Lessons From Scotland's Failed Experiment With Federalism

In 1638, Scots drafted a plan for a decentralized United Kingdom. Four centuries later, it might become a reality.

The signing of the Scottish National Covenant of 1638, as depicted by English artist William Hole  (Wikimedia)

Scotland’s recent referendum did not end in a majority vote for independence. But the remarkable exercise in democracy has resulted in a renewed push toward a federal system for the constituent parts of the United Kingdom. In the run-up to the vote, the U.K.’s three major “unionist” parties (Conservatives, Labour, and Liberal Democrats) promised Scots voters who said 'no' to independence something approaching maximum devolution of authority on matters such as taxation and spending (known as “devo max”). If the parties deliver on these promises—and whether they will remains unclear—the Scottish National Party (SNP) and its departing leader, Alex Salmond, can claim victory in gaining more autonomy for Scotland. And many of the Scots' Welsh, Northern Irish, and English neighbors, who share a resentment of the overarching powers enjoyed by the U.K. Parliament in Westminster, might thank them, particularly if devo max is implemented in their regions too, as some British lawmakers have argued it should be.

Still, this won’t be the first time that Scotland has led a campaign for federalism in the British Isles. The Scots spearheaded a similar movement in the 17th century. And while it was no democratic process then, many members of the general population, both women and men, participated—some by throwing stools. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

In 1603, James VI of Scotland, already a veteran (and rather successful) monarch, inherited the English throne from his childless cousin Elizabeth I. Henceforth England and Scotland (as well as Wales and Ireland, both already subject to the English crown) would share a ruler. But Scotland maintained its own Presbyterian church, parliament, legal system, currency, and royal council. All England and Scotland really shared was the king at the head of the system.

King James died in 1625 and was succeeded by his less competent son Charles I, who was born in Scotland but raised in England. Charles embarked on a series of policies aimed at centralizing authority throughout his kingdoms. In many ways, or so it seemed at least, he was trying to make Scotland more like England. His campaign started with investigations into landholding that alarmed the Scottish nobility and, by the mid-1630s, involved making the Church of Scotland more like the Church of England. As part of this effort, the archbishop of Canterbury (who had no formal role in the Scottish Church) directed a project to draw up a new liturgy, including a prayer book, for Scottish worship. As the new prayer book neared completion in 1637, the Scottish public became aware of some of its contents, due to a 17th-century data breach: an Edinburgh tobacconist, seeking wrapping for his product, bought surplus early page proofs from one of the printers producing the book. Customers noted that the words on the wrappers looked remarkably like English liturgy–apparently intended for them.

The word was out, and the grassroots organizing began. On July 23, 1637, the first attempt to conduct worship using the new prayer book spurred a well-orchestrated riot in St Giles’ Cathedral in Edinburgh. Tradition has it that the commotion was touched off when Jenny Geddes, proprietress of a local market stall, threw her folding stool at the head of the dean of Edinburgh, who was reading the opening prayer of the new liturgy. The outrage quickly spread to cities and towns across Scotland.

A woodcut depicting the 1637 prayerbook riot in St. Andrews (Wikimedia)

Just as Alex Salmond and the SNP railed against out-of-touch “Westminster politics” in 2014, so too did the traditional leaders of Scotland (landowners, lawyers, and ministers) in 1638, drawing up their grievances against English interference in their affairs in a remarkable document known as the National Covenant. The document did not criticize Charles I or claim that his authority was illegitimate, but rather reminded him repeatedly that his authority in Scotland would be most secure if he upheld the laws passed by the Scottish Parliament, many of which had to do with the Church and were specifically cited in the text. While outwardly loyal to the crown, the covenant was a howling protest against the infringement of Scottish autonomy by officials in Westminster (who included the king himself). It reflected a federalized view of Scotland’s relationship with England—equal but fundamentally separate kingdoms that happened to share the same monarch. Specifically, it argued:

Like as all lieges are bound to maintain the King’s Majesty’s royal person and authority, the authority of Parliaments, without which neither any laws or lawful judicatories can be established (Act 130. Act 131. Parl. 8. K. James VI), and the subjects’ liberties, who ought only to live and be governed by the King's laws, the common laws of this realm allanerly [alone] (Act 48. Parl. 3. K. James I, Act 79. Parl. 6. K. James VI, repeated in Act 131. Parl. 8. K. James VI), which if they be innovated or prejudged the commission anent [concerning] the union of the two kingdoms of Scotland and England, which is the sole Act of 17 Parl. James VI, declares such confusion would ensue as this realm could be no more a free monarchy; because by the fundamental laws, ancient privileges, offices, and liberties of this kingdom, not only the princely authority of His Majesty's royal descent hath been these many ages maintained, also the people's security of their lands, livings, rights, offices, liberties and dignities preserved.

The covenanters’ vision thus resembled Salmond’s vision of an independent Scotland that would keep the queen but firmly separate the legislative authorities of the two kingdoms.

How did this strategy work out in 1638? Not particularly well. When most of the Scots’ demands were not met, they invaded England, touching off a series of wars within England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland that lasted 21 years and killed an estimated 540,000. At times, the Scots made common cause with the English Parliament against the king, but they were not participants in the military coup led by Oliver Cromwell that paved the way for Charles I’s execution in 1649. Within a few years, Scotland was under English military occupation. Ultimately, Cromwell rankled the English elite (and came to be reviled in most of Ireland). After Cromwell’s death, another military coup led to the restoration of the monarchy in the person of Charles’s son Charles II. Scottish-style federalism had failed; the kingdoms of the British Isles would once again share an imperial monarch, and the governments and currencies of England and Scotland would be formally united in 1707. Thus began the Union that Scottish voters chose to preserve last week.

It was a union that would pave the way for Scottish participation in the British Empire—a union that hosted the first large-scale industrial revolution, made ample use of Scottish coal, and turned the river Clyde, west of Glasgow, into the center of British shipbuilding. But most of that industry is gone now and Scotland in particular has hemorrhaged jobs during its decline, leaving a new legacy of resentment toward Westminster, particularly when the latter is led by Conservative Party governments for which Scots have not voted since the 1950s. Tony Blair’s “New Labour” government gave some powers back to Scotland and resurrected its parliament in 1999. But these limited steps did not lead to a fully federal system within the U.K. Such a system may now be in the offing.

In 1638, federalism was a Scottish idea that neither the king nor most of the English Parliament saw much need for. It led to a cataclysmic war. Now, it could strengthen the Conservative Party’s control over English affairs (which is one reason Labour leaders at the U.K. level are very hesitant to get on board with the Conservatives' devolution plan) and give Scots the national autonomy that so many of them voted for (presumably, even many ‘no’ voters voted that way in hopes of attaining the promised devo max). The coming debate will be fierce, but it’s bound to be less bloody than it was in the 17th century.