England, Scotland and the Treaty of Union, 1706-08

In 1707, under the terms of the Treaty of Union, England and Scotland became a single state – the United Kingdom of Great Britain – and the parliaments at Westminster and Edinburgh were replaced by a single ‘Parliament of Great Britain’.   The arrangements for establishing the new parliament were set out in Article 22 of the Treaty.   The wording of the Treaty made no mention of the closure of the Scottish Parliament, but the detailing of an entirely new scheme for the representation of Scotland left no doubt that the new Parliament was in fact to consist of the Parliament at Westminster with the addition of Scots representatives.  

The finalized ‘Articles of Union’ were signed at Whitehall on 22 July 1706 and formally presented to Queen Anne the following day.   They were considered by the Scottish Parliament during October 1706-January 1707, and an Act was then passed declaring Scotland’s assent.   The Articles were then debated at Westminster, first by the Commons, then the Lords, during February 1707.   A bill was passed for ratifying the Articles to which the Queen gave her assent in person at the House of Lords on 6 Mar. 

 After the Scottish Parliament had passed its ratifying Act it had turned to the question of Scotland’s future parliamentary representation.   Article 22 of the Treaty had decreed that 16 peers and 45 commoners were to represent Scotland at Westminster, leaving it to Scotland’s Parliament to settle the detail.   The Edinburgh parliament was a unicameral body which, by the eve of the Union, had grown to consist of a ‘theoretical’ total of 302, made up of some 143 hereditary peers, 92 ‘shire’ or county commissioners, and 67 burgh commissioners.   Inevitably, Scotland’s loss of its representative body – symbolizing the loss of national sovereignty – in favour of a much reduced representation at Westminster produced deep resentment among the Scottish populace.    

At the end of January 1707, following a series of ill-attended sittings, the Scottish Parliament passed legislation setting out the procedures for electing the 16 peers and 45 commoners.  The 16 representative peers were to be chosen by the entire body of Scottish peers through ‘open election’ rather than by ballot.   Each elected peer was to serve for the duration of one Parliament.  Upon the dissolution of Parliament all Scottish peers would be summoned by royal proclamation to the Palace of Holyroodhouse, where the names of peers were called over and each peer would then read out his list of 16 nominees.   It became standard practice for governments to canvass their preferred choices, thus ensuring a controllable bloc of support in the Upper House.   The practice of electing ‘representative peers’ of Scotland was to continue until it was abolished by the Peerage Act of 1963.  

Far more contentious was the process of allocating the 45 commoner representatives between the shires and burghs.   It was eventually fixed at 30 for the shires and 15 for the burghs, but it entailed a substantial redrawing of the electoral map of Scotland.   Most of the 33 Scottish counties acquired a single Member of Parliament, but with the six smallest counties being required to alternate in pairs from one election to the next.   The county franchise, however, remained unchanged.   The 66 royal burghs were now grouped together into 14 ‘burgh districts’, each containing four or five burghs.  Each district returned a single MP while Edinburgh retained the right to elect its own Member, making the total of 15.   Within each district the place of election rotated from one election to the next according to the order of precedence used in the rolls of the Scottish parliament and as laid down in the Scottish elections act.  

Since the Union was to take effect from 1 May 1707, the Treaty declared that the first Parliament of Great Britain was to last for the duration remaining of the current parliament at Westminster.   Members of the Scottish parliament who had opposed the Union pressed for a general election in Scotland to elect the 45 Scots MPs.  But it was agreed instead that the first Scots MPs should be chosen from, and elected by, the existing parliament in Edinburgh rather than run the risk of allowing Scotland’s small electorate an early opportunity to elect an anti-union majority.   Virtually all the peers and commoners selected had supported the Union and most could be counted on to support the Court in the new Parliament.

The Scottish parliament gathered for the last time on 25 Mar. 1707 and was formally closed by the Queen’s lord high commissioner, the duke of Queensberry.   At Westminster the current session ended on 24 April when Parliament was prorogued until 30 Apr.   On that day, a small number of peers gathered in the Upper House (to which the handful of MPs attending in the Commons was also summoned), to hear a proclamation read declaring that the new Parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain had now replaced the separate English and Scottish parliaments.   A further proclamation of 5 June declared that it would assemble at Westminster on 23 Oct. 

When the new Parliament duly convened on that day the first business in the Commons was to choose a new Speaker.   What was usually a political trial of strength was on this occasion a good-natured formality, with the preceding Speaker, John Smith I, being unanimously called again to the Chair.   In a neatly orchestrated move, the nomination was seconded by the Scots MP, Francis Montgomerie, who, having served with Smith as a Union commissioner, commended Smith’s contribution to the negotiations. 

Scots MPs accustomed to the ponderous formality of proceedings in Edinburgh found it necessary to adapt to the cut and thrust style of debate at Westminster.   The general election in 1708 gave Scottish voters their first chance of electing representatives to the united Parliament.   But the years immediately ahead saw Scottish MPs frequently at odds with British ministers over failure to honour vital aspects of the Treaty.

Author: Andrew A. Hanham