Much ink has been spilled in the dead tree media over how difficult it would be for Scotland to operate economically as an independent country with England no longer bound to support it. Certainly any hostility on England’s part would make life more difficult for the Scots. Exactly why they would do so, given how well we have worked and traded together so far is unclear. But can we draw on any examples that might give us some guidance?
Although bound by the same ruler, Scotland operated on its own as an economic unit between 1603 and 1707. Not remembered as a time of great prosperity and blossoming, might that period not actually be power to the unionist argument of better together?
Certainly there were some serious low points. The massive failure of the Darien venture, coming on the heels of famines in the 1690s certainly tee’d the country up for union in 1707. But, in the rest of the century, the Scots actually prospered. Not least among the factors were the evaporation of the need to spend so much wealth on defence. The last tower house was built in 1660 and more opulent country houses funded by improved agriculture became the order of the day. Rural markets, longer leases, crop rotation and the use of lime all presaged the systematic improvements that would be made widespread by Cockburn.
Highland lairds were soon exploiting the English market for their timber and black cattle and the great Border landlords did the same with cattle and sheep. Between them and Lowland enterprisers, over 100 burghs of barony were created that century, harbours and ports were created at places like Saltcoats and Bo’ness. These assisted trade in linen, coal and salt, as well as cattle and sheep to ready English markets and accounted for 40% of Scotland’s trade by 1700. Traditional monopoly rights were removed from Royal burghs in 1672; the 18th © fashion for ‘improvements’ actually got its start a hundred years before.
But, primarily because of the constant focus on Anglo-Scots relations in any British history with a subtext of hostility to whichever continental power was currently out of English favour, Scotland’s strong international links and their positive economic influence are often overlooked. But, whereas strong links with Poland, the Hanseatic Ports and Scandinavia fell into disuse and those with France were gradually blocked by the constant wars England waged with France, others were built to replace them.
Experienced Scots traders simply shifted their emphasis West. The 100,000 new Scots emigrants in Ulster needed supplied with goods from home and this provided a stepping stone to exploitation of the booming trade with English colonies along the American seaboard, especially tobacco. East Jersey and Pennsylvania both attracted a share of some 100 investors and several thousand colonists. The Carolinas were planted with Highlanders in the earliest and most willing of the Clearances.
These investors were ploughing new fields of opportunity and not simply following where their English cousins led. Glasgow merchants were fast to exploit larger and faster ships. together with agents in the colonies buying up and gathering harvests at ports ready for loading. As a result, whereas most English ships only managed a single annual trip of around 100 tons of cargo, the Scots would manage two with up to 500 tons on board, resulting in lower costs and great competitive advantage.
It was a combination of misfortune with the famines of the 1690’s and the steeply rising English tariffs to fight off the entrepreneurial Scots that damaged an otherwise healthy economy that laid the Scots low in the early years of the 18th ©. The provisions of the Act of Union, compensating many for their losses, gave the impression of the magnanimous English taking their impoverished neighbour into the embrace of its trading empire so that it might prosper. History does not bear this out.
Post-1707, prosper the Scots surely did as equal partners in the first country to exploit the heady combination of an industrial revolution at home supplied by a global empire of raw materials and almost limitless markets for their goods in a rapidly industrialising world.
But, true though that might be, let’s not forget the 104 years when the supposedly poor and backward Scots turned a barely self-sufficient rural nation that could barely feed itself into such a feisty competitor for English markets that thier merchants went crying to Westminster for tariffs and duties to deal with the shrewdly competitive Scots.
There’s no law that says the English would not be so thrawn post-independence for them to try to keep the Scots outside of the EU’s single market and then impose punitive tariffs on them, as they did in the 1600’s. But, given their need for our power oil, gas and water and a liking for our whisky, game, fish and tourist offerings, why would they damage their own interests?
And if we build better warships at competitive prices, do you not think an MoD now further cash-strapped by loss of North Sea Oil revenues would keep ordering from the best friend England’s likely to have as they get even more xenophobic from loss of the outward-looking Scots from Westminster? Say what you like about the English—they are practical people; they are not daft.
And if you add in a deal that we might let them base their nukes on the Clyde for a few years to avoid international humiliation—quite apart from military dislocation—do you not think they’d recognise this as a serious bargaining chip for which they’ll need to come up with a pretty nifty quid pro quo?
The post-independence period would see the Scots adjusting to a new relationship with the English, much as we did post-1603. And, if we take that as an example of how ‘wee’ Scotland might cope, a pretty solid case can be made that the English may again be constrained to dance to a Scottish tune, rather than the Anglocentric dirge that most Unionist commentators appear to be singing.
Those commentators should study our joint history closer. Chapter 3 of Tom Devine’s The Scottish Nation would make a fine start.