SEVEN hundred years ago this week, on April 6, 1320, the Scots wrote a letter to Pope John XXII which became known as the Declaration of Arbroath. In this affirmation of Scottish independence, the signatories announced they had chosen Robert the Bruce to be their king and would resist all further attempts at conquest by the English.

But the Scots went further and declared that if King Robert ever gave in to the English, they would depose him and choose another king. The idea that kingship could be contractual put this document far ahead of its time in western Europe – and explains why we say “king of Scots” and not “king of Scotland”.

However, the Scots never actually used this right. True, there were times when Stuart kings were murdered (James I) or arrested (James III). Mary was forced to abdicate in favour of her one-year-old son. But none of this was by the collective will of the Scottish people. So how might things have looked in practice?

To get the answer we need to cross to the other side of Scandinavia, where the people of Novgorod – a medieval republic covering the entire northern half of European Russia – had already enjoyed and exercised this right for several centuries.

Scotland is the oldest surviving kingdom in Europe – making it the senior kingdom in the Union – and, as a country, traditionally dates from 843. This was when Kenneth MacAlpin, king of the Scots since 840, also became king of the Picts. Kenneth was succeeded by his brother Donald in 853 and son Constantine in 862.

The year 862 also marks the official birth of Russian statehood (making Russia exactly 19 years younger than Scotland). This was when a Viking prince called Rurik was invited to rule over Novgorod. According to the Primary Chronicle, the inhabitants of this vast territory told him: “Our land is great and abundant, but there is no order in it.”

But if Rurik had dreams of unlimited power, he was in for a rude shock. He found that the East Slavic tribes inhabiting the Russian lands had parliaments long before they had any organised state. All positions of authority in their societies were democratically elected at a popular assembly called a veche. The word comes from the Old Slavonic vete, from which we also get the modern word soviet (“council”).

Rurik and all his descendants had to submit to this form of direct democracy, which was similar to the ecclesia of Athens and held sovereign power. So what happened when, in the words of the Declaration of Arbroath, the Novgorodians tired of their ruler and decided “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”?

READ MORE: How Robert the Bruce survived a coup attempt

In 1136, Prince Vsevolod was overthrown after fleeing the field of battle. The chronicles record that he was locked up in the bishop’s house for seven weeks “along with his wife and children and mother-in-law”, while the veche met to decide his fate (it voted to expel him from the city).

Vsevolod was replaced by Svyatoslav, who was driven out in 1138, “having sat two years less three months”. In 1141, “the people of Novgorod sat without a prince for nine months”. The next man to be chosen was soon after “imprisoned in the bishop’s house, having ruled for only four months”.

In 1154, Novgorod again expelled its prince, Yaroslav, replacing him with Rostislav. He promptly left to reign in Kiev, installing his son David in his place. But “the men of Novgorod were indignant ... and they showed the road to his son”.

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In 1157, following a riot, David’s successor, Mstislav, fled in the night. The next prince, Svyatoslav, was driven out in 1160 – only to be restored after just “one year short of a week”, when his rival and supplanter was “fetched away”.

Even the legendary St Alexander Nevsky, who led Novgorod to victory over Sweden at the Battle of the Neva in 1240, was expelled later that same year, “having quarrelled with the men of Novgorod.” He was recalled the following year and led the Novgorodians to another famous victory, this time against the Teutonic Knights at the Battle on the Ice in 1242.

Any elected official – not just the prince – could be driven from office at the voters’ whim. In 1388, the people overthrew the posadnik (head of government): “And they went like a large army, every one armed, to his dwelling and took his house and demolished his rooms. And posadnik Joseph fled across the river.”

The archbishop was held responsible for an unusually long spell of wet weather and likewise deposed in 1228.

READ MORE: Celebrating Arbroath anniversary, even under coronavirus lockdown

WHY did the Scots never follow this example, given that they had the constitutional power? One of the reasons may have been because there was no similar institution as the veche. There was the Scottish Parliament or “Three Estates”, where the clergy, nobility and burgesses sat together – which meant that each group tended to follow its own narrow economic or class interests.

By comparison, the Novgorod veche was divided into political “parties”, based on geographical location. Each was a mixture of all classes who lived in a particular district, so while the rich and influential inevitably dominated, they were spread out over all parties and still competed against each other in elections. The second revolutionary statement in the Declaration of Arbroath was that “there is neither weighing nor distinction of Jew and Greek, Scotsman or Englishman”.

This was only 30 years after Edward I issued the Edict of Expulsion in 1290, banishing all Jews from England. However, the veche had been practising this policy since the first recorded mention of the assembly in the sixth century. All adult men were automatically members of the veche and all had one vote – rich or poor, Slavic or Finnic.

There may be a lesson in all this for today, especially if the aim of Scottish independence is the pursuit of more democracy. It is clearly not enough to just have the powers in a written constitution – you need the institutions to utilise these powers and the ingrained political culture and popular will to employ them. Basically, democracy begets more democracy.

Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the story of the end of Novgorod’s independence. By the 15th century, the republic had become an oligarchy, leaving the masses detached and disengaged – and easy prey for a powerful neighbour encroaching from the south, as seen in a series of events mirroring those leading up to the Declaration of Arbroath.

Ivan III was their Longshanks – grand prince of Muscovy and “gatherer of the Russian lands”. He defeated the Novgorodians in battle in 1471, when the posadnik, Dmitry Boretsky, was captured and beheaded for “treason” – a la William Wallace in 1305.

The doomed cause of Novgorod’s independence was continued by his mother, Martha.

Seeking European help, she attempted to negotiate an alliance with Catholic Lithuania. This led to a fresh attack by Ivan III, who captured Novgorod in 1478.

Martha was imprisoned and, according to the Novgorod Chronicle, “lost her life by decapitation” – the same fate as our own tragic queen 100 years later.

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