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Discovering the Scottish Revolution 1692 Ė 1746: A critique

Gordan Morganis a national office bearer of the Scottish Socialist Party. He also belongs to the International Socialist Group, a section of the United Secretariat of the Fourth International. Here he takes issue, both with Neil Davidsonís Discovering the Scottish Revolution and Allan Armstrongís earlier Emancipation and Liberation review.

My thanks to Allan Armstrong for commissioning me to write an article on Neil Davidsonís book. Without that incentive I would have undoubtedly missed out on seriously reading what is undoubtedly a challenging, well researched and informative work.

I must confess that prior to reading Neilís book, I had unjustly taken an attitude to his views based on the prism of his membership of the Socialist Worker platform. His comment that most reviewers of his work appeared to have not read it spurred me to resolve to base my review on what he says rather than why I think he said it. The introduction and first chapter, insofar as they challenge many of my firmly held views, I found particularly difficult. Despite agreeing with the general thrust of most of the book it is these I will concentrate on.

Methodology and Title

Neilís adoption of a narrative structure, focusing on, in Gramsciís phrase, Ďmoments of forceí, is a good approach to the subject matter. The events leading up to the Union of 1707 and the ensuing convulsions particularly affected Scotland between 1707 and 1746.

The first problem is the title, why 1692 and why Scottish revolution? I believe Neil describes a Scottish Revolution rather than the consolidation of the British revolution. I would only add that Neilís brief opening remarks are less than convincing arguments for his title:

Events in Scotland were integral to the survival and consolidation of British capitalism, and consequently to the phase of world history which its expansion and imitation initiated. If the word Ďrevolutioní retains any meaning, then this process is surely one to which it can be applied.

Whilst 1746, after Culloden, is an appropriate end point, the starting date is more problematic. Despite careful reading, I can not determine what event, or culmination of social dynamics, makes 1692 the starting point. The central thrust of Neilís analysis is that events in Scotland were intricately linked with the unfolding of the English and later British revolution which is accepted as beginning (in some accounts, occurring) in 1688, the ĎGlorious Revolutioní. To adopt 1688 as a starting point would have meant dealing in greater depth with the events of 1688 to 1690 when, in Neilís words,

A mass uprising played a major role in both evicting the ecclesiastic appointees of the Stuart regime and militarily defending the new monarchy of William and Mary from Jacobite counter-revolution.

Were these events part of the Scottish Revolution or merely stage setting? As events unfold, the masses do prove less than decisive. This is, after all, one of the first bourgeois revolutions. There is, as yet, no proletariat as a class for itself. So if these events are stage setting, 1688 can be avoided as a starting point. Allan Armstrong provides a detailed account of these years.

Why not 1690 to 1746?

The Revolution Settlement needed more than a year of negotiation from April 1689 to June 1690. These negotiations, as in the later ones of 1706, were punctuated and influenced by the masses. The Claim of Rights and Articles of Grievances was approved by the Convention of Estates in April 1689. There were fresh elections by direct poll of the burgesses in April and May 1689. The Convention turned itself into a Parliament in June 1689 and abolished episcopacy in July 1689. The General Assembly of the (Presbyterian) Church of Scotland met in October 1690, for the first time since 1653. The Cameronians, gradually losing their united vanguard role, remained apart from the General Assembly and formed a separate sect. [i]

Thus, in 1690, all the elements which would contend for the future of Scotland were in place - a parliament of three estates, clerics and militant opposition. The only event, which occurs thereafter, that might be viewed as pre-revolution history, is the Glencoe massacre of February 1692. There are many myths associated with this event. Nevertheless, these myths were manufactured soon after the event and formed part of the developing consciousness of the times. Indeed Neil does refer to the antagonisms flowing from this. So Neil, why not 1690 to 1746?

Existing Theories

Neil fairly describes Marxist history as combining an analysis of modes of production; relations of production (including analysis of classes and social forms) and structural contradictions. These play out over time as crises, wars and revolutions and may lead to new economic forms or social collapse. Unlike capitalist defenders like Karl Popper (The Poverty of Historicism) and Francis Fukuyama (The End of History and the Last Man) who deny the past a voice, Marxists seek to learn lessons from history to apply to understanding the present and guide future actions.

Neil quite correctly challenges existing historical theories which distort events to draw simple lessons. In particular, in the introduction and first chapter, he attacks both the ultra nationalist and ultra unionist theories. Yet it was this portion of the book which I found most jarring. I kept saying ĎYes, butí, as intermediate but still incomplete alternatives were presented. Or a view was presented as new which I felt had been thoroughly debated 30 years before. Having persevered, I am willing to accept that the debates I have taken part in are inadequately present in the public domain.For the record, between 1970 and 1974 (and onwards) there was a heated debate around the International Marxist Group in Scotland over the nature of Scottish Nationalism. As more recently, an ultra nationalist position was argued by a group including Donald Anderson. They argued that primitive communism existed in the Highlands. The mainstream discussion focused on whether pre-union Scotland was feudal or capitalist and the progressive nature of late 20th Century nationalism. [ii]

A Feudal Scotland?

The first question considered by Neil is whether there was a pre-existing bourgeois revolution in Scotland. Neil points out that Eric Hobsbawm oversimplifies, in seeing Scotland as a dual society and economy (Lowlands and Highlands), with the bourgeois revolution, in effect, a struggle between them. Neil correctly points out that Jacobites were equally present within the Lowlands and that the Clearances took place 100 years later. He also dismisses the idea that a bourgeois revolution took place in the Lowlands between 1638 and 1689. Responding to John Fosterís musings about whether or not there was a decisive capture of state power, Neil states that, Whatever attributes can otherwise be expected from Marxist historians, the ability to recognise decisive captures of state power is surely one of them.

Good slapstick stuff! But later discussing the English revolution [iii] Neil favourably quotes Fred Halliday in relation to the international dangers posed to the emerging capitalist state in England. He states that, There was, however, a transitional period from the absolutist to the capitalist state system in the same way as there was a transitional period from the feudal to the capitalist modes of production. In other words, the Glorious Revolution can be seen as a bourgeois revolution only because it was not overthrown. So, in Scotland, there was no separate bourgeois revolution, because the Scottish state machinery didnít transform social relations to allow an emergent Scottish bourgeoisie to control a separate capitalist state.

But does this mean there had been no transformation of feudal forms of organisation; no emergence of capitalist forms of production and trade; no development of a proto-class of capitalists prior to 1700; no actions of the parliament in support of capitalist development?

To be fair, Neil does discuss and present evidence in relation to the extent to which social and economic forms had changed and the bulk of his analysis is very sound. There are however, 3 areas where I find his arguments less than conclusive, namely: the degree to which feudal forms remained intact in lowland Scotland; the extent of the dynamic towards capitalist forms of production and trade and the role of the Parliament in promoting this.

Serfs cease to be referred to in Scots law in the 14th century (bar later reintroduction in the mines), yet remain part of English law until the 17th century. Feuing of land was formalised in the Feu-Ferme Act of 1458 [iv] and only ended in 2004. As Foster says the, form and content of feudal possession became separated.

Admittedly this feuing applied only to some crown lands principally in south east Scotland. However, it allowed the development of tenant farming and formalised a moneyed rural economy throughout significant parts of Scotland. The fact that feuing survived the high point of capitalist development, and full blown capitalist agriculture shows these forms differed from classical rural feudalism and presaged capitalist forms.

Neil states that feudal lords gained their wealth from feudal rents. He makes much of their control of the law through heritable jurisdictions to suppress dissent. Yet the history of the Covenanting movement can in many ways be seen as a challenge to external authority be it of church or law. A significant section of the south eastern and south western rural community worked in a moneyed economy, paid rent to a rentier class (albeit technically feudal lords), and had a high level of rural literacy, traditions of dissent, traditions of armed resistance. This sounds a more modern formation than might be expected in a poor backward country like Scotland. Neil concentrates on the legal forms of feudalism and examples of how these were still enforced (in much of Scotland). He fails to explain is how such a movement as the Cameronians could arise.

A Scottish capitalist state?

Admittedly, this is only one side of the equation. If sections of the peasantry were moneyed labourers, a small section of the lords were beginning to act as capitalists. Neil notes that the Glasgow merchant elite welcomed to their ranks the clan chief, Daniel Mackinnon of Skye; that Clan Campbell and the House of Argyll backed the Darien Scheme and had begun to commercialise land management through tacksmen. Neil also notes that the increased indebtedness of sections of the lords meant merchants were lending them money (presumably backed by rentals from land) and that land was sold to pay debts. To these might be added some lordsí investment in coal mining e.g. the Earl of Wemyss spent £100,000 scots on collieries and a new harbour at Methil. [v]

How then do we categorise the Scottish Parliament? In 1703 Neil notes it comprised 67 burgess commissioners, 90 baron commissioners and 67 peers and that only the baron commissioners representing the shires were elected, albeit by a miniscule electorate. In contrast to England, there was no separate chamber for Lords. Neil notes there was no dissent of fact when one of its members described it as a Baron Court, only to the use of the term. He further notes there was no attempt to radically change the laws on heritable jurisdictions. Instead there were measures to extend serfdom and indenture for beggars and vagabonds was introduced.

Yet the parliament was divided into Parties, a sign of disunity amongst the ruling elite. Neil also refers continuously to the ruling class, not the ruling classes. What class was it? - a classic feudal class (with an absent monarch) or, was it a class acting to defend its interests by objectively developing mercantile and capitalist enterprise?

What were its actions at the beginning of the struggle with England, following the end of military union in 1660? Free trade had ended with Englandís Navigation Act in 1660. Glasgow merchants nevertheless continued an illegal trade with English colonies. They gained great advantage given the greatly reduced travel times to America from Glasgow. In 1668 Glasgow merchants established a new port (Port Glasgow) to compete with Greenock (established 1635).

In 1661, a Council of Trade was set up to regulate and promote manufactures and commerce. Trade rivalry with England sharpened after 1680. In 1681 most luxury imports were banned in an attempt to foster the development of Scottish manufactures. Under this, at least fifty joint stock companies came into being e.g. a woollen manufactory in east Lothian (1693); weaving of linen in Edinburgh; sugar in Glasgow; as well as gunpowder and iron founding. Finally the Bank of Scotland was set up and the Darien Scheme launched.

Neil is quite correct to point out the limited effect of these measures in industrialising Scotland and that few of them had lasting effects. He, indeed, analyses these measures, listing some of them, notably Darien and the Bank of Scotland in some detail. In particular he quotes Justin Rosenburg in relation to the wars between England and France, We see here neither nation states nor capitalism; we see dynastic and oligarchic state organisation in collaboration with mercantile groups deploying territorial strategies to secure monopoly control over resources.

This description applies equally to Englandís actions in relation to Scotland and to Scotlandís response. Neil dissents from this analysis by pleading English exceptionalism. In particular, England raised taxes by imposing bourgeois land taxes. These were capitalist ground rents paid to them by tenants whose income derived from the employment of wage labour. Clearly the degree of wage labour was less in Scotland, and the state apparatus barely functioned. However, feus could easily be seen as bourgeois land taxes and the main source of income in the collective parliament.

It is clear that the Scottish parliament was collectively trying to defend its own interests against England. It had few resources and was under economic attack. Its response was to attempt to build the economy by promoting trade and manufactures. Its measures were to promote investment in plant and infrastructure by guaranteeing favourable terms of trade to merchants and investors willing to use capital. The joint stock company is a definitively capitalist structure. Therefore the parliament was objectively promoting capitalist enterprise and indeed many of the investors were in fact members of the parliament.

Neil favourably quotes Alex Callinicos. Bourgeois revolutions must be identified, not as revolutions consciously made by capitalists, but as revolutions which promote capitalism. The Scottish parliament was objectively promoting capitalism. However, for reasons, not least pressure from England, crop failures, the darien disaster and lack of resources, it failed to complete the revolution on its own. Nevertheless, I find it difficult to describe the parliament as feudal in character between 1660 and 1707. Feudalism was if anything reinforced immediately after the Union. As Neil accurately describes it, this was due, not least, to the guarantee of heritable rights laid down in the Act of Union itself.

Neil argues convincingly that bourgeois revolutions in the second phase (mid 19th century) inevitably took the form of challenge against a restrictive superstructure. His analysis of the first phase of revolutions, in particular the English revolution seems to deprecate the significance of 1688. If this was less a defining moment, than a high point in a process of change, which could have been reversed by say French invasion, then similar processes were at play in other countries including Scotland.

If the British bourgeois revolution, which began in Scotland at the start of the Civil War in 1638, was complete by 1848, there were many steps and options along the way. The attempt to construct an economically strong and separate Scottish state was clearly the aim of sections of the Scottish ruling classes between 1660 and 1707. From that perspective, 1707 may be described as a counter revolution. Neil describes it as literally, a conservative measure for both the English bourgeoisie and the Scottish nobility... unlike the only realistic alternative, it was not actually reactionary in the sense of throwing society backwards. However, as Neil goes on to describe, it did throw many sections of Scottish society backwards, many into eviction and exile.

From 1692 to 1707

Neilís account of the events leading to the Union is well researched and presented. Amongst many facts I was unaware of the following was completely new to me.

The only significant British organisation prior to 1707 was the British Army. Those officers (particularly nobles) serving in it gained an insight into the possibilities of the Empire to be. With 40 plus years of experience by 1707 when it came to the vote on the Union, 18 out of the 19 commissioners who were military officers in January 1707 supported the Union, 21 peers out of the 27 peers who voted for the Treaty were either serving officers themselves, had held commissions since 1688, or whose eldest sons were officers, did likewise.

Allan Armstrongís position

I attended the debate between Allan and Neil at Socialism 2004 and felt that Neil had the better of the exchange on the possibilities of the Cameronians creating an alternative progressive regime in 1689. In particular, I agreed, that despite the radical organisationsí forms, democratic concepts in regard to doctrine and social organisation of the church, their lack of a developed social programme (let alone an economic one) meant that a Cameronian backed administration would have been unable to resolve the dilemmas facing the Scottish state in 1689 or 1706.

Having re-read Allanís article I realise I had misjudged both the radicalism of the Covenanter and Cameronian programme and Allanís purpose in revitalising their memory.

Just as radical Protestantism gave rise to a spirit of capitalism Allan argues it gave rise to a spirit of protest, to infuse the Rights of Man, the United Scotsmen, Trade Unions and Labour movement. Rather than an abstract concept, Allan sees a continuing tradition in part oral, in part ongoing organisations, punctuated by valiant individuals who inspire our present day struggles - we are all Spartacus, Maclean, Guevara.

This is all valid and I agree 100%. We all need heroes and links to the story of history, of what gave rise to ideas, to ongoing campaigns, to movements. We also need to learn from defeats to avoid repetition. The Scottish state was one of the weakest in Europe, the Cameronians one of the strongest best organised forces of the poor and oppressed. They could forestall Jacobite reaction. However, they had not the material base with which to take power. Marx was right, only when the proletariat emerged could the bourgeois revolution be advanced towards communism.

In todayís world we must unite the working class around an action programme which addresses their most pressing demands whilst encouraging self organisation to implement it. An Independent Socialist Scotland, to move beyond idealist rhetoric, requires such a programme. In the tradition of the Covenanters let us gather together in conventicles or form Corresponding Societies to agree our demands.

Gordon Morgan

References