Scottish local acts of parliament: road legislation, 1760-1830

Scottish local acts of parliament: road legislation, 1760-1830

This week, Andrew Mackley (University of Oxford) discusses how Scottish local legislation strengthened the link between Scotland and Westminster in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. 

It has long been recognised that the legislative output of the Westminster parliament rose exponentially from 1689. However, a proper appreciation of the public nature of the legislative process which improves our understanding of the relationship between the political centre and localities, is comparatively recent. In this context, historians, largely working on England, have stressed the growing accessibility of parliament to groups and individuals in unprecedented ways, and the consequent effects of this on society.

However, the extent to which this was also the case in Scotland has largely been left unexamined. Joanna Innes has recently shown that during the period 1760-1830 there was a steady and fairly rapid rise in Scottish legislation, particularly local legislation.[i] Indeed, whilst there were twenty-five Scottish local acts passed by the Westminster parliament in the 1760s, by the 1820s this had increased to 169. This compared to seven general acts in the 1760s, rising to sixty-four in the 1820s, suggesting that it was primarily through Scottish local legislation that the link between Scotland and Westminster was strengthened. This was in complete contrast to Ireland where, between the Union of 1801 and 1830, there were more than five times as many Irish general acts than local acts, with the latter only numbering between forty to fifty-four per decade.

Following the Union of 1707, Scotland retained its separate legal system and local government structures, as well as a distinctive legislative history. These were sources of certain differences involved in the lobbying of local legislation for Scotland as opposed to elsewhere in England and Wales, and after 1801, Ireland. This was also an era of ‘improvement’ which had a corresponding effect on the amount of local legislation passed at Westminster throughout the four nations, but particularly in Scotland where the drive for improvement had a distinctive character. Communications acts comprised the majority of Scottish local legislation throughout the eighteenth century, and in the period 1760-1830, they represented 65% of all Scottish local acts. For the purposes of this analysis, communications legislation includes local acts relating to roads, bridges, ports and harbours, canals, railways, lighthouses, and shipping. Road legislation comprised the bulk of this, making up 62% of all Scottish communications acts.

At the beginning of this period there was a tendency by older institutions in Scottish local government towards inefficiency and improvisation when it came to drafting and applying for local legislation. Road bills of all kinds could easily cause tension and conflict between farmers and landowners, as well as counties and towns. A turnpike bill for Berwickshire in the early 1770s met with considerable opposition, largely because of lack of consultation with the wider community. Agreeing on legislation at a local level was a lengthy and complicated process. The road and turnpike bills for Dumfriesshire in the mid-1770s, for example, involved lengthy and arduous negotiations over two years, with debates between local landowners and commissioners of supply.

Yet by the turn of the nineteenth century there is evidence that Scottish communities were adapting in order to improve the process of applying for road legislation. In particular, there was a growing recognition that it was better to be transparent when proposing a road or a turnpike bill and to consult, canvass opinion widely, negotiate, and compromise. For example, at a meeting of the commissioners of supply for Banffshire who wished to propose a road and turnpike bill in 1802, it was stipulated that ‘each Clause… ought to be maturely considered and deliberated upon before attempting to pass it into a Law.’[ii] This was partly because road bills created new precedents, conventions, and even institutional frameworks at a local level. They created road and turnpike trustees and commissions which were empowered to enforce the new rules under the legislation. A culture of openness and discussion was encouraged with regular county, or general, meetings and it became standard practice to engage in a form of evidence-based policy making. This often included the commissioning of a report or a survey and there was a growing emphasis on transparency, particularly evident in the use of printed documents and in the growing Scottish press. This led to more constructive applications for local legislation, of which one manifestation was organised cooperation between towns and counties, such as the joint committee of Wigtownshire and Kirkcudbrightshire, established in 1791 to apply for a turnpike act, which represented a blend of titled, landowning, county, and urban interests.

Added to this, the services of MPs, solicitors and lobbying agents were, perhaps unsurprisingly, crucial in the process of passing Scottish local legislation in Westminster. They had the knowledge and expertise to navigate the parliamentary process and were able to facilitate and conduct negotiations in London. During this period, there was a discernible improvement in the coordination between the Scottish localities and their representatives in Westminster, so that the nature of MPs’ activity was ideally to ensure that the legislation agreed at a local level successfully cleared the necessary parliamentary hurdles. The fear that a last minute negotiation in Westminster might lead to an undesirable bill appears to have incentivised local authorities to reach an agreement so as to avoid any threat of opposition.

Over this period, Scots increasingly became more confident, and indeed more adept, at participating in the politics of Westminster and promoting parliamentary adjudication of Scottish affairs. Connected to this, notions of ‘the public’ in Scotland were being redefined. Older local Scottish institutions – be they commissioners of supply, burgh councils, trades incorporations – were becoming reconstituted, both in their roles in the legislative process, as well as in their growing accountability to new sections of society. This afforded them the opportunity to develop new conventions around canvassing opinion and debating, which sought to engage with as broad a public as possible. In this way, Scottish society appears to have changed over this period to focus more intensely on Westminster, in distinctively Scottish ways, to gradually become part of a broader British political and legislative framework.

[i]Joanna Innes, ‘Legislating for Three Kingdoms: how the Westminster parliament legislated for England, Scotland and Ireland, 1707-1830’ in Julian Hoppit (ed.), Parliaments, nations and identities in Britain and Ireland, 1660-1850 (Manchester, 2003).

[ii]National Records of Scotland, GD44/42/3/3 (Gordon papers): ‘Minutes of Committee of Commissioners of County of Banff, 20 October 1802’.

Andrew Mackley is a final year D.Phil. student in History at Linacre College, Oxford. He is completing a thesis entitled: ‘The Interest of North Britain: Scottish Lobbying in Westminster and the British state, c.1760-c.1830’ which is funded by the AHRC. One chapter of this thesis assesses Scottish legislation at the Westminster parliament. You can find him on Twitter as @amackley88 or on academia.edu

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