The 1820 Radical Rising: Deleted from history, or an unimportant footnote?

The year 1820 brought The Radical War, a big name for a bit of a damp squib. By Allan Massie

The Radical Rising: The Scottish Insurrection of 1820
The Radical Rising: The Scottish Insurrection of 1820

The Radical Rising: The Scottish Insurrection of 1820 by Peter Beresford Ellis and Seumas Mac A’Ghobhainn | Birlinn, 416pp, £14.99

The so-called “Radical War” was mostly forgotten when this book first appeared in 1970, because though full of human interest, some of it painful, it was not very important. It lasted only a few days and to call it an “insurrection” is an exaggeration.

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It was provoked by economic distress after the long war against Revolutionary and Napoleonic France. War is often good for business; the return of Peace brings a recession. Wages fell; prices rose. Dissatisfaction was sharpened by the widespread desire for political reform. In Scotland this took a nationalist tinge – just as in 1745 the Jacobites had promised to end the parliamentary Union with England. The authorities were nervous, the Government repressive. This wasn’t surprising. Everyone remembered how the Revolution in France had begun with Bread Riots and with moderate, politically liberal reforms, before the the Rights of Man replaced the Rights of property, and Terror and military dictatorship followed. In Scotland in the 1790s the middle-class reformers “The Friends of the People” had been arrested, charged with sedition and some deported.

There has always been a question about the events of 1820: to what extent were they provoked by Government agents? Alexander Richmond, reformer turned government spy, claimed to have played a leading role in fomenting rebellion. He may not have done as much as he claimed – the more he claimed, the better he might be paid – but undoubtedly the Government was well-informed about the Radicals’ plans. An attempt was made to spark a general strike in Glasgow, but the organising committee had been infiltrated, and the strike was a failure. A march from Glasgow Green to Falkirk with the intention of seizing the Carron Iron Works ended when the marchers were scattered by a cavalry charge at Bonnymuir. The Radical War lasted only five days. Three of the leaders were executed, and some 16 transported to Australia.

The Radicals’ cause was a good one, their methods foolish. The response was harsh but understandable. No Government can countenance what looks like armed rebellion.

This book treats the events of the 1790s in great detail. The authors may exaggerate the Nationalist element in the Radical movement – for there were links between Scottish and English Radicals which they rather downplay. Their bias is undeniable. The Radicals are good; the Government and its agents bad. Then, understandably perhaps, they pay little attention to the lessons which the working-class movements drew from the events of these turbulent years: that more was to be gained by peaceful industrial action and negotiation that by violence.

Likewise, they do not acknowledge that the propertied classes learned to soften their response, recognising the reality of economic distress and the advantage for all of ameliorating the condition of the working class. It took a long time, but the realisation that there was a national interest in the spread of prosperity is the principal reason Britain has not experienced the horrors of a violent Revolution.

It is also why, uniquely among Nationalist movements, Scotland has no martyrs in modern times. John Baird, Andrew Hardie and James Wilson – the three Radicals executed in 1820 – were brave men and good men. They should be remembered, but, happily, there is no call for more than that.