Guide to Scotland
   Gateway to the British Isles since 1996
A Brief History of Scotland

Presented by Peter N. Williams, Ph.D.

Chapter 13: The High Road to Independence

"The War to end all Wars" certainly had the effect of uniting all the disparate parts of Britain in a concerted effort against a common enemy. Yet the movement that would culminate in Scotland's winning back its own Parliament in the referendum of 1997 did not completely grind to a halt: even during the war it continued its slow, but steady pace.

In the second half of the 19th century, events in Scottish politics, moribund under the Liberals for so long, had paralleled those in the rest of Britain. Further widespread social discontent led to the need for increased worker participation in the way they wished the country to be governed. In a debate in the House of Lords as early as 1840, the Bishop of Essex warned his fellow peers of the dangers coming to Britain of Socialism. The Church also took a dim view of attempts to revive the idea of trade unions that were resurfacing all over the land.

One of the great names in the early history of the "evil" that the learned Bishop so vehemently preached against was Welsh-born Robert Owen whose "lunatic " vision encompassed such revolutionary ideas as the improvement of factory conditions, the shortening of work hours and the education of factory children. Owen had set up an infant school as Glasgow in 1820, where an adjunct later became the first "normal school" for the training of teachers. His dream of setting up a system of "villages of cooperation" was first tried in New Lanark before being transplanted overseas to New Harmony, Indiana.

Owen's Grand Consolidated Trade Union was begun in 1834 as the culmination of his attempts to organize labor by providing a peaceable outlet for the aspirations of the workers. Though brought to a premature end by the fear caused by the deportation of the English Toldpuddle Martyrs in April, the union became a major influence upon the future development of the trade union in both Britain (and its dominions) and the United States.

The 1830's produced turmoil all over Britain. Industry had developed far too quickly for accompanying social progress. Both Scotland and Wales became centers of British radicalism; fertile breeding grounds for the working-class movement called Chartism. The Chartists were named after a London reformer William Levett who drafted a bill known as The People's Charter in May 1838. As earlier attempts to form unions had failed, much of the workers' energy was thus channeled in the Chartists, who sincerely believed that they could bring about a democratic parliament and an enfranchised working class to redress their grievances.

When the great Merthyr Riots broke out in South Wales in 1831, it was a source of great irony that the troops who broke up the crowds and killed many protesters were Scots Highlanders. The pattern was repeated in the equally bloody Newport Rising of May 1839, when the rifles of soldiers recruited in Ireland dispersed the rioters. Authorities everywhere were severely troubled by the agitation for better working conditions and the great appeal of the Chartists, many of whose leaders came from Ireland, traditionally not as reticent to challenge the existing hierarchy.

The Scottish Chartists were less influenced by the fiery radicalism of these Irish leaders than were the Welsh. There were no such risings in Scotland as took place in South Wales, where revolutionary activity followed the government's complete refusal to consider the six points of the Charter (universal male suffrage, vote by ballot, equal electoral districts, annual parliaments, abolition of the property qualifications, and payment for members). Not wishing for a violent government overthrow, the Scottish Chartists in addition to supporting the political aims of the Charter were willing to settle for temperance, pacifism, the abolition of capital punishment and non-intrusion in ecclesiastical affairs.

By the late 1850's the year of the final National Chartist Convention, the movement had begun to fade rapidly. That year saw the passage of an Act declaring that property qualifications were no longer necessary for a seat in Parliament. Thus, the Government had conceded the first great democratizing point of the Charter. Just as Chartism had channeled the voices of the desperate working classes, so the Anti-Corn Law League did the same for the urban middle-class.

The efforts of the latter were far more successful: the notorious Corn Laws, vigorously supported by the landed gentry and farming classes, were repealed in 1846. With bread and other basic foodstuffs a little cheaper, people were less inclined to an armed revolt. In 1867, the Great Reform Bill finally ended the Chartist movement, for it added nearly one million voters to the register, almost doubling the electorate. It also broke the control of the Scottish landlords. One year later, the increased numbers of Scottish voters meant the addition of seven additional seats being granted in Parliament.

Chapter 13: The High Road to Independence Continued