It was the failure of the Darien Scheme in the late 1600s that triggered the Act of Union in 1707 and made Scotland a key partner in the United Kingdom, one of the most successful economic unions in history. If Scotland ever votes for independence it will, ironically, create another Darien-style economic disaster, as we breakup a partnership that has seen us share a language, a currency, a flag and a seamless and borderless single market where we’ve done 65% of our trade, for more than 300 years.
It may seem like a bizarre concept, but those of us who value the union and who regard the last three centuries as a great success, owe a debt of gratitude to William Paterson and his ill-fated Darien Scheme. Strangely enough, even Spain, with its own secessionist problems in Catalonia, played a key role in Scotland becoming a partner in the United Kingdom. It was in 1698 that the Scots tried to establish an overseas colony on the Darien Peninsula, the narrowest point between the Pacific and the Atlantic, so that they could open up a potentially profitable trade route with the Far East. A brilliant Scotsman called William Paterson, from Lochmaben in Dumfriesshire, persuaded nearly all the Lords, Dukes, Earls and wealthy landowners in Scotland to finance his scheme and 1,200 Scottish colonists set sail for Panama in July 1698. Paterson envisaged a rich trading port in Panama where goods landed from the Atlantic could be taken on mules across the mountains to the Pacific and vice versa. His idea was really an early precursor of what centuries later would become the Panama Canal.
Despite some initial successes establishing a fort and making friendly contact with the indigenous tribes, trouble was not far away. A supply mission from Scotland was shipwrecked, while the onset of the hot season spawned a host of tropical diseases. As provisions ran short, many of the colonists died of hunger and disease. Finally, alerted to the fact that there were some Scots trying to take over Spanish territory, the Spanish armada arrived and finished off the few sick and starving survivors. A second expeditionary force set sail from Scotland in 1699 and found the colony at Darien abandoned. They too died of disease and starvation. Out of over 2,400 Scottish would-be colonists, only 50 survived to tell the tale.
This disastrous episode bankrupted Scotland. However, the mastermind behind the doomed scheme - Willie Paterson, had been wily enough not to join the expedition to Panama and had therefore survived. He now set about persuading Queen Anne on the English throne that she should offer to compensate the Scottish aristocracy for all of their disastrous losses in return for their signatures to an Act of Union. With a little additional pressure in 1706, by placing punitive tariffs on Scottish goods being exported to England, the 1707 Act of Union between Scotland and England was born. Scotland’s independence was gone. As Robert Burns succinctly put it: “We're bought and sold for English gold - such a parcel of rogues in a nation!”
Wily Willie Paterson went on to found the Bank of England! As can be imagined, the loss of Scotland’s sovereignty caused a great stushie at the time and there were riots on the streets of Edinburgh and Glasgow. But in due course, give or take the odd Jacobite rebellion, things gradually settled down and Scotland became an important partner in the UK and a significant beneficiary from what became and has remained one of the most successful union of nations ever.
Now let’s fast forward to 1999 and the creation of the Scottish Parliament. Years of debate and the rise of the SNP had provided the impetus for devolution and Tony Blair’s landslide election victory in 1997 paved the way for The Scotland Act 1998. Holyrood was given extensive devolved powers governing health, education, justice, transport, rural affairs, housing and the environment. The Act stated that the parliament should be elected by a system of proportional representation to ensure that no single party could ever win an outright majority. Unfortunately, this failsafe plan proved to be just about as successful as the Darien Scheme, when the SNP led by Alex Salmond, won an outright majority at the May 2011 elections, capturing 69 of the 129 seats.
How did the SNP achieve this amazing victory? Well it was partly due to the way in which the Scottish Parliament is financed and partly to the incompetence of the previous socialist administrations. The Scottish parliament is financed by a generous annual block grant from Westminster. Economists say that every man, woman and child in Scotland is £2,000 better off than their counterparts in England. This enabled the SNP to produce a manifesto offering free health care, free dental care, free care for the elderly and free university fees. The SNP majority meant they could demand their right to hold a ‘once in a generation’ referendum on independence in 2014. Prime Minister David Cameron agreed and the result, as we all know, was a resounding victory for the ‘NO’ vote. The union was saved.
Had the Nats won independence in 2014 we would now be in the middle of a constitutional calamity as well as a pandemic. There would be desperate disputes with our neighbours in England, Wales and Northern Ireland over trade barriers, currency, border controls and fishing rights. There would be deeply divisive negotiations over the division of assets and liabilities, who owns what. There would be a flight of capital, eye-watering austerity, galloping tax increases and public sector cuts and a resulting brain drain. Mortgages, pensions, savings, even council house rents would all suffer. Scotland’s post-Scexit experience would make Britain’s Brexit negotiations look like a stroll in the park. As an example of a megaproject that went catastrophically wrong, the smoking ruins of Darien would pale by comparison to the aftermath of a vote for independence in Scotland.
Albert Einstein famously said that “Nationalism is an infantile disease. It is the measles of mankind.” As we strive to control the coronavirus with an effective vaccine, we should remember that the best cure for the fool’s gold of nationalism is the ballot box.