May 1, 2020

THE ROSE AND THISTLE JOINED: On this day in 1707, the Acts of Union, uniting England and Scotland, went into effect. The two kingdoms had been ruled by the same monarch since James VI of Scotland (son of Mary, Queen of Scots) became James I of England and Ireland in 1603. But the Acts of Union made it a true political union and not just two crowns sitting on the same head.

For the English, the union was a good deal because it ensured that when Queen Anne died with no surviving children, Scotland and England would continue to have the same monarch. If instead Scotland had elected to go its own way, it might have chosen to return to its “auld alliance” with France. Such a move, England believed, would jeopardize its security.

On the other hand, the less populous Scots wanted to ensure access to English markets. This was especially so after the disastrous Darien scheme to create a Scottish colony in Panama, which left much of the country in financial ruin.

For most of its history, the marriage has been a reasonably happy one (though every marriage has had its … rough patches). But in more recent years cracks have started appearing in the marriage. In 1979, an effort to establish (or re-establish) a separate Scottish legislature via referendum failed.   It did so, however, only because the Act authorizing the referendum required that at least 40% of the entire Scottish electorate vote in favor. While the referendum got more yes than no votes, turnout was poor. In 1997, another such referendum was held. This time it passed, a Scottish Parliament was established, and the process of “devolution” was begun.

In 2014, when an independence referendum was held, it came a lot closer to passing than union supporters would have preferred. Ultimately, Scottish voters went 55.3% to 44.7% in favor of sticking it out with England.

At the time, the European Union actively discouraged an independent Scotland and let it be known that Scotland would have a tough time petitioning for entry into the E.U. if it decided to strike out on its own. Too many E.U. members have sub-national entities yearning for independence. The E.U. could ill-afford to encourage such movements.

Of course, that was then and this is now. After Brexit (which most Scottish voters opposed), one could imagine a different attitude on the part of the E.U. Or maybe not.  It is hard to imagine countries like Spain with their own internal issues being keen on dealing with Scotland in this way. Scotland would have to secede from the U.K. and then petition for entry into the E.U.

Two things have happened since the Brexit vote in 2016 that make such a scenario less likely: First, contrary to predictions, leaving the EU didn’t cause the sky to fall in the U.K. Second, COVID-19 really has made free movement across international borders look less wonderful than it did just a few months ago. So maybe the rose and thistle will stay together … if nothing else than for the sake of the children.

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