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Issue 93 - The uncrowned King of Scotland

Scotland Magazine Issue 93
June 2017

 

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The uncrowned King of Scotland

James Irvine Robertson tells the story of Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville

arry the Ninth, the ‘uncrowned King of Scotland' stands on top of a 152-foot column in the middle of St Andrew Square, looking down the length of George Street in Edinburgh. He was Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville. No man since him and very few before him have wielded such power in Scotland.

Born in 1742, he was part of a prominent legal family and soon attracted attention as a lawyer in Edinburgh. He became a Member of Parliament at Westminster in 1774 during the premiership of Lord North and within a year was appointed Lord Advocate, the government's chief legal officer in Scotland. This was the time of 'Old Corruption', the time of rotten boroughs when a handful of voters could appoint MPs. Government won support by distributing jobs, pensions and outright bribes. Political parties were in their infancy. Personal relationships were much more important than principle.

Dundas was a pragmatist. He tried and failed to win support for parliamentary reform. He spoke eloquently in the Court of Session in Edinburgh on behalf of Joseph Wright, a black slave, in the case that established that slavery was illegal under Scots law and yet he obstructed the abolition of the slave trade for economic reasons. He seems to have concluded that his path to power depended on exploiting the existing systems of government rather than changing them. He soon made his mark as a persuasive speaker, with a strong Scots accent, in the House of Commons. He also soon spotted the rising star of William Pitt the Younger, who became prime minister in 1783 at the age of just 24.

Pitt, one of Britain's greatest premiers, was brilliant, austere, charmless, and uninterested in human relationships. Dundas was his polar opposite and did the politics for him. Dundas knew how to manage men — and women. He was charismatic, clubbable, and cajoling. He had the hide of a rhinoceros and often baffled his opponents by chatting cheerfully with them after they had insulted and tried to destroy him in the House of Commons. He became Pitt's most intimate and probably only friend. Their relationship was cemented over many evenings at Dundas's house on the edge of London where they shared a great fondness for wine.

One evening the two of them were riding back to Westminster and a toll gate barred the road. They charged through it roaring with laughter and, thinking they were highwaymen, the keeper discharged his blunderbuss after them!

Under Pitt, Dundas took charge of India, became Secretary of State for War, Home Secretary, and First Lord of the Admiralty. No Scot had achieved so much power for so long in the government of Britain. Such positions gave him immense patronage and he used it freely to cement
his authority.

In Scotland the real electorate was, perhaps, 2,550 men, either landed magnates or the borough merchants. This was his power base. Dundas was already well connected in Scotland and he would have likely known or known of them all. Of the 45 members of parliament, Dundas controlled absolutely 43 of them. If a Scot wanted to further his career, particularly the sons of lairds and the aristocracy for whom commerce was infra dig, Dundas was the only source of preferment.

He could give you a commission in the army or navy. He could give you a pension, a job in India or a myriad of positions in Scotland. Examples of his patronage include officer of customs in Bo'ness, agent for tithes, collector of crown rents, and clerk of sessions. He made the Earl of Seaforth a Lieutenant-General with the appropriate salary. When the earl's finances remained precarious, Dundas then appointed him Governor of Barbados. Dundas also returned the confiscated Jacobite estates to their original owners and withdrew the penal legislation against Highland dress.

If that wasn’t enough, he also re-organised the finances of India and laid the foundation for the Raj and the Empire, stuffing its administration full of Scots as he did so. He was Treasurer of the Navy and re-organised its finances as well. When he became First Lord of the Admiralty in 1804, he upped the number of ships by 168 in a year, laying the foundation for the dominance of the Royal Navy and the defeat of Napoleon. His work for the ordinary seamen is testified by the plaque on his memorial column saying that its cost was met ‘by the voluntary contributions of the officers, petty officers, seamen and marines’.

In 1806, Pitt died whilst in office and the House of Lords impeached Dundas for the misappropriation of public funds, the last time such a trial took place in Britain. He may well have misappropriated public funds, since he failed to keep proper accounts — indeed he destroyed relevant papers —of navy finances of which he was treasurer for 17 years.

But, astonishingly for the times, it looked as if Dundas did not use public money for his personal benefit. Instead, he used it to buttress his own power, further government interests and, it seems, to pay the debts of the prime minister! Although masters when it came to conducting the economic affairs of the nation, both Pitt and Dundas were chaotic when it came to managing their own money. The nation paid off the £60,000 that Pitt owed on his death. Dundas's heirs were left to cope with his own £65,000 debt.

After Dundas was found not guilty, he was not returned to high public office. He died in 1811 in Edinburgh, having cemented Scotland as a full partner with England. William Wilberforce, whose campaign to abolish the slave trade had been thwarted by Dundas for years, wrote in his journal: 'About a year before he died, we met in the stone passage which leads from the Horse Guards to the Treasury. We came suddenly upon each other, just in the open part, where the light struck upon our faces. We saw one another, and at first I thought he was passing on, but he stopped and called out, 'Ah, Wilberforce, how do you do?' and gave me a hearty shake by the hand. I would have given a thousand pounds for that shake. I never saw him afterwards.'