There was need for reform. The parliament, described by Maggie Craig as “corrupt,” was unrepresentative and this was recognised by many of the governing class itself. (A Whig Government would pass the first parliamentary Reform Act in 1832.) There was economic hardship, a severe depression having followed the end of the Napoleonic War. Grievances were real, the demand for change justified.
The government was alarmed and repressive. This was not surprising. The dark shadow of the French Revolution hung over everything. That too had begun with justified and moderate demands for reform; it had been hailed with enthusiasm by many in Britain, even by leaders of the opposition in Parliament. But it had led to the overthrow of the monarchy and the confiscation of property, attacks on the church and all established institutions, and then to the Terror. The message, as understood by a reactionary Tory government, was clear: reform was dangerous; reform led to anarchy. And when huge mobs assembled demanding reform, danger threatened.
The unrest and the repression it provoked reached a peak in 1819-20, first when police and the militia broke up a public meeting at St Peter’s Fields in Manchester, firing on the crowd, killing 15 and wounding many more. Agitation spread, especially in the north of England and west of Scotland. Naturally, undercover government agents infiltrated the ranks of reformers. To what extent they acted as “agents provocateurs” has always been a matter of dispute. Craig, in this continuously interesting and eminently fair book, accepts that such people were active, but makes the point that to portray the radical’s leaders as “simpletons and poor deluded dupes” is wrong. “Read the letters of John Baird, Andrew Hardie and the memoirs of other radicals and it is clear they were intelligent and quick-witted men, well capable of logical thought and deduction,” she writes. This is surely true. It makes their recourse to armed insurrection the more surprising. Both Baird and Hardie had military experience, Hardie’s only in the Berwickshire Militia where he would have seen little action. Baird, however, had served in Wellington’s army in the Peninsular War. No matter what assurances of support had been given them, their enterprise was rash, because there was so little chance of success.
The repression that followed was severe, with many of those involved sentenced to transportation to Australia, where, as it happens, some flourished and prospered. It is natural that Baird and Hardie should be regarded as martyrs to a noble cause, but throughout history men who engage in armed rebellion have done so at the risk of their lives.
Though the Scottish radicals invoked the heroes of our Wars of Independence, they made common cause with fellow radicals in England, and it was the British state they intended to reform. They weren’t even Republicans. At a great meeting in Rutherglen, the crowd sang not only Scots Wha Hae but also God Save the King and Rule, Britannia. So it seems appropriate that the Labour Party, rather than the SNP, should have been responsible for that plaque in Stirling. This is an excellent book, the best and fairest account of the Radical Rising I have read. There is something of tragedy in the tale, but the consequence was that subsequently the working-class movement in Scotland, England and Wales was committed to peaceful reform and turned away from revolution. It had often been said that the Labour Party, when it emerged at the end of the 19th century, owed more to Methodism than to Marx; it owed more to Scots Presbyterianism too.
One Week in April, by Maggie Craig, Birlinn, 253pp, £20