Scotland Magazine Issue 78
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James Irvine Robertson looks at the struggle for the vote in Scotland
At the beginning of the 19th Century, although the monarch still made a significant input, power rested in the British Parliament at Westminster. It was controlled by about three per cent of the population – landowners and the aristocracy – who could determine who should represent each constituency.
But the United States of America had been born. There, all white male property owners had the vote. And the French Revolution of 1789 preached that all men were equal, although it soon became apparent that some were much more equal than others.
Today, it seems manifestly unjust to so restrict the vote, and it was beginning to be thought so then.
Several societies in both England and Scotland had been created to push for universal suffrage of adult males. The authorities disapproved, particularly as the Scots bound themselves with oaths, which smacked of conspiracy. They arrested and transported Thomas Fysshe Palmer, a Unitarian minister in Dundee, and George Mealmaker, a weaver from the same town.
The country was fighting France and the British Government would not tolerate dissent, particularly after the two major mutinies about pay and living conditions in the Royal Navy's Channel fleet at Nore and Spithead in 1797.
In 1812 a general strike of weavers in the west of Scotland against the halving of their income since the beginning of the century attracted tens of thousands of supporters and lasted nine weeks before it was broken. The authorities were sufficiently alarmed to place spies in any organisation they feared might be subversive.
In August 1819, a Reformist meeting that attracted some 60,000 in Manchester was broken up by cavalry. A memorial meeting of 5,000 in Paisley led to a week of rioting.
1820 began with the Cato Street Conspiracy. A group in London wished to form a new government based on that of Revolutionary France. Their first step would be to assassinate the entire Cabinet. The plot was discovered, the conspirators tried and three were executed. Understandably, the authorities were made even more nervous and clamped down even harder on dissent.
Through its spies the Government knew exactly what was going on within Scotland and decided to flush out the dissidents by goading them into open rebellion. They had formed a committee of 28 to organise a provisional government and it was agreed that its supporters should receive some further military training.
The members of the committee were arrested on 22 March as they concluded a meeting and the arrests were kept secret. On 28 March, a proclamation appeared calling for a general strike and threatening to meet violence by the authorities with violence. The document was almost certainly a fake. Nonetheless on 3 April work stopped across much of central Scotland. One official reported that the call for a strike was 'but too implicitly obeyed'.
Rumours abounded. A rising was imminent. Armies were gathering. Men were arming themselves with pikes and lead was being stripped from roofs to make bullets. Groups of people were dispersed by the police and the military. Paisley was placed under curfew.
About 60 men met in Glasgow on Tuesday, 4 April. They were encouraged by agents provocateurs to march to the great armaments factory at Carron near Falkirk where weapons would be readily available. Many present said their numbers were far too small to undertake such a venture but they were told they would pick up many more supporters en route, particularly at Condorrat, which was about half way. Some thirty men set out under the leadership of Andrew Hardie, a weaver. At their destination they met John Baird, a 63 year old weaver with some military experience. Baird was dismayed at the tiny size of the army. Hardie was even more disheartened to find that his reinforcements amounted to no more than six men.
Baird took command of the party and they continued on their way, arriving at an inn at 5am, cold, soaking wet and hungry. They were soon on the road again and, by 9am on the 5th, they had reached Bonnybridge.
Meantime a detachment of the 11th Hussars had set off from Perth where they were stationed towards Carron but they were not needed. 16 Yeomanry troopers and 16 cavalrymen left Kilsyth and advanced the few miles straight to the fields where the radicals were gathered. They attacked. After a short skirmish in which two soldiers and four of the marchers were wounded, 19 were taken prisoner.
The Government had meantime moved four regiments to Glasgow in case of trouble. There were comings and goings and arrests throughout the day but no rebellion materialised. But a few days later some prisoners being taken from Paisley to Greenock prison came under attack from the citizens. The militia shot their way out of the town, killing eight people including an eight year-old boy. The prison was stormed that evening and those jailed were freed. And that was the end of the trouble.
There was considerable public sympathy for the dissidents. Their tiny number and their ineffectiveness made it hard for many to take them seriously, but the government was determined to make examples of them. Two trials for treason were held. James Wilson in Glasgow was revealed as a reader of radical literature and was seen with a sword in his hand on one of the marches. He was found guilty of 'compassing to levy war against the King in order to compel him to change his measures.'
Parliament passed the Reform Act in 1832, which gave the vote to about one in seven of the male population. In 1835 a full pardon was given to the radicals transported and those executed were recognised as martyrs. By 1888 60 per cent of men could vote. At the end of the war in 1918 the vote was extended to women, but not until 1928 was it given to all citizens over the age of 21.