With the Scottish independence referendum on Thursday, Rosalind Carr reflects on the metaphor of the family and divorce which has been employed by contemporary politicians and commentators on both sides of the debate in a historical context.
Rosalind Carr, University of East London, has written book chapters and journal articles on women’s involvement in the union debates of the early eighteenth century. She is also the author of Gender and Enlightenment Culture in Eighteenth-Century Scotland (EUP, 2014).
Marriage, Divorce and the Referendum: a brief historical reflection
This Thursday, Scotland may divorce England. It is an interesting word ‘divorce’, and while it is not the language I would prefer to use to discuss the referendum, it is a language that has been deployed in the media, and by the Tory party especially. Last week, David Cameron declared that he would be ‘heartbroken if this family of nations was torn apart’, and informed Scots via the Daily Mail, that the UK ‘desperately wants you to stay.’ On the left too, George Galloway has warned Scots against voting Yes because divorce ‘is a nasty, acrimonious and very damaging business.’
The imagining of the Union as a family soon possibly to be broken up through a divorce initiated by one partner is not a simple metaphor to summarise a complex legal and political development, but is one laden with meaning. It is reflective of power dynamics between England and Scotland, and has a pedigree at least as long as the parliamentary union itself. The idea of Union as a marriage reflects the reality that Scotland was not an invaded and conquered nation, but by a vote in parliament joined England to form the state of Great Britain, ostensibly as a partnership of equals. However, in 1706-07, as now, Scotland was figured as the weaker party, as the wee wummin.
The conception of the Union as a marriage has not been invented by our pro-family PM. Indeed, the notion that Scotland should form a marital relationship with England in order to preserve what little power she had, indeed to preserve her very virtue, was expressed during the great public debate of pamphleteering, marching and rioting that accompanied the passage of the Act of Union through the Scottish Parliament at the beginning of the eighteenth century.
In A Letter to a Friend, Giving an Account of how the Treaty of Union has been Received Here, published anonymously in 1706 by Sir John Clerk of Penicuik, the proposed British state was depicted as the product of an honourable marriage, and Scotland figured as a ‘chaste Virgin, who, because she fears her own Weakness, and want of Resolution to continue long in that Condition, prudently enters into Wedlock; by which sort of Union, she acquires the Name of being one Flesh with her Husband, yet at the same time, she remains that very numerical Honourable Person that she was before.’ This idea was informed by other, non-gendered, arguments in favour of Union. For example, William Seton of Pitmedden, argued in 1706, ‘This nation, being poor, and without force to protect its commerce, cannot reap great advantage by it, till it partake of the trade and commerce of some powerful neighbour nation.’ Just as David Cameron and others do now, A Letter to a Friend used patriarchal metaphor to emphasise Scotland’s weakness.
Over the last week, Scots and English politicians and businessmen have warned that an independent Scotland will not be able to survive economically, that she (nations are – problematically – normally she, rather than it) will be isolated and excluded from the EU. When this is combined with the language of family it is not difficult to pick up the patriarchal message, and here statements often delivered to women threatening divorce from a bullying husband can be heard; You’ll be broke if you leave me. None of our friends will speak to you. You won’t be able to look after yourself.
For many people in Scotland who intend to vote Yes on Thursday, it is the inequality of this parliamentary union in regard to democratic voice that they wish to end. We could say, if we were to adopt the metaphor and language of David Cameron, they want divorce – they want to end a patriarchal marriage. However, we need to be careful of adopting this patriarchal metaphor. Just as we should seek to move away from the feminine symbolism of the image of Mother Caledonia ‘covering herself with her royal Garment, attending the fatal Blow’, expressed in Lord Belhaven’s famous 1706 speech against the Union, so too do we need to accept that for much of the last 300 years Scotland has profited from this ‘marriage’. It has, for instance, played just as aggressive a role in the British Empire as England. Scotland has not always been a victim, though the marriage metaphor paints ‘her’ this way.
This marriage metaphor was also deployed in tracts arguing against the parliamentary union, but it was turned on its head, with England depicted as a libertine out to corrupt Scotland’s virtue. In William Wright’s, The Comical History of the Marriage Betwixt Fergusia and Heptarchus (1706), Union is depicted an unequal marriage – the selling of a modest woman to a corrupt libertine – using the characters of Fergusia and Heptarchus, anthropomorphized symbols of the sovereign kingdoms of Scotland and England. Fergusia as a symbolic feminine figure embodies Scotland’s antiquity and national virtue, while by contrast Heptarchus is ‘Young and Lusty, very opulent and Rich’, and in adulthood has done nothing but ‘commit Rapes on his Neighbours.’ In Comical History of the Marriage, an attack on national sovereignty is envisioned in terms of the violation of a symbolic feminine purity. Throughout the dialogue concerning the marriage between the two characters, issues of great importance to many Scots in 1706 were addressed, such as the position of the Presbyterian Kirk, Crown Rights, taxation, national debt and the Navigation Acts. Overall, Scotland is depicted as a virtuous woman being sold into marriage with a man whose tendencies lend themselves to abuse. To combat this, Fergusia wishes for a federal marriage in which they become one head, but retain their separate laws, customs and Parliaments. Heptarchus, however, views this as a sham marriage, declaring, ‘No I can never be happy till you and I become one Flesh, and be intirely Incorporated,’ to which Fergusia answers, ‘You’d devour me, and burie me in the midst of Your self.’
The metaphor of Britain as a family, deployed by David Cameron and propagated in newspaper articles, is built upon the imagining of Union as marriage that began at the time of the Union’s enactment. Whether imagined as a happy or a dysfunctional (even abusive) relationship, when employed in 1706, the marriage metaphor reflected the social, political, and cultural centrality to early modern Scotland, and Britain, of a patriarchy whereby husband and father had ultimate authority in his household. The Anglo-Scottish family imagined today may be a less explicitly authoritarian one, and it has become infused with a desperate romance, as can be read from English politicians and journalists arriving en masse on trains from London, as if to apologise for previously being interested in Scotland only in the context of Edinburgh in August. That there is an inequality can be seen in the fact that it is so easy to figure the threats concerning the economy in terms of a divorce in which a woman’s financial precariousness is used to convince her to remain in a marriage that has become oppressive, or even simply unsatisfying. Just as in 1706-07, when the marriage metaphor is combined with fear, patriarchy looms large.