian Succession, the intentions of the Scots was less likely: they could vote to have the restoration of the Stuarts.

In 1702 King William set up a commission to look into an Act of Union. It met in London and discussed many proposals. Much was agreed. The Scots would accept a Hanoverian succession. A single Parliament in London was accepted. However, the proposals included taxation demands that were very different to existing Scottish arrangements. The Scots also wanted assistance in the form of Compensation from England for the losses incurred by the Darien Scheme. This proved to be an insurmountable issue in these talks. A compromise on that issue could not be made.

Scottish politics then became quite fractious. Many nobles were incensed by English arrogance. A new Scottish Parliament met in 1703. It soon became quite rebellious. An Act of Security was proposed. It aimed to preserve the Scottish Church (Kirk), trade and the post Glorious Revolution gains made by Scotland. As the Act was being debated, the Earl of Roxburghe added a highly contentious clause to the Act. The Act of Security would only accept the same royal accession in Scotland as in England under certain conditions. This opened up the prospect of a Jacobin restoration. A further clause was added, and agreed by a majority of 59, that said that Scotland should have full access to English Colonial Trade.

The Act of Security was throwing down a gauntlet to the English. Scotland was demanding full access to colonial gains and using the Crown as a tool to make up the losses incurred by the Darien scheme. Politically the two kingdoms could not contemplate separate monarchs, that was simply not an option for the powers in London.

In 1705-06 moves were made to try and agree an Act of Union. A group of Scottish presbyterian nobles, known as the squadrone, supported moves in Court to advance talks. This resulted in enough nobles support in Scotland to begin appointing Commissioners. Many nobles remained opposed to union. Chief among them was the Duke of Hamilton. Hamilton had led opposition to talks and spent much of the summer of 1706 obstructing the appointment of commissioners. A vote was in the balance on such things. No clear majority was sure for either party on this issue. In September, Hamilton inexplicably stated that Commissioners ought to be appointed by the Queen rather than by Parliament. This statement immediately undermined the opposition to union and opponents left the Parliament chamber in a state of confusion and dismay. With them absent, the motion for Commissioners to be appointed was passed by a majority of just 8.

The Commissioners met in the Cockpit in London to agree the articles of the Act of Union. Agreement over the terms took just three days. The only area in which there was any doubt was the Scottish Kirk. Reference to it would inevitably cause friction. It was simply omitted from the articles. The Articles made a number of constitutional changes:

  • Scottish Peers and MPs would sit at the Houses of Lords and Commons in London.
  • Scottish Peers and MPs would have the same rights as their English counterparts.
  • The numbers of Scottish Peers (16) and MPs (45) were agreed.
  • All Catholics were barred from the succession to the throne.
  • Succession would pass to Princess Sophia of Hanover and her heirs.
  • The two nations would be joined as one and known as Great Britain.

The Act of Union was agreed by the Commission in July 1706 and presented to Queen Anne. The date for the Act of Union to come into force was set as 1st May 1707. The Act was then ratified by both the English and Scottish parliaments. It came into force as agreed in May 1707.

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