Scotland politics

Scottish independence: The parliament that never was

"We have a right, with all our separate national characteristics, to manage our own affairs in our own way."

This might sound like a line from Yes Scotland's latest campaign leaflet, but it was actually said over a century ago.

In 1913, William Cowan presented a successful Scottish home rule bill to Westminster, but the outbreak of World War One prevented the creation of a strong Scottish parliament which could have completely changed Scotland's modern history.

This is the story of Scotland's parliament that never was.


A sleeping parliament

Image copyright Thinkstock

For most of the 1800s, Scottish political nationalism remained dormant.

Although the UK was technically run by one Westminster parliament, much of the day-to-day running of Scottish affairs was carried out within Scotland which meant there was little appetite for independence or the establishment of a Scottish parliament.

Moreover, many of Scotland's ruling elite were educated in English schools and benefited financially from the Empire, meaning most Scottish MPs were very much part of, rather than opposed to, the British establishment.


The turning tide

Image copyright Thinkstock

However, the introduction of the 1872 Education Act - which legislated for Scottish school boards which were supervised by London - and the creation of the Scottish Office in 1885, meant more and more decisions affecting Scotland were made outside of Scotland.

On top of that, the Irish home rule movement was rapidly gaining strength in the late 1800s, creating a feeling within Scotland that Ireland was getting unfair preferential treatment.

In 1894, a Scottish Home Rule Association was established with the aim of setting up a devolved parliament in Edinburgh.

One of its grievances, which may resonate with modern-day Scots who watched Team GB at the Olympics, was "against the mis-use of the terms 'England' and 'English' for 'Britain', its Empire, its people and its institutions."

With the Home Rule Association's leadership, Scottish home rule was debated seven times in parliament between 1886 and 1900, although none of this discussion led to a successful bill.


The Young Scots

Image copyright PA

A change came with the establishment in 1900 of The Young Scots, an offshoot of the Liberal Party committed to social reform which strongly believed in Scottish home rule.

By 1914, they had 10,000 members in 50 branches, with 30 of its members having been elected to Westminster.

With increasing power, The Young Scots made home rule a central feature of national politics in the run up to the First World War.

The culmination of these efforts resulted in the 1913 home rule bill, which was presented to parliament by William Cowan MP.


Sound familiar?

Image copyright Thinkstock

When Mr Cowan presented the bill to parliament, he gave a speech which will sound familiar to those following the 2014 independence debate.

His opening statement could easily be describing present day Scotland, saying: "You cannot nowadays take up a Scottish newspaper with very much chance of finding no reference to this burning question.

"I do not care who goes to Scotland today, if he speaks to anybody, if he goes anywhere, if he consults the people, he will find that this is the most absorbing political topic in Scotland."

His arguments for home rule might also resonate with 'Yes' voters today, as he cheekily cited lack of interest in Scotland from English MPs.

He said: "English members will be conspicuous by their absence, or will be represented by gentlemen who, having shootings, fishings, or deer forests in Scotland, imagine themselves experts on Scottish affairs and insist on wasting our time and their own by intervening in Scottish debates."

Summing up his argument, he said: "Is it any wonder Scotland is tired and demands a parliament of her own? That she demands her own legislation for land, for the liquor trade, for education, for housing, for fisheries, for ecclesiastical affairs, for one-hundred-and-one matters of purely local concern?"

The press reaction might seem familiar too, with a 1913 Spectator article asking of the proposals "Are we to establish a customs line along the Roman Wall, with an army of watchers to prevent smuggling?"


What powers would it have had?

Image copyright AFP/Getty Images

The powers outlined for the 1913 Scottish parliament actually outdo what the current Scottish parliament has.

Its powers would have included pensions, national insurance, labour exchanges and all "purely Scottish affairs."

Or, as William Cowan, explained: "The powers of the Scottish parliament will closely resemble those of the Irish parliament, with the exception that we do not desire to control the Post Office."

It would have left to the UK parliament matters involving the crown, war, foreign affairs, national defence, immigration, trademarks, coinage, weights and measures, external trade, postal service, public loans to Scotland before the passing of the Act, and the collection of taxes.

Also, weirdly, Scottish lighthouses.


So, what happened?

Image copyright AP

The bill was given its second reading in parliament in May 1914.

However, weeks later, on 28 June, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was shot in Sarajevo, starting the series of events which led to the First World War.

During the war, parliament continued to sit without interruption, but mainly dealt with measures for the conduct of the war, both at home and on the front line.

For the duration of the war, at least, Scottish devolution was simply forgotten about.


What happened next?

Image copyright Getty Images

After the war, home rule was brought up again in parliament in the 1920s, but Scottish political nationalism faded as a force in the late 1920s and 30s, and didn't enter mainstream politics again until the SNP won its first Westminster seat in 1945.

It's hard to tell how much Scotland's modern political history might have changed if Scotland had been granted a parliament in 1914.

However, leading historian Tom Devine says: "My bet would be in the long run it might have promoted a more federal approach and so a stabilisation of the Union."

If Scotland votes 'Yes' on Thursday, 1914 might be looked back on as a great "What if?" of Scottish history.

Related Topics