Celebrating the Declaration of Arbroath – and the cry for liberty at its heart

Today marks the anniversary of one of the most significant events in Scottish history – the signing of the Declaration of Arbroath.

It was a truly inspirational and courageous statement on many levels, and it is unsurprising that almost seven hundred years later it continues to have an impact on our understanding of nationhood and Scottish identity. That it was an expression of Scottish nationalism cannot be doubted: indeed, it is one of the most articulate, eloquent and heartfelt expressions of Scottish nationhood ever written. But it is so much more than that and at its heart was more than mere nationalistic aspiration, but a passionate cry for freedom and liberty. It was also, at its most basic level, a challenge to religious authority centuries ahead of its time in addition to arguably being a stimulus for far-reaching changes in European constitutional thinking.

A nationalistic purpose

In appealing to Pope John XXII the signatories to the declaration make clear their commitment not merely to Scotland’s independence but also to its nationhood. In a curiously selective recollection of Scottish history, they point to how the Scots “came, twelve hundred years after the people of Israel crossed the Red Sea, to their home in the west where they still live today”, thereafter “[holding] it free of all bondage ever since” while “in their kingdom there have reigned one hundred and thirteen kings of their own royal stock, the line unbroken [by] a single foreigner.” While these "facts" are more the product of cultural sensitivities rather than historical understanding, there can be no escaping the sense of belonging to a proud nation – one of “freedom and peace” in which “our people harbour no malice or treachery and [are] unused to wars or invasions.” A fine vision, indeed.

In some respects, it is easy to detect a more than faint romanticism in these claims as is generally true with most nationalist thinking. Perhaps, while many today identify Scotland in terms of Celtic mysticism, the tartan and bagpipes culture of the White Heather Club, haggis and shortbread tin landscapes the signatories of the Arbroath declaration were equally in love with an artificial view of Scotland, based itself on false assumptions about the nation’s history, its potential and its individual nature. Such assumptions perhaps contain a grain of truth, but are in fact quite dangerous and are themselves usually based on modern hostility to Scottish nationalism. Certainly, the myth of ethnic origin apparently expressed within the Declaration can be easily debunked, but it’s also clear that Scottish nationhood was not defined by such fiction. The explanation of Scotland's establishment was designed to persuade the Pope of their cause rather than an exercise in writing accurate history.

What is immediately obvious is that the nature of nationhood itself, as expressed in the Declaration of Arbroath, is far different from that often associated with the romanticised view of Scotland that appeals far more to foreign visitors than it rings true to most contemporary Scots. At the root of the nationalists’ cause in 1320 were core values, not determined by lines on maps or even historic achievements but a right to self-determination, for recognition, for an end to oppression and the subservient status apropos England. Put in modern terms, it was a desire on the part of Scots to take control of their own political destiny.

In 1320, and in the context of the Wars of Independence, it should not be unusual that Scotland’s nobility should see fit to either actively facilitate the ascendancy of a new Scottish nationalism or to seek diplomatic means to ensuring Scotland’s independent future. What is surprising is that their view of nationhood demanded the monarch to be subject to conditions on an almost contractual basis. This notion of a nationalism of solidarity was truly revolutionary for its time. The declaration attests thus:

if he (Bruce) should give up what he has begun, and agree to make us or our kingdom subject to the King of England or the English, we should exert ourselves at once to drive him out as our enemy and a subverter of his own rights and ours, and make some other man who was well able to defend us our King.

And so the King is an employee: a servant of the nation, its people and the principle of nationhood and, should he fail in his obligations, his role and functions may be given to another. To think that this was written over three hundred years ahead of Charles I’s war with Parliament is quite staggering. The Declaration of Arbroath directly challenged the traditional belief in the Divine Right of Kings, promoting in its place the notion that the nation itself was foremost and the monarch merely its steward. While it may be true that this was argued to absolve Bruce from his role in usurping John Balliol, that is not the express purpose of the Declaration and I imagine this has as much connection with a new Scottish appreciation of the nation state as it does with dealing with Bruce’s past sins.

The Declaration of Arbroath had an obvious nationalistic agenda, but it was as much concerned with Scots as it was about Scotland; more interested in nationhood than kingship and more focused on delivering peace than seeking to avenge wrongs. For all its emphasis on the past, the Declaration of Arbroath was actually very forward-looking, seeking to create a new settlement under which peace could be gained and, in the process, challenged some of the accepted practices and beliefs of the time.

A religious document

Much of the original intentions of the signatories of the Declaration have been lost in the mists of time, - and in the myths, legends and general controversies that have surrounded it ever since. What is often easily overlooked is that the Declaration of Arbroath is fundamentally a religious document; one that, in pressing its political aims, either consciously or otherwise makes the rather surprising demand for greater religious freedom.

That so much effort should have been given over to drawing parallels between the Scots and Biblical figures simply underlines the importance of the Pope as a political figure. Why else should Scots “returning” home be portrayed as a modern day Exodus, their being called personally by Jesus Christ be given such prominence, the similarities to the Macabees or Joshua expounded or, indeed, the invoking the spirit of St Peter himself (Scots being “as being the special charge of the Blessed Peter's brother") find their way into a Declaration of such profound political significance?

It was not unusual for appeals to be addressed to the Pope. Thus the generous terms of endearment to the “Holy Father” and the appeal to Christian values must simply be interpreted as conventional forms of address. What is more unusual is that, in addition to suggesting that Scots (or, more accurately, an eilte group of them) could throw off their king if they found his performance unsatisfactory, the signatories appear to imply a similar logic towards the position of the Pope himself.

And so, while “beseech[ing His] Holiness with our most earnest prayers and suppliant hearts [to] look with the eyes of a father on the troubles and privation brought by the English upon us and upon the Church of God... to admonish and exhort the King of the English” the Declaration also made an only faintly veiled threat. “If your Holiness puts too much faith in the tales the English tell and will not give sincere belief to all this...then the slaughter of bodies, the perdition of souls, and all the other misfortunes that will follow, inflicted by them on us and by us on them, will, we believe, be surely laid by the Most High to your charge... to Him as the Supreme King and Judge we commit the maintenance of our cause, casting our cares upon Him and firmly trusting that He will inspire us with courage and bring our enemies to nought.” In short, this was a direct challenge to Papal authority equally as revolutionary as the notion of contractual kingship.

The Pope is told in no uncertain terms that if he fails to act in Scotland’s interests he will be as responsible for the murders and atrocities committed by the English as they themselves. The statement asserting God Himself as the Supreme Judge and the ultimate authority may seem unremarkable today, but such a challenge to Papal superiority in temporal matters is strikingly similar to those of the Radical Reformation which swept across Europe two hundred years later, and would have been a truly thought-provoking notion in 1320. As for the reference to bringing “our enemies to nought” – the implications were obvious. The Pope was either a friend of Scotland or its enemy and the consequences of the latter would be severe.

I am not suggesting that the Reformation began in Arbroath Abbey in 1320, but the signatories of the Declaration had no fear of Papal authority and dared to challenge it directly. Not until Henry VIII had problems finding a decent divorce lawyer in the 1530s did any other significant voice of dissent make itself heard. The Declaration of Arbroath was no respecter of persons but of freedom - and in pursuit of this freedom it was willing to make almost revolutionary statements about the nature of relationships between a monarch and his subjects, or a Pope and his followers. This, in my mind, makes it far more remarkable and historically important than a mere assertion of sovereignty.

A cry for freedom

The Declaration of Arbroath is indeed both a nationalistic and a religious document. But it is so much more than that and its true significance can only be fully understood in the context of its time and its effect on the subsequent forging of Scottish law, culture and national identity.

Scotland in 1320 was a very different country to the Scotland we know today. The oppression described in the Declaration was very real, probably far more real than those brief sentences allow for. Indeed, it is easy to accept the premise that “no one could describe nor fully imagine [the cruelty] unless he had seen them with his own eyes”. In the face of such “countless evils” inevitably nationalism and the cause of independence became increasingly popular and the only pragmatic solution to Scotland’s predicament. This was not a nationalism built chiefly on pride, or some cultural understandings of Scottish historical identity, but an expression of resentment at English rule, of unspeakable cruelty, of deprivation of freedom.

There are many who today continue to draw inspiration from the brave words written in Arbroath Abbey nearly seven centuries years ago. And rightly so. How can anyone not be impressed by the determination or courage of those who write “as long as but a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any conditions be brought under English rule”?

What is equally, if not more, impressive than the resolve and commitment is the desire for liberty on which they are based. And so, while I accept that the Declaration of Arbroath is a nationalist document, it is also a liberal one – one which in so many ways was centuries ahead of its time. The Scotland outlined in the Declaration was one in which freedom and justice reigned, in which monarchs were subject to their people and Popes merely servants of their flock and their creator. The Scotland described is one of peace and prosperity, of liberty from oppression and conformity. The “poor little Scotland”, savaged by its neighbour, would be freed from both its subservience and dependence on outside assistance, and would be instead empowered to forge its own identity, take care of its own political destiny and determine its own future.

How much more liberal can you get?

The challenge for liberty today

The Declaration of Arbroath means so many things to people of all nations and of all political persuasions. For me it is a proud assertion of liberty and the right to self-determination, as well as an enlightened attack on conformity and traditional thinking.

It should also serve as a lesson for today’s society and politicians, especially in cases involving freedom and personal liberty. How much does modern Britain reflect the values expressed so eloquently almost 700 years ago?

In 2010, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives in the Coalition Agreement expressed a promise that “we will be strong in defence of freedom. The Government believes that the British state has become too authoritarian, and that over the past decade it has abused and eroded fundamental human freedoms and historic civil liberties. We need to restore the rights of individuals in the face of encroaching state power, in keeping with Britain’s tradition of freedom and fairness. We will implement a full programme of measures to reverse the substantial erosion of civil liberties and roll back state intrusion.”

Now, to any philosophical liberal like myself, that sounds quite good. Unfortunately this week it seems these good intentions are either unraveling or were in fact nothing more than a deceptive ploy. The Liberal Democrats, and Nick Clegg in particular, did themselves few favours by initially appearing to be defending the government’s proposals. I don’t deny that there is a complex issue at the heart of this, but allowing fear of terrorism and criminality to override and compromise our belief in liberty and personal freedom (as Labour did in office) is to afford those who seek to destroy our values the opportunity to do so.

I am not suggesting that the emergence of an Orwellian Big Brother “information” Society is an equal evil to the exploitation and oppression of Scotland during the early 14th century. But when freedoms are compromised, or justifications for reducing freedom is expressed, it is useful to draw inspiration from the past. Eight hundred years ago, a group of Scots - albeit a very select group - cared so much for freedom they were willing to threaten the Pope to achieve it; today, the UK stands by idly, preoccupied with the big questions such as who will emerge victorious in Britain’s Got Talent, while Theresa May attempts to drive through legislation with far-reaching negative consequences for civil liberties.

The situation was worsened by the Deputy Prime Minister's initial response and the briefing circulated by the party in a misguided attempt to either reassure the membership or stifle opposition (depending on your viewpoint).

It is heartening to see some Liberal Democrats fighting back. Indeed, we are either the party of civil and personal liberty or we are nothing. Lord Roberts of Llandudno remarked on facebook: “Great to see such opposition to the Teresa May, Ken Clarke plans to further intrude into Civil Liberties. They might as well tag everyone of us! This is crunch time for the Coalition - the Liberal constitution pledged to always put freedom first. We are not Tories or Labour - the DNA is vastly different. I'm a Liberal and proud of it!” Even party president Tim Farron tweeted “We didn’t scrap ID cards to back creeping surveillance by other means. State mustn’t be able to trace citizens at will”.

No doubt this will continue to be a talking point within the Liberal Democrats for some time. But my final question is this: who are the inheritors of the Declaration of Arbroath? Those who promote Scottish independence will no doubt feel they are, as well as those who want to create a new future for Scotland that goes beyond an acceptance of the skewed relationship with our neighbours inherent in the flawed devolutionist approach. But, in my personal view, the spirit of the Declaration of Arbroath is found in all those who believe in and champion liberty and freedom. After all, it is “not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting, but for freedom - for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself.” Freedom. Freedom – not nationalism, or Scotland, or King Robert. Freedom.

Freedom, the only thing that is truly worth fighting for – because, if freedom is achieved, so much else is automatically granted.

Whether or not Nick Clegg fully understands this, the signatories to the Declaration of Arbroath certainly did. They had no idea that a private communication with the Pope would be inspiring individuals and nations seven centuries into the future. But they will have felt that they were contributing to Scotland’s future prospects and hoping to secure the support from the Pope that would make Scotland’s freedom more than a fine aspiration. As long as we continue to find inspiration and hope in its principles, the Declaration of Arbroath will influence who we are as people – believers in liberty, standing up for what is right and daring to confront conformity and slavery in all its guises. We may or may not be Scots, but we will always put freedom first.


Gerry said…
A truly wonderful blog. It sets out why many Scots want independence and why the unionist talking about money do not understand us.
Also I could not agree more about the state of our party and how Clegg seems to of lost what the party is about.
Barney Thomson said…
Thank you, Andrew, for yet another intelligent and thought-provoking blog.

Your argument for the relevance of the Declaration of Arbroath's focus on freedom and liberty to peoples everywhere is irrefutable. As you will know, it is thought to have had an influence on the phrasing of the US Declaration of Independence when that country really believed in liberty.

I fear, though, that the US, together with many states of the world, including the UK, are today less interested in freedom and liberty than in corporatism and the protection of the establishment. For the nation of Scotland to achieve freedom and liberty for its people, it must first achieve its independence and the power tae gang its ain gait.
Fourfolksache said…
Well done Andrew and the next Scottish 'liberaliconography' to work on is the 'Claim of Right'. Although effectively signed up to by Labour and Liberal parties they have no comprehension about what it should mean. We need a Scottish constitution as this will reinforce what an independent Scotland will mean. Westminster will never support this and a commitment to it will destroy the Unionist mantra that what the SNP want is a one party state!!!
Andrew said…
Thanks for your comments. Judging by other contributions on twitter, it seems I've written something that both liberals and nationalists are in approval of. Quite a triumph in the circumstances!

I am aware of the contribution the Declaration of Independence had on both the US Declaration of Independence and on the development of European thought in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries (and arguably beyond). It has affected us all perhaps more than we care to imagine and its significance should be appreciated by people from all parts of the world who care deeply for liberty.

Does Scotland, as Barney argues, need to be independent to achieve freedom and liberty? I would say not necessarily, and would also suggest that independence is no sure guarantor of such freedom. But as a liberal, I personally feel independence is the only option currently on the table that has the potential to increase the freedom and liberty of Scotland's people, which is the principal reason I have been persuaded to vote "Yes". No doubt a real federalist settlement might have its merits but there seems no good reason for believing that such an arrangement can be achieved, or that the Lib Dems are actually committed to it.

Whatever the Home Rule Commission recommends, it won't be a full federalist vision for the UK which will have Scotland, England and the other home nations as equals.

As for the "Claim of Right" - perhaps this is something I should be examining in detail at a future date! As fourfolksache says, there seems little understanding of what it actually means. The notion of a Scottish constitution is certainly worth considering and perhaps something else I should give more thought to.

As for the idea that the SNP want a one-party state, that is simply ludicrous.

Finally, back to the Declaration of Arbroath! It means so many things to so many people, but surely no-one can argue that its core principle is the promotion of "freedom first". A truly liberal outlook, revolutionary in a 14th century context, and one which is as relevant today as it was in 1320.