The Darien Scheme

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Michael Portillo and guests explore how a financial disaster led to the forging of the bonds of Union, for the BBC/Open University series The Things We Forgot to Remember. This edition was originally broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 31st December 2007.

"There's the end of an auld sang" said the Earl of Seafield, as he signed the Act of Union in 1707. Since then, the story of the Act has been seen in terms of a deal between Commissioners, lubricated by bribes to the Scottish side.

But the fate of Scotland as an independent state was settled not in smoke-filled rooms, in Edinburgh and London, but thousands of miles away in the jungles of Panama, in a deserted settlement on the Spanish Main. For it was there that Scotland's last bid to thrive alone came to grief. Before England's South Sea bubble, there was Scotland's Darien Company — the brainchild of the Scot who had already founded the Bank of England.

It was an attempt to emulate London's commercial success by mobilising Scotland's meagre reserves of capital to found a world-wide trading empire. The capital was mobilised, but the trading empire was mismanaged.

The Scots had hoped for support from their monarchs, but William and then Anne were more concerned with their English subjects: the English saw no reason to antagonise the Spanish merely to help interlopers. The Company crashed, and a bankrupt Scotland was forced to look to the only other game in town — union.