The Uniqueness of Scottish Dissent

by James D. Young, published by the Clydeside Press, Glasgow, 340 pp.

Reviewed by Raymond Challinor

[from New Politics, vol. 6, no. 3 (new series), whole no. 23, Summer 1997]

Raymond Challinor, a lifelong British socialist, has been working for a number of years on a study of World War II. His book, The Struggle for Hearts and Minds: Essays on the Second World War, was published by Bewick Press in 1995.

LET ME START WITH A CONFESSION. Though I live close to the England/Scotland border, sometimes I find it extremely difficult to fathom what a Scot with a broad accent is saying. But the differences do not end there. We live in a period of growing divergence, an accentuation of a distinctly Scottish culture and politics.

How and when did this process begin? In 1707 the two countries officially combined. Yet, the ordinary Scot can see that few if any benefits came from the Act of Union. There was the savagery of the Highland clearances. Vast tracts of land were depopulated, crofters made to flee or were burnt alive in their cottages, just to make them the playgrounds of the aristocracy. Then the Irish troubles spilled over into Scotland: the potato famine, rack-renting and oppression of the native population led to a mass exodus from Erin.

Angry Irish immigrants and dispossessed Highlanders mingled in Central Scotland, where the tensions were heightened by the Industrial Revolution and the fact that pay and conditions were worse than in the rest of the United Kingdom. No wonder, to quote the title of James D. Young's book, in London's high society, they were regarded as "the very bastards of Creation."

BUT THIS HOSTILITY TO THE REBELLIOUS SCOTS sometimes extended to relatively progressive counterparts. Indeed, the expression "the very bastards of Creation" was coined by John Wilkes, a pioneer in the struggle against the English state's despotic power. Still Wilkes identified himself with the English Establishment he loathed, unwilling to struggle for those of the border to enjoy the same human rights as himself.

Edward Thompson acknowledges implicitly even in the title of his classic work, The Making of the English Working Class, that the Scots are a separate race with a different outlook and development. While James D. Young's book does not attempt to cover the same vast terrain as Thompson, it nevertheless provides some new, valuable insights. He selects a clutch of radicals from the 18th Century down to contemporary times, using them to illustrate the uniqueness of Scottish dissent.

His impressive portrait gallery includes J.T. Callender, Alexander Rodger, Alexander Robertson and John Murdoch, as well as people like Keir Hardie and John Maclean, much better known to contemporary socialists. Combined, this collection of talent and anger explain how the author can argue that Scotland, quite perversely in a British context, has bucked the trend. While other parts of the United Kingdom have meekly submitted to the Thatcherite counterrevolution, north of the border a Celtic kick back has taken place.

Now suffering from a serious illness, James D. Young could be forgiven if he spent the rest of his life in pleasurable relaxation. But he is made of sterner stuff: a socialist in the same mold as Hal Draper, a believer in socialism-from-below, he feels his duty is to recount the past struggles of working people to create a new society. Though it is unclear how long he will be able to continue, one thing is certain -- James D. Young will die with a pen in one hand, his other raised in a clenched-fist salute.

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Contents of No. 23

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