Radical Scotland: Uncovering Scotland's radical history

Kenny MacAskill

Biteback Publishing, £20

On Saturday, 1st April, 1820 proclamations were posted overnight across West Central Scotland. “Friends and countrymen, roused from that torpid state in which we have been sunk for so many years, we are compelled”, it said, “to take up arms for the redress of our common grievances”.

And so began one of the most contested episodes in the history of Scottish radicalism. The 1820 Radical War, led by weavers Andrew Hardie and John Baird, was a revolution that went off half cock. While many workers heeded the call to strike, the uprising was put down in little over a week by government troops after a handful of skirmishes.

A full scale armed revolution was supposed to have followed the strike, according to Kenny MacAskill in this vivid account, “but only if the mail coach from England failed to arrive in Glasgow, which would indicate that a rebellion had started south of the border”. England had been seething with discontent since the Peterloo Massacre of peaceful parliamentary reformers in Manchester's St Peters Fields the previous year.

Unfortunately for the rebels, the coach did arrive, and the Radical War never really got going. Though one suspects that the outcome might not have been very different even if the mail coach hadn't made it. The leaders of the rebellion had neither the organisational ability nor the public support to mount a revolution.

They paid the ultimate penalty, however. Andrew Hardie and John Baird were hung and then beheaded as traitors before a crowd of 2000 at Stirling in September 1820. They were the last to suffer this gruesome form of execution.

Kenny MacAskill pays tribute to their bravery, but he does not romanticise their actions, nor does he inflate the significance of the 1820 rebellion. He seems mainly concerned to disown the claim that in some way it was a Scottish nationalist uprising.“The provisional government was designed as a revolutionary command structure” writes, “ rather than a form of secessionist government”.

Mr MacAskill, the former Scottish Justice Secretary and now MP for East Lothian, is one of the leading SNP politicians of his generation. So this assessment may disappoint some of his followers, as well as nationalist romantics. He claims, that the putative 1820 revolutionaries saw themselves as part of “a pan-British uprising” rather than as patriots fighting colonial oppression. “Class rather than country was the driver for most, even if some espoused Scottish republican sentiments.”

(Mr MacAskill doesn't explore the claims made in the 1830s by journalists Peter MacKenzie and William Cobbett, that the Proclamation and uprising was orchestrated by agents provocateurs working for the Glasgow police chief, James Mitchell).

Certainly, Andrew Hardie seems to have been less committed to ending the Union than his radical mentor Thomas Muir of Huntershill. The Scottish lawyer who, in 1792, founded the Scottish Association of the Friends of the People, had hoped to establish a Scottish Republic.

Inspired by the French Revolution, Thomas Muir tried to persuade the French revolutionaries to invade of Scotland. He advised French generals, almost certainly incorrectly, that a hundred thousand Scots would take up arms to join them.

Most of Mr MacAskill's book is devoted to the life and politics of Muir and his fellow Scottish martyrs, Thomas Fyshe Palmer, William Skirving, Maurice Margarot and Joseph Gerrald. And there is nothing wrong with that. Like Kenny MacAskill, I went to school in Edinburgh were I was taught precisely nothing about Thomas Muir.

Not did I learn about the epic events of the 1790s such as the massacre of Tranent in 1797. That was when peaceful demonstrators against conscription were mown down by militia. The loss of life was comparable to Peterloo, but the East Lothian atrocity is largely forgotten.

Muir and the political martyrs are commemorated by an obelisk in Edinburgh's Old Calton Cemetery erected in 1844. Mr MacAskill thinks more should be done to remember them. He believes that there has been a kind of collective amnesia about Scotland's radical past.

This is, he suggests, because militant reformism didn't fit into Sir Walter Scott's invention of romantic tartan Scottish identity after the state visit of George IV in 1822. The Monarch of the Glen took over from the martyred politicians.

Yet, Thomas Muir's story could have come straight out of a Scott novel. Transported for sedition to Australia in 1793, he escaped, crossed the Pacific to Canada, then made it to California after which he was nearly killed in a gun battle with the British navy while accidentally fighting for the Spanish. A bust of Muir, complete with the veil he wore to hide his facial disfigurement, is on display at Bishopbriggs library.

Muir was a champion of Tom Paine's “Rights of Man” and campaigned for universal suffrage and Scottish republicanism. He made it to France where he rather sensibly tried to persuade the Jacobins that it was not a good idea to execute Louis XV1. In this, as in most of his endeavours, he was unsuccessful.

But he was treated as a hero in France where he died, in Chantilly, in 1799 at the age of 33. Muir's courage inspired the leaders of the 1820 uprising, even if they were principally fighting, not for an independent Scotland, still less foreign invasion, but for the right to vote.

In hindsight, the instigators of the 1820 Radical War were probably unaware of their true strength. This lay not in force of arms, but in industrial might. 60,000 workers laid down tools on 1st April 1820, which as Kenny MacAskill points out, was not far off a general strike at the time.

The British state, at the height of its military power following the Napoleonic Wars, was always going to win in any violent struggle with lightly armed and disorganised bands of civilians. Yet if rebels had persisted with industrial action on this scale, they might have made a real impact.

It was beginning to dawn on the British ruling classes that political reform would be necessary to enlist the proletariat into the emerging industrial revolution. The Great Reform Act of 1932 did not happen as a result of 1820, but the uprising certainly contributed to it, if only because it demonstrated the power that working people possessed when they acted in combination.

With the subsequent rise of the Labour movement, and the extension of the right to vote, 1820 started to be reinterpreted in the 20th Century. It is now regarded a key moment in Labour history. Indeed, the founding leader of the British Labour Party, Keir Hardie, claimed that he was related to Andrew Hardie, the martyr of 1820. His sacrifice was not enterly in vain even if the revolution was.