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Two new histories of working-class radicalism in Scotland from the French Revolution to the crisis of 1820 show the relevance of these events to today, finds Chris Bambery

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Kenny MacAskill, Radical Scotland: Uncovering Scotland's Radical History - From the French Revolutionary Era to the 1820 Rising (Biteback Publishing 2020), 352pp. and Murray Armstrong, The Fight for Scottish Democracy: Rebellion and Reform in 1820 (Pluto Press 2020), ix, 278pp.

In the early nineteenth century, Scotland represented something of a paradox. On the one hand it was home to modern industry and agriculture, and the Enlightenment had thrown up figures like Adam Smith and David Hume, which meant Edinburgh was, across Europe and North America, a centre of knowledge.

Scotland had gone through a much more rapid industrial and agrarian revolution than England, following the crushing of the 1745-1746 Jacobite rising which led to the British state abolishing feudal rule. In the Lowlands this was followed by mass clearances, realising recruits for the rise of industry. The Highland Clearances would come later, beginning in the 1790s but intensifying in the 1820s, and involved much more resistance; in the Lowlands displaced agricultural labourers generally left without protest, heading for the towns and cities or taking ship across the Atlantic.

Yet, its political system was even more undemocratic than the Old Corruption in England. There were fewer MPs elected per head of population than down south and the franchise was even more restricted, with seats concentrated in rural areas, meaning that the aristocratic elite controlled who was elected. The government in London bought off those elected as MPs by granting sinecures and posts. William Pitt the Younger, Prime Minister from 1783 to 1806, except for two years, led a Tory administration which was determined to crush the French Revolution, which it hated and feared, and then to defeat Napoleon, as well as launching full scale repression against anyone sympathetic to the new ideas emanating from Paris.

In this context, Scotland was run for thirty years by Henry Dundas, the first Viscount Melville, variously Home and War Secretaries, First Lord of the Admiralty and Treasurer of the Royal Navy. Above all, he was the critical figure in the expansion of British trading empires in India and the West Indies through ‘pillage and patronage’ as a Cabinet colleague described it. Eventually, he had to resign in 1805 after he was caught embezzling huge sums from naval funds at the height of the naval war against Napoleon. He was impeached, censured by the House of Lords, but did not face criminal charges.

Wars and radicalism

Dundas had ruthlessly crushed pro-democracy activity in Scotland, which was organised through the Friends of the People, formed in 1792 and inspired by the revolution in France. Its leadership was solidly middle class; Thomas Muir was a lawyer and William Skirving a Fife farmer, but membership was open to all. Muir and Skirving were transported to Australia where the latter died, but Muir escaped via the USA and got to France where he died.

For most of the Napoleonic Wars the repression used in the 1790s meant dissent was driven underground, but Waterloo and the economic recession which followed led to a new wave of democratic agitation with the working class across Britain playing a more central role and showing a class identity, still in formation but present.

Kenny MacAskill and Murray Armstrong have done us a huge favour by turning their attention to the fight for democracy in these years. Having already written about the impact of the French Revolution on Scotland and on the Friends of the People (The Liberty Tree, Word Power Books 2014), Armstrong concentrates on the fight from 1815 and its peak in 1820 with an unsuccessful attempt at insurrection in the West of Scotland. MacAskill covers the whole period.

The 1820 rising was a general strike which its organisers hoped would spark revolution. It was effectively crushed by government repression. Posters appeared calling for a rising and from Glasgow a band of about thirty armed men set out for the Carron Ironworks near Falkirk to seize the cannon made there. They were intercepted by Hussars and Yeomen (armed upper and middle-class paramilitaries) at Bonnymuir where eighteen were captured after an exchange of fire. Two leaders, Andrew Harvie and John Baird, were gruesomely executed in public outside Stirling Castle.

Meanwhile, another small band had set out from the textile town of Strathaven, south of Glasgow, aiming for Cathkin Braes, overlooking Glasgow, where they believed they would be joined by others. Realising this was not to be, they retreated and went into hiding or fled. One leader, James Wilson, was caught and executed in Glasgow.

The strength of both books is that they bring out the class nature of these events, particularly those of 1820, and that they were directed at Scottish aristocrats and industrialists as much as the government in London. They also both stress the connections with the English working class, the impact of the Peterloo massacre and attempts to co-ordinate a general strike and rising. Both point to the failure to make stronger links as crucial to failure.

Politics and the Scottish working class

Kenny MacAskill is the SNP MP for East Lothian and a former Scottish Justice Minister, but he is no ‘nationalist’ historian. Both authors are aware that the Scottish working class was for much of the time a component part of a British working class which fought and lost together, but that the Scottish working class also had, as the twentieth century came to an end, an escape pod in the form of independence, which it has seized upon.

It is fascinating to know that while Scottish rebels sung Burns’ ‘Scots Wha Hae’, so did English and Welsh workers, and the legend of a Norman yoke imposed on a supposedly free Anglo-Saxon population passed into radical Scotland.

The Black Lives Matter protests brought attention to the column in St Andrews Square, in Edinburgh’s Georgian New Town, carrying a statue of Dundas, and has sparked a debate about what should be done with it, as indeed it has in Glasgow regarding streets named after slave traders (the city long tried to pretend its merchants were not involved in ‘the Trade’). Dundas was central to the East India Company, to which upper and middle-class Scots flocked, and its subjugation of India.

One reason I support independence is because I believe an independent Scotland can make amends for the role it played as a force of Empire, something the UK state is incapable of doing, beholden as it is to its history. By making amends, I mean doing rather more than Tony Blair making faux apologies for the Irish famine; it means making its population aware of what fellow Scots did, how that impacted on colonial people, and creating links with their descendants based on respect, which can go a little way to righting that.

It is also important to know that radical Scots of the radical era, like the poet Robert Burns, vilified Scottish aristocratic slave owners, writing ‘To a Louse’ on one’s death, as well as supporting the French Revolution. You could say there is a Jekyll and Hyde aspect to our history!

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Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.

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