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Reviewed by:
  • Chartism in Scotland
  • Jutta Schwarzkopf (bio)
Chartism in Scotland, by W. Hamish Fraser; pp. 264. London: Merlin Press, 2010, £18.95, $35.00.

Just over forty years have elapsed since the publication of Alexander Wilson’s The Chartist Movement in Scotland (1970). This makes particularly welcome the appearance of a new history of the movement in the north of the British Isles, which can moreover benefit from the great advances made by the historiography of Chartism in the meantime. W. Hamish Fraser intends to present Scottish Chartism as part of a wider movement, while also highlighting its distinctive features. To achieve the former, the bulk of [End Page 134] the book is devoted to a chronological account of Chartism, from a scene-setting chapter covering the period between the 1780s and 1836 to the evolution of the movement into Liberalism. In each chapter, developments in both English and Scottish Chartism are recounted in detail, though with varying geographical emphasis, leading to the Scottish movement at times being submerged by its English counterpart. Only in the final two chapters, entitled “Leaders and Supporters” and “Being a Chartist” respectively, and in the conclusion does the reader find some general characterizations and assessment of the movement in Scotland. Moreover, it is only here that Fraser engages with ongoing debates in Chartist historiography, though but selectively and cursorily. In the introduction, too, his treatment of it is limited to what little has been written on Chartism in Scotland.

Conditions peculiar to Scotland made for a number of distinctive features of the movement in comparison with English Chartism. There was an easy alliance with temperance and Church Chartism was much stronger. The democratically run Chartist churches thrived on growing antipathy to clergy chosen by patrons instead of congregations. The churches also provided education, not in order to make up, as in England, for the lack of any schooling available to the working class, but to offer an alternative in a country where elementary education was nearly universal. Chartists wanted education to be freed from the influence of the Church, which was prone to suppress critical inquiry; to place more emphasis on the teaching of science so that it could be put to use; and to be less authoritarian.

The way in which relations with the rest of Britain were called into question also surfaced within Chartism. Thus the Scottish Convention, called in 1842, debated, and eventually split over, the merits of getting up a Scottish petition rather than collecting signatures for the one produced by the National Charter Association. Despite its name, the latter appears to have been seen as an English rather than a British organization. By contrast, the Land Plan met with an enthusiastic response among the Scots, its English origins notwithstanding. Relations between Chartism and trade unionism were overshadowed by the effects of the protracted Glasgow cotton spinners’ strike in 1836 that ended in defeat and draconian sentences for its leaders. This seriously weakened trade unions—leading many Chartists to take a dim view of any combination of politics and trade-union activity—and produced a general ambivalence toward trade unionism and a marked dislike of strikes. Furthermore, the crushing defeat impeded factory workers’ commitment to the movement. They only formed a minority among the Chartist rank and file. Conversely, the legal authorities were remarkably cautious in their prosecution of Chartists, wishing to repair a reputation that had been badly damaged by their action against the spinners’ leaders.

Scottish Chartists appear to have taken a different route into Liberalism than their English counterparts. Relations with the middle class, to which Fraser devotes much space, were more amicable, not least because both classes shared criticism of church patronage, but also because large parts of the middle class, while rejecting the Chartist label, embraced the demand for household, if not manhood, suffrage. Conversely, Chartists targeted their criticism of the abuse of political power on the aristocracy rather than the middle class, though the reasons for this are not elucidated by the author. On a shared language of denunciation of the aristocracy was founded an alliance between both classes that formed the base of Liberal politics in Scotland. [End Page 135]

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