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Scotland and the Scots, 1707-2007

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Christian Auer

VII. Politics, radicalism and national identity

VII. Politics, radicalism and national identity

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1In Scotland, as in many other countries, the outbreak of the French Revolution seemed to announce the dawn of a new age. News of the French Revolution was greeted with enthusiasm by all those in England and in Scotland who supported political reform. In 1792 a Society for the Friends of the People was established and effigies of Henry Dundas – the most powerful Scottish political figure of the time (who had been appointed Home Secretary in 1791) – were burnt in Aberdeen, Brechin and Dundee and there were three nights of rioting in Edinburgh on 4-6 June. Trees of liberty, the symbol of radical democracy, were planted in numerous towns and villages of Scotland. In December of the same year a General Convention of the Friends of the People in Scotland solemnly declared that every man of twenty-one and over should be given the right to vote.

2In 1793 Thomas Muir, one of the leading members of the Friends of the People, was arrested, convicted of sedition and sentenced to fourteen years’ transportation to Australia. The sentence did not weaken his determination:

  • 1 An Account of the Trial of Thomas Muir, Younger of Huntershill, before the High Court of Justiciar (...)

Were I to be led this moment from the bar to the scaffold, I should feel the same calmness and serenity which I now do. My minds tells me that I have acted agreeably to my conscience, and that I have engaged in a good, a just and a glorious cause – a cause which sooner or later must and will prevail.1

3The French declaration of war upon Britain and the execution of the King of France weakened the radical cause. In 1795 the government passed two Acts, the Treason Act and the Sedition Act, that were aimed at suppressing the expression of political opinion. Violent unrest then died down to resume in the mid 1810s. In Glasgow and other western towns there were meal riots and trade disputes in 1816 and 1817. A gathering in October 1816 on the outskirts of the city attracted an estimated 40,000 people; never before in the history of Scotland had a political demonstration attracted such a large number of participants. It is essential to note that the different movements of protest were more reformist than radical: protestors thought that petitions and public meetings were the most appropriate strategies to force the government to accept political reform.

4With the Scottish Reform Act of 1832 the electorate rose sixteenfold from 4,500 to 65,000. The Reform Act gave Scotland an additional eight seats (53 seats altogether out of a total of 658); Glasgow and Edinburgh got two members each and larger towns such as Dundee, Aberdeen, Paisley, Greenock and Perth each received one member. The reform legislation of 1832 undoubtedly increased the electorate but the majority of citizens were still deprived of the franchise (65,000 electors out of a population of 2,360,000). The Reform Act had granted the vote to parts of the middle classes only to remove the radical threat. When it became clear that Parliament had no intention of extending the franchise, political unrest reappeared. The working classes’ sense of betrayal can explain the emergence of the Chartist movement in the late 1830s. (see introduction to text 41)

  • 2 Gladstone was of Scottish ancestry.

5In the nineteenth century Scotland voted Liberal: the Whigs and later the Liberals won every general election between 1832 and 1918 with the exception of 1900 (in 1865, the Conservatives (ex-Tories) did not win a single seat in Scotland). William Gladstone, the greatest Liberal politician of the nineteenth century (he was Prime Minister four times), became a cult figure for the Scots2. He was welcomed as a hero in Edinburgh in 1879:

  • 3 M. Fry, Patronage and Principle: a Political History of Modern Scotland, Aberdeen: Aberdeen Univer (...)

The progress began, continued and ended in triumph. Every meeting was attended with almost mindless adulation, every telling point cheered to the echo, every restated moral principle given jubilant affirmation.3

6What then of Scotland as a nation? In the nineteenth century the Scots felt both Scottish and British. Most Scots were loyal to the Hanoverian monarchy and to Parliament. The National Association for the Vindication of Scottish Rights, which only lasted for three years, from 1853 to 1856, showed its loyalty to the monarchy and wanted to improve rather than repeal the Union. Many Scots would probably have agreed with what one of the speakers said during the inauguration of the Wallace Monument on 24 June 1861:

  • 4 The Glasgow Herald, June 25 1861. See text 43 for the full article.

We are all proud of the name of Britain; it is a name common to both Englishmen and Scotchmen […] Scotland and England now stand side by side, shoulder to shoulder.4

7The Scots’ Britishness can partly be accounted for by the contribution of the Scottish nation to the development of the British Empire. The Scots were indeed successful as Empire builders:

  • 5 Quoted in R. J. Finlay, A Partnership for Good? Scottish Politics and the Union since 1880, Edinbu (...)

Scotsmen, whether as soldiers, statesmen, financiers, bankers, scientists, educators, engineers, or merchants have in all our Colonies fully held their own, nay, risen to positions of eminence.5

8Scottish interest in Home Rule emerged in the 1880s. In 1885 the office of Secretary of Scotland, which had been abolished after the 1745 Jacobite rising, was revived and the Scottish Home Rule Association that was formed in 1886 started a campaign to obtain the creation of a Scottish Parliament. The Association’s efforts proved unsuccessful since Britain at the end of the nineteenth century was dominated by Conservative governments which opposed Irish and Scottish Home Rule.

Notes

1 An Account of the Trial of Thomas Muir, Younger of Huntershill, before the High Court of Justiciary, at Edinburgh. On the 30th and 31st days of August, 1793, for Seditious Practices, Edinburgh: William Creech, 1793, p. 70.

2 Gladstone was of Scottish ancestry.

3 M. Fry, Patronage and Principle: a Political History of Modern Scotland, Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press, 1987, p. 92.

4 The Glasgow Herald, June 25 1861. See text 43 for the full article.

5 Quoted in R. J. Finlay, A Partnership for Good? Scottish Politics and the Union since 1880, Edinburgh: John Donald, 1997, p. 26.

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