Scottish MPs in Westminster and the British state, c.1760-c.1830

Scottish MPs in Westminster and the British state, c.1760-c.1830

This week Andrew Mackley (University of Oxford) examines the changing nature of Scottish representation at Westminster and the expression of a Scottish interest in parliament.

In the mid-eighteenth century, Scotland enjoyed what Alexander Murdoch has called ‘a state of semi-independence’; yet by the early nineteenth century English and Scottish politics had, to a certain extent, become integrated.[1]  This was not a simple or a smooth process, and there was always a balance between integration and persistent difference. Nevertheless, gradual, nuanced, but significant change took place during this period and was reflected in the nature and operation of Scottish representation at Westminster and Whitehall, as exercised by the 45 MPs who sat for Scottish constituencies in the British House of Commons.

The 1760s saw the decline of a system, which, since the Union of 1707, had made Scottish MPs reliant on the patronage of a Scottish ‘manager’ and largely voting fodder for whichever ministry was in power. Changing attitudes towards Scottish representation were expressed by Gilbert Elliot, MP for Selkirkshire, who in 1764 proclaimed that Scottish MPs were ‘true British subjects’ and reasoned: ‘Am I not a Member of Parliament with as much liberty to abuse ministers…as if I had been born in Wapping?’ Scots, he argued, were entitled to be heard in Westminster, just as much as representatives from England or Wales.

In the late eighteenth century, the increasing importance of Scottish ‘improvement’, as well as the emergence of new and diverse manufacturing and commercial interests in certain Scottish regions, brought about greater demands for representation in Westminster.  In particular, emerging industrial interests in Glasgow and the west of Scotland region were developing new and innovative ways to lobby parliament and ministers, such as through the Glasgow Chamber of Commerce, established in 1783.  This was a consciously ‘British’ institution which modelled itself on other chambers throughout the British Atlantic World.  Ilay Campbell, as MP for the Glasgow Burghs, proved to be an exemplary representative of the Glasgow Chambers’ constituent interests in Westminster, specifically on behalf of west of Scotland textile and tobacco interests. In 1785, he was described as ‘the most attentive and most indefatigable member that ever represented the City of Glasgow’.[2]  He was an assiduous individual Scottish MP representing a more assertive and well-organised group of interests increasingly active in Westminster politics, which was certainly becoming a more common feature of Scottish politics during this period.

These developments deepened and extended into the nineteenth century, and Scottish and English representatives increasingly became connected, especially when acting on behalf of commercial and manufacturing interests. Kirkman Finlay, MP for the Glasgow Burghs between 1812-1818, was a member of a new Glaswegian industrial civic elite, as the Lord Provost and a leading member of the Glasgow Chamber of Commerce, as well as a founder member of the Glasgow East India Association. In this role he developed links with English MPs who also represented industrial interests south of the border, such as Sir John Gladstone, a Liverpool-based Scottish merchant. Their political connection reflected the deeper industrial and commercial links developing across the Tweed, which were manifest in the alliance between the Liverpool and Glasgow East India Associations, whose joint-interests, such as cotton, were based on sectoral, rather than national, considerations.

At the same time, integrative change was noticeable in a new age of party politics. Thomas Kennedy, MP for the Ayr Burghs, developed a reputation for lobbying on behalf of a variety of Scottish causes, not just as a representative of his constituents in Ayrshire, but as one of the leading Scottish Whig MPs.   He pursued a reforming agenda which targeted the Scottish legal, county and burgh, poor law, and electoral systems. His political activity demonstrates the capacity of opposition Scottish MPs in this period to operate in parliament systematically along party and across national lines.  As an opposition MP, he built a network of other Whigs, particularly English Whig MPs, such as William Woolryche Whitmore and Sir James Graham. Indeed Henry Cockburn, a leading Scottish Whig and colleague of Kennedy’s, stated in 1827 that their Scottish causes needed ‘a good English member to look after us’.[3]  This reveals a greater level of integration, whereby Scottish Whigs such as Kennedy were able to work with others to present their Scottish reforming agenda, as part of a broader British Whig programme, before ministers and parliament. 

This integration of English and Scottish representation at Westminster appears even more marked when compared with the experience of MPs from the other nations in the United Kingdom. After the Union of 1801, Ireland sent 100 MPs to the new ‘Imperial Parliament’, but few Irish representatives fully engaged with the politics of Westminster.  Most were ‘managed’ by the Lord Lieutenant and the Chief Secretary, just as Scottish MPs had been by the dukes of Argyll after the Union of 1707. There was hardly any Irish participation in Westminster party politics, and many Irish MPs thought of themselves as distinct from their parliamentary colleagues. Irish representation was focused on Irish affairs and defending specifically Irish interests, such as the Irish linen industry. Although, like Scotland, the Westminster parliament became more relevant to Irish interests and society in the decades subsequent to union, unlike Scotland, parliament was seen more as an arbitration court than a forum which adequately represented national interests.[4]

A Scottish national interest represented by MPs was discernable throughout this period, but punctuated by integrative changes over time.  The politics of Westminster increasingly became more important to Scottish society, and, partly as a reflection of this, Scottish MPs were integrated into the Westminster system, strengthening the connection between Scottish localities and the British political centre.  Scottish MPs increasingly operated within a British framework, which did not exclude distinctively Scottish issues, but where – true to those sentiments expressed by Gilbert Elliot in 1764 – Scottish representatives were no longer seen as inherently different from their English (and Welsh) colleagues.  From the perspective of 2016, where one distinctly Scottish party controls almost all Scottish representation in Westminster, it is perhaps apposite to remember this process of integration in order to judge the extent to which it has recently been reversed.

[1] Alexander Murdoch, The People Above: Politics and Administration in Mid-Eighteenth Century Scotland (Edinburgh, 1980), p. 27.

[2] Glasgow City Archives, TD1670/4/27: Patrick Colquhoun to Lord Provost of Glasgow, 25 March 1785.

[3] Henry Cockburn to Thomas Kennedy, 15 June 1827 in T.F. Kennedy (ed.), Letters chiefly connected with the Affairs of Scotland, from Henry Cockburn (London, 1874), p. 172.

[4] Peter Jupp, ‘Government, parliament and politics in Ireland, 1801-1841’ in Julian Hoppit (ed.), Parliaments, nations and identities in Britain and Ireland, 1660-1850 (Manchester, 2003), p. 164.

Andrew Mackley is a final year D.Phil. student in History at Linacre College, Oxford.  He is completing a thesis entitled: ‘North British interests in London: Scottish Lobbying in Westminster and the British state, c.1760-c.1830’ which is funded by the AHRC. One chapter of this thesis assesses systematically the role of Scottish MPs in representing Scottish interests at Westminster and to British ministers.  You can find him on Twitter as @AndrewMackley88 or on academia.edu.

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