Understanding the Anglo-Scottish Political Union within the United Kingdom 

This post is part of the Monster Carnival 2022 – Why Early Modern History Matters Now. Dr Kirsteen M MacKenzie is an academic historian and broadcaster who is passionate about early modern British, Irish, and French history. Her areas of interest are the Wars of the Three Kingdoms 1637-1660 and the Jacobites. Dr MacKenzie received a PhD in history from the University of Aberdeen in 2008. Her first monograph The Solemn League and Covenant of the Three Kingdoms and the Cromwellian Union 1643-1663 was published by Routledge in 2017. You can follow her on Twitter @kirsteenmm.

Kirsteen M MacKenzie

The relationships between Westminster and the devolved nations are at their lowest ebb for decades, with ongoing tensions between the centre and the periphery. These issues are not unfamiliar to those historians who study the three Stuart kingdoms between 1603 and 1707.  The monarch’s ability to manage three very different kingdoms or four nations with different histories, laws, languages, and religious institutions, was key to the peace and stability of Britain and Ireland. During that century various efforts were made to try and find a union that worked for every nation. It could be said that Stuart Britain helps us understand the current parliamentary union and perhaps offers solutions to our constitutional impasse.    

The Cromwellian Foundations of British Parliamentary Representation

In July 1650 Oliver Cromwell marched towards Scotland with an army, declaring his love for the Scots as neighbours and friends. Cromwell and his army regarded themselves as the liberators of an oppressed nation, bringing religious liberty, enlightened political ideals, and English Common law. This reflected the sense of English superiority that was felt during the English Republic. In essence, Cromwell and his men had headed north to conquer Scotland and incorporate it into the English Republic. Scottish contemporaries rightly feared the loss of Scottish identity and sovereignty. The Cromwellian Incorporative Union was the first to abolish the Scottish Parliament and offer the Scots parliamentary representation at Westminster. This was not an act of benevolence. It was a forceful act where acceptance of the union was mandatory. This was not a British Parliament, it was an English Parliament forcefully incorporating Scottish members into English political structures.

Cromwell at Dunbar, 1886, Andrew Carrick Gow (Wikimedia Commons)

The Act Union of 1707 created a British political union and unlike the Cromwellian Union it protected the independence of Scots Law and the Scottish church after a period of negotiation and consent. However, similar to the union in the 1650s, the Scottish Parliament was abolished and Scottish members were incorporated into English Parliamentary structures, which became the British Parliament.  Therefore the weight and distribution of British parliamentary representation in Westminster can trace its origins to the Incorporative Cromwellian Union of the 1650s rather than the Act of Union of 1707.

Under these arrangements English votes outweigh those from the other parts of the United Kingdom and is a major cause of the current constitutional tension between England and Scotland within the United Kingdom.      

A Federative Britain: The Alternative Anglo-Scottish Union      

In 2020 I published a policy paper which put forward the Solemn League and Covenant of the Three Kingdoms as an alternative model of Anglo-Scottish union from the Stuart era. The Solemn League and Covenant reminds us that our current British parliamentary union was not the only union that aimed to unite both England and Scotland for a common cause.

The Solemn League and Covenant which was signed between the Scottish and English Parliaments in 1643, retained the independence of both parliaments under a unified British Crown.  Its main purpose was to facilitate military co-operation and religious reformation via Anglo-Scottish networks and institutions. The Solemn League and Covenant also acted as a written constitution which outlined the roles and responsibilities of the King, both parliaments, armies and the people of both nations who had a duty to uphold and protect their respective institutions of government in both kingdoms. 

The Solemn League and Covenant (Wikimedia Commons)

This included a pledge to preserve the monarchy and its posterity and to preserve the independence of both the English and Scottish parliaments and their respective legal systems and laws. It focused on preserving the unity of all three Stuart kingdoms under the Crown, with a warning against those who sought to divide one kingdom against another. It was a federative union which contrasts sharply with the Anglocentric unions of the 1650s and 1707.  A federative union could ease current tensions within the Anglo-Scottish relationship by removing the problem at its source.

The Legacy of the Anglo-Scottish Federative Union in the Anglophone World  

Why did British Parliamentary structures use the Cromwellian union as the basis for Scottish representation at Westminster in 1707 rather than the federative union of 1643? Put simply, the Cromwellian union provided a model of union which promised peace and stability throughout Britain.     

However, despite the Solemn League and Covenant not being the favoured model of Anglo-Scottish union within Britain, its political ideals can be found within other western democracies around the world, most notably the United States of America. The Solemn League and Covenant was used to promote a new vision of political union.  Its ideals had initially crossed the Atlantic via American colonists who had Scottish Presbyterian roots and re-emerged during the American Revolution.  Founding fathers, such as John Witherspoon and Samuel Adams, used ‘a solemn league and covenant’ to promote resistance to British rule, arguing instead for a political confederation within the American colonies. Political confederation is the basis of government in Australia and Canada. Other Western democracies have emerged out of similar Calvinist political foundations, for example, the Netherlands and Switzerland.   

It begs the question, if political confederation can provide a basis for stable governance in several western democracies around the world, why is it not seen as a credible alternative to the current political union within the United Kingdom?              


Further Reading

Andy Burnham, ‘We Need a Complete Rewiring of Britain’s Political System’ Byline Times Andy Burnham: We Need a ‘Complete Rewiring’ of Britain’s Political System – Byline Times [Accessed 09/09/2022].

Nicholas Canny ‘Irish, Scottish and Welsh Responses to centralisation c.1540-1640’ in in Alexander Grant and Keith Stringer eds., Uniting the Kingdom? The Making of British History (London, 1995) pp. 147-169.

Samuel Rawson Gardiner ed., Constitutional Documents of the Puritan Revolution 1625-1660 (Oxford, 1889). [The Solemn League and Covenant of the Three Kingdoms 1643 can be viewed here: archive.org https://archive.org/details/puritanconstitu00gardrich/page/186/mode/2up [Accessed 14/09/2022].

Mark Goldie, ‘Divergence and Union: Scotland and England, 1660-1707’ in Brendan Bradshaw and John Morrill eds., The British Problem c.1534-1707: State Formation in the Atlantic Archipelago (London, 1996). pp. 220-245

Kirsteen M MacKenzie, ‘The Historical Case for a Federative Britain’ History & Policy (2020) https://www.historyandpolicy.org/policy-papers/papers/the-historical-case-for-a-federative-britain [Accessed 14/09/2022].

Kirsteen M MacKenzie, The Solemn League and Covenant of the Three Kingdoms and the Cromwellian Union 1643-1663 (Abingdon, 2017).

Gideon Mailer, ‘Anglo-Scottish Union and John Witherspoon’s American Revolution’, The William and Mary Quarterly Volume 67 Number 4 (October, 2010). 709-746.

Politico, ‘Disunited Kingdom’ https://www.politico.eu/special-report/the-disunited-kingdom/ [Accessed 06/09/2022]

David Stevenson, ‘Cromwell, Scotland and Ireland’ in John Morrill ed., Oliver Cromwell and the English Revolution (London, 1990).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s