Saturday, 19 February 2011

Brussels could learn from 1707

The Acts of Union, 1707: unpopular in Scotland but respectful of Scottish institutions
Four years ago Britain marked three hundred years of union between those once old and bitter enemies, England and Scotland. The date commemorated perhaps the most significant turning point in the history of these isles but, like the rest of Gordon Brown's feeble attempts to define 'Britishness,' it fell flat on its face.

You'd be forgiven for having missed it. The only remotely remarkable thing about these 'celebrations' was a rather nicely designed £2 coin. The fact is the vast majority of both nation's citizens simply weren't interested.

And a substantial minority, it seems, were actively contemptuous. On May 3, a mere two days after the tricentenary of the Union, the SNP were elected the largest group in the Scottish Parliament pledging a referendum on Scottish independence and the dissolution of the Union.

A slap in the face, perhaps, but if the Union has failed to inspire much enthusiasm, least of all among Scots, it is because it has never been more than a marriage of convenience. James I & VI may have been obsessed with romantic notions of uniting his two realms but, a century later, it meant little more to England than a means of maintaining national security.

Just three years previously, the Scottish Parliament had pledged to choose a different king to the English following the death of the childless Anne and, with Louis XIV's power growing across the Channel, a potential revival of the auld alliance was a very serious matter indeed.

For the Scots of course, Union was a substantially more bitter - and even more necessary - pill to swallow. Their failed attempt to establish a world trade outpost in Panama had completely bankrupted what was an already poor country. The doomed Darien Colony had been a last, desperate grasp at prosperity and economic independence and the English, understanding this, offered extremely favourable terms. In this sense it is not altogether different from why Britain gravitated towards the EC after 1945.

But, while the Union ostensibly created an entirely new country from its constituent parts into the Kingdom of Great Britain, it is notable for the extent to which it allowed Scotland to continue to function as a separate entity.

This is where eurocrats could learn a few lessons. Far from obsessively pursuing 'harmonisation' within the new kingdom, the English were happy to allow the Scots to maintain their own distinct legal system as well as the Presbyterian nature of the Church of Scotland. And, although a single currency was introduced, the Bank of England's monopoly on printing banknotes was not extended to Scotland. All these Scottish idioms remain in place.

By contrast, the European Central Bank's insistance on printing all euro banknotes has led to the absurd banality of a range of nonexistent windows and bridges decorating the Union's currency and the motto of 'united in diversity' stands in stark contrast to Brussels' obsession with pan-Union uniformity in even the most trivial business of member states.

The Working Time Directive, for example, ignores the diverse working patterns across the continent and caused chaos in British hospitals. Also under threat are the English and Scottish legal systems which, from close to a millenium of uninterrupted development, differ drastically from those of European nations.

If the eurocrats in Brussels truly want a united, even federal, Europe (and I have no doubt that they do) they would do well to look at the example of 1707. Because, for all the apathy the 1707 Union may inspire among Englishmen and Scots, it has stood the test of more than three hundred years and remains remarkably stable to this day. Indeed, Brussels may find that turning a sceptical populace towards the idea of a united Europe may be a great deal easier with 'less Europe' than more.

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