11 – Radical War, 1820
It is widely recognised that Britain has never had a revolution in the mould of the French, Russian or American – though the English Civil War was arguably a similar break with the old and beginning of the new – and thus inferred that there is something in the British character that holds an aversion towards the sort of radical politics that tend to be necessary to make a revolution happen. That theory doesn’t hold much water: if there is one thing we have learned over the last few pages it is that the British are more than capable of the high passions needed to start a civil war, so a revolution is far from beyond them. It is worth also bearing in mind that those who created the American Revolution were, prior to the successful revolution, British.
What might be a better explanation is that, at the time that everyone else was having their uprisings, the British were insulated by a combination of economic circumstances, piecemeal reform and prohibitive levels of state violence. When the Storm of the Bastille was in full swing, for example, the British had just begun settlement of Australia and the class that produced the sans-culottes, the motor engine of the French Revolution, were the most likely to be sent there as convicts. Moreover, as revolution hit in France before it did in England, the English government were always able to learn from their dear decapitated neighbours over the Channel and plan accordingly – not to mention that the majority of the British public, hardened by years of war with France, were not particularly inclined to take after them. Once the Revolutionary Wars started and subsequently morphed into the Napoleonic Wars, the chances plummeted.
In Scotland, however, there was some revolutionary enthusiasm. Once Waterloo had been and gone – and crucially, all the troops had returned home – there would be an effort at revolution that would become known as the Radical War. The troops were central to it: thousands had fought against the French, only to return home and find an economic recession in full swing. Jobs were few, pay was low and the government didn’t seem to care a jot. In 1819, the killing of protestors at the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester sparked outrage and in 1820, the government executed a group known as the Cato Street Conspirators, whom they had accused of plotting revolution. The mood was ripe.
A group of radical societies in Scotland came together and proclaimed a “Committee for organising a Provisional Government” to replace the Crown in Scotland. Their leader would be John Baird, a weaver who had fought in the Army. A few days later, the revolutionary plan would come into effect. Strikes broke out all over Scotland and there were reports of working men performing military manoeuvres in the streets and making pikes. The mood was electric, but the government were prepared. A group sent to obtain weapons from an ironworks were attacked by soldiers and elsewhere, it became clear that the forces of reaction were ready to strike.
Later, it became clear that the government had acted as a catalyst for the revolt in order to deliberately expose the provocateurs. John Baird and 87 other men were charged with treason and many of them faced the hangman, while 20 found themselves on the next boat to Australia. The government were cognisant, however, of their massive unpopularity in Scotland, and organised a tour by the King to engage people and raise the popularity of the crown. Reform would follow too, with Glasgow receiving its first Member of the British Parliament in 1832.