Michael Fry: Scotland’s two greatest statesmen
ALEX Salmond shares many similarities with Henry Dundas – but it is just as well they never met, writes Michael Fry
IT IS great news for everybody interested in Scottish history that the papers of Henry Dundas have been secured for the nation, under a deal just announced by the National Records of Scotland.
These papers have long been available at General Register House in Edinburgh to anyone interested, but they always remained in the legal possession of the Dundas family. So there was a chance they might have had to sell their papers at some point, as old families have often been forced to do in order to meet their other commitments to the national heritage, such as maintaining a historic house and estate. And then the papers could have been lost to Scotland altogether, to end up in some cash-rich American archive.
Those who might think the money coming instead from the Scottish Government is being misspent should pause to reflect how much of the national heritage has already been lost when old families are forced to give up the unequal struggle against the hard times we live in. There are derelict architectural treasures all over Scotland showing the consequences. To point out the contrast I recommend anybody to visit Arniston House in Midlothian, where Althea Dundas-Bekker has lovingly restored the main residence still in the family’s possession to its former glories.
She makes historical finds to this day. A few years ago she took down from the shelves of the library a manuscript volume written in Latin and showed it to me. I could make little of it, so I reported its existence to Alexander Broadie, professor of philosophy at Glasgow University. In a series of learned articles he is demonstrating that this is in effect the first great work of the Scottish Enlightenment. It is a major philosophical treatise by a Dundas, hitherto unknown to the world, from several decades before the Union of 1707. It will, I think, put paid to the notion that the Enlightenment was owed to the Union.
Here is the marvellous thing about the Melville papers (so called because the Dundases became Viscounts Melville). They take you right into the heart of a family that itself stood at the heart of affairs in Scotland at a time when so much about the nature of the modern nation, from its cultural life to its political life, was being determined. The Dundases were clannish, and operated as a unit to win and hold power. But that meant also that they had to care about how their kids were doing, or how the various siblings’ marriages were working, because such matters might sooner or later affect their exercise of power. So this is an archive full of human insights, a refreshing contrast to the tedious statistical stuff served up as Scottish history by academics today.
I spent several years going through the papers in order to write my book, The Dundas Despotism, which deals with the government of Scotland by Henry Dundas and his son Robert from 1775 to 1832. This was the crucial period which determined whether Scotland was going to make it in the Union or not. The outcome of the Dundases’ efforts was that Scotland did make it in the Union, and triumphantly. That might look from today’s perspective like a dubious achievement. But would it have been better for Scotland to go the same road as Ireland and not to make it in the Union, condemning itself to a century of stagnation and poverty, eventually to revolution and partition? I hardly think so.
The papers show the Dundases operating at three levels. On the first level, they ran Scotland with high efficiency, if largely through the palm-greasing, glad-handing and backslapping that have become a basic mode of the country’s politics. Henry Dundas would have made an excellent Labour secretary of state in the 20th century.
At the second level, the Dundases rose to the top of politics in the United Kingdom and stayed there. They were the first Scottish politicians to do that since 1707, but once they got to the top they did not pull up the ladders of advancement behind them. On the contrary, they let down more and more ladders, so that more and more brother Scots were able to ascend, make careers and do well out of the Union. Crucially, in this process the Scots came to be accepted as equals by the English, as the Irish never were.
And this was possible because, at the third level, the equality opened up the fabulous opportunities of the Empire. Henry Dundas was for 20 years in charge of the government’s policy in India, as well as dealing with the affairs of the Americas, Africa and the rest of Asia. He ran the worldwide naval war crucial to the defeat of Napoleon. In all these fields of endeavour he laid down paths for the huge subsequent diaspora of his countrymen that even today maintains Scotland’s interest in and interest to the rest of the globe. It was the ultimate line of defence against provinciality for a non-independent nation: without it, I doubt if we would now be contemplating independence.
For my money, Henry Dundas is far and away the greatest statesman that modern Scotland has ever produced. He outruns by a country mile the eight Scots who became British prime ministers, which he never did: from the Earl of Bute in the 18th century to Gordon Brown in the 21st, they were a pretty miserable lot. It is true that Dundas did not easily tolerate opposition. His usual way with his foes was to win, and if necessary to buy them over – only if everything else failed would he crush them. But all public men have their failings, against which it would be foolish not to weigh their successes.
In fact, the only modern Scottish politician who remotely compares with Henry Dundas is Alex Salmond. Note first the same success on three levels. Salmond is lord of all he surveys on the Scottish political scene. At the British level he is as well known and recognisable as any English public figure through his deft dealings with the media and the straight-talking contrast he presents with the dreary drips leading the big parties south of the Border. And he has consciously cultivated connections at the international level – even if, short of Scottish independence, he is not yet in much of a position to exploit them.
And then I see closer personal parallels between the two men. A bit too fat for their own good, they would if they met, I think, show a corresponding jowly joviality towards each other.
If I were there at the meeting I would, all the same, whisper in both their ears – for I like Alex Salmond, and I am sure I would have liked Henry Dundas – that they should on no account show each other their backs. Otherwise we might hear a “doingggg” as the dagger shuddered between the shoulder blades. And Scotland would be, would have been, much the poorer without them.
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Saturday 25 May 2013
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