Should Scotland be an independent country? The verdict is in. In an historic referendum on Thursday, the people of Scotland voted “no,” in favor of continuing their 307-year union with England.
Voters cited political stability and well-established cultural ties as reasons (among others) for keeping the United Kingdom united. But these reasons are not the ones Scots recognized more than three centuries ago, when their country signed the 1707 Act of Union with England, bringing the two governments together.
The reasons for union, which resulted in the creation of Great Britain, were largely financial. The story begins with England and its colonies in America. In the 1650s, England sought to renew its hold on colonial trade, especially as commodities like cotton and tobacco became more popular overseas. The Navigation Acts of 1651 and 1660– which England had justified on the grounds that they would counter smuggling efforts – declared that English imports could only be carried on English ships, or ships of the country of their origin. The Act prohibited the use of “foreign bottoms,” meaning the ships of intermediary countries.
England’s Navigation Acts were intended to target Dutch traders, but they also had the indirect consequence of hurting Scotland. Scottish traders had profited from shipping these commodities across the Atlantic. As a result, their business suffered under the Acts, by which Scotland was considered a foreign nation.
Scottish merchants desperately sought alternative ways around the Navigation Acts; they lobbied in vain for an exemption and even attempted a New World colony of their own, which failed disastrously and drained its resources.
Impoverished and oppressed by their powerful neighbor, Scotland’s merchants and its politicians pushed their country toward union with England. After its failed colonial experiment, Scotland had to shift from its go-it-alone economic policy in favor of a merger that would be of mutual benefit to both governments. To rediscover the economic wellbeing it had enjoyed before the Navigation Acts, Scotland – at least in terms of policy – was increasingly open to the idea of a union. England and Scotland became one under the banner of Great Britain.
Scotland benefitted immediately under its new arrangement. Its traders, now British, sailed under the unparalleled protection of the Royal Navy. Scotland was also closer to the American continent than England; its ports had a geographical advantage, which meant faster, cheaper trips overseas. Scottish merchants soon held a major stake in Great Britain’s export and import business.
The original economic, political, and social bonds that united England and Scotland then are not the ones now holding the United Kingdom together. Indeed, Scotland’s motivations for joining Great Britain are hardly valid or applicable to current circumstances. The mercantilist theory of colonies enriching their mother country no longer guides England’s international trade. The political and geographical advantages Scotland enjoyed are no longer relevant, due to the forces of globalization.
Alex Sammond and his “Yes Scotland” campaign, led by the Scottish National Party (SNP) called the referendum a “once in a generation” opportunity. Sammond cast Scotland as an economically independent state, relying on its oil reserves to fund its generous social safety net. On the other hand, the “Better Together” campaign has stressed the partnership in Great Britain’s symbiotic relationship. How these arguments shaped the outcome of the recent referendum, however, is beyond the scope of this article.
What we do know is that without the specific wording in the Navigation Acts, or if Scotland had just been a bit more persuasive in its efforts for an exemption, the historic referendum this Thursday may have never happened. And Scotland’s story may have gone in a very different direction.