The British Dimension

Rosalind Mitchison

  • The Life of David Hume by Ernest Campbell Mossner
    Oxford, 736 pp, £20.00, March 1980, ISBN 0 19 824381 2
  • ‘The People Above’: Politics and Adminsitration in Mid-18th-Century Scotland by Alexander Murdoch
    John Donald, 199 pp, £12.00, March 1980, ISBN 0 85976 053 7
  • The Laird of Abbotsford by A.N. Wilson
    Oxford, 197 pp, £8.95, June 1980, ISBN 0 19 211756 4
  • The Strange Death of Scottish History by Marinell Ash
    Ramsay Head Press, 166 pp, £6.50, March 1980, ISBN 0 902859 57 9

The first three books are studies within the narrow élite of landed society in a small, rapidly modernising country – Scotland. They concern men who took for granted the perpetuation of their society, of security for property and a due hierarchy of rank. For the most part, they are also of people who did not want this hierarchy to be totally fixed. There needed to be openings for talent or the right kind of obsequious effort to pass to a rank above. It has become fashionable to state that upper-class Scots bred in the 18th century suffered from uncertainties of identity. Their national base was changing from Scotland to North Britain, and a new system of political power and influence was being worked out, one in conflict with much of what had existed before. I am unconvinced about this problem of identity.

In the modern world there are many groups who own to divided allegiance and conflicting sympathies, and these do not necessarily show signs of strain as a result, or produce genius. But certainly Scots in the 18th century were uncertain about what exactly the British dimension ought to mean to them, and often embarrassed by the inescapable political failure of Scotland in the previous century. They appreciated belonging to a more polished society than that of their grandfathers, one in which power was expressed by patronage rather than the threat of force, and they recognised that this polish and their own security involved keeping other forces in check. Religion was, of course, important but would have to be contained. The Scottish upper class was managing to have the best of both worlds, the Scottish and the British, and assumed, for the most part, that the best of the other world could also be claimed. The price for all this was hard work, adaptation and serious purpose, not a very high price by today’s values for a very privileged status.

Of course a world so wonderful for the ‘haves’ could not stay always secure. By the later days of Sir Walter Scott the dangerous forces of working-class unrest and political protest were deeply unsettling. Today we may relate that unrest to the increased share of the new prosperity of a modernising and developing society which had been mopped up by the better-off, and may relate this prosperity to the new, British dimension. Given the emphasis placed by 18th and early 19th-century society on the absolute nature of private property, threats from the unpropertied caused deep concern. Scott’s attitudes at this juncture are characteristic of his personal complexity: a wish that he might join the mounted volunteers, enlisted and armed to deal with what, in the event, was a non-starter as a rising, a deep hatred of the industrialised mob, gloom at ‘democratic ascendancy’ even though this was severely limited in its power, and a stoic resolve to maintain his way of life. Oddly, he does not seem to have connected the expanded middle-class readership which had enabled him to create Abbotsford and turn himself into a country landowner with the drives towards middle and working-class expression in politics.

In the long run, his gloom, at least the part of it that had to do with public affairs, was misplaced. The landed aristocracy regained its ascendancy and held it through most of the 19th century at the moderate cost of persuading middle-class voters and administrators to act in its interests. For a short span of years it had looked as if great changes might occur. In earlier periods of such fluidity permanent change had resulted, but in the 1830s the forces of stability won. Scott was not to see either the victory or the price paid in social and religious conformism and intellectual dullness. We might ponder how a man with Hume’s disbelief would have been regarded by Victorian Scotland. Surely it would not have been with the combination of wonder, large affection and small disapproval of mid-18th-century Edinburgh.

Union with England had enabled the Scots to complete the process by which the dangerously great and at times rogue-elephant magnates became patrons, politicians and promoters. It had pushed the Kirk out of its political role, while allowing it to carry on the menial work of organising, educating and controlling the lower orders. Scottish landed society, freed from domination by great lords and religious blackmail by demagogic preachers, could look to all sorts of advantages. As Alexander Murdoch points out, it was ‘parity’ with England, not assimilation to the English governmental machine, that the top-brass Scots wanted. At intervals, they would speak of the need to ‘compleat’ the Union, by which they meant not the Anglicising of Scotland but the attachment of upper-class Scots to the benefits enjoyed by upper-class Englishmen without any lessening of the extra benefits produced by the unusually strong hold of landed society over lesser ranks in Scotland. Such benefits were, first and foremost, places and offices of a political nature. They also wanted professional careers in the Army and in law, and full opportunities for exploiting Britain’s trading and colonial position, and had minor demands such as the right to run, and acquire prestige from, a local militia. Here again, a narrow class thinking, though it is not brought out by these books, was there to be discerned. The militia, when eventually conceded, led to riots by those unwillingly forced to serve in the ranks, and to slaughter in the fields. Cake-eating and cake-having upper-class Scots could feel that their society was more open than that of England because it was more open to themselves. To those below, it was open only for those possessed of ability and remarkable luck.

The three studies which have promoted these somewhat sour comments are all on the positive and buoyant side of 18th and early 19th-century Scottish society, not on its repressive aspect. E.C. Mossner’s book is a reprint of his 1970 definitive study of Hume, a book of warm sympathy and careful evaluation, leavened by humour. It is here made into a new edition, not by changes in the text, of which there are very few, but by the additon of 20 pages of textual supplement. These pages embody various recent discoveries and emendations. The most interesting is the dignified and moving letter that Hume wrote a few months before his death to Nancy Ord explaining that the failure of his health was not to be reversed. It is a love letter by an aging and ailing man in a world which valued dignity and self-control. Clearly, if things had gone better, the new house in St David Street would have had a mistress. The added material in the book does not really justify the title of a new edition, since it could well have been put across within a learned article, and the Oxford Press have, in photographically reproducing the text, managed to lower the aesthetic level of their production. But it is good to have this magnificent book again available.

Alexander Murdoch’s book stems from a doctoral thesis, and is a valuable manual for those who wish to see how the country was governed. One theme is that Scottish society, after the sudden bout of dismay produced by the Forty-Five rebellion, and the longer-standing embarrassment of being bossed by the House of Argyll, was able to benefit in esteem from the Highland sector once it formed a disproportionately large wedge of the British Army. He also shows the unfortunate experience of those assigned at various dates to purify and make efficient the organs of Scottish government. From the death of an unfortunate Campbell dispatched by Cromwell to introduce a better level of customs enforcement to the Western Isles, the career of anyone who wished to make Scots pay the legal level of duties on their luxuries was short and unsuccessful. George Grenville, with his exaggerated respect for the revenue, at least did not create open rebellion in Scotland by insisting that the country should pay its way: he did, in fact, increase the revenue, but the price was the breakdown of the link between the patronage system in Scotland and Parliamentary support. Promotion by patronage could give scope for intelligence, but it could also advance the hesitating and time-serving nitwit Robert Craigie to high judicial office. There is the even more lamentable career of Tweeddale as Secretary of State, a post which presumably had some relation to the fact that his son-in-law was prime minister, and which had a lot to do with the initial success of the Forty-Five. Dr Murdoch shows that, in contradiction to the national prejudices of Englishmen, it was not under the regime of Bute that the Scottish administration got out of English control, but in the years after he had been pushed aside. His view is that Dundas turned Scottish consciousness to imperial roles. Here I think he could expand. Dundas did not start the entry of Scots into the East India Company, but improved the quality of the entrants. Instead of the rogue figures who were looting India in the 1760s and 1770s, many of them Scots and Irish, the Dundas men were moderate in what they extracted and generous in the service they gave.

A.N. Wilson’s book on Scott has an infectious enthusiasm. It reads, not like a systematic analysis of Scott’s writings, still less like a biography, but like good, if rambling talk. His achievement is to appreciate Scott’s remarkable historic sense. In the greatest of his novels Scott could feel sympathy and understanding for both sides – the old and the new, Whig and Tory, mercantile and feudal. It may be, as Mr Wilson suggests, that this dualism, whose application to his own times escaped him, required the reduction of his heroes to passive figures, acted on rather than moving events by their own exertions, and of reduced personality. His heroines, less necessary as observers, could have stronger personalities. Scott’s double vision was to be lost by a later generation, as Marinell Ash’s book indicates, and has not yet been fully regained – a fact displayed by the acrimonious nature of much recent writing on the Union with England. Dr Ash’s study of 19th-century Scottish historiography shows the patriotic scholarship of Sir Walter Scott’s generation in a fine light, and its continuation under David Laing as even more public-spirited and selfless. The later decline is an awful warning of what can happen to the standards of a small country. Scotland was afflicted by the unfortunate spin-off from Evangelical Calvinism – a belief that God had dealt all the aces to his saints – and aggressive national self-consciousness. Frank recognition of nastinesses in the country’s past could be labelled ungodly as well as unpatriotic. There had never been more than a handful of men keeping up standards of objectivity and criticism, and in the mid-Victorian era they either attended to more rewarding subjects than history or their voices were muted.

It is a pity that Mr Wilson’s exuberant appreciation of Scott’s greatest strength has to be accompanied by some fatuous judgments on other writers: E.M. Forster ‘unintelligent’, Evelyn Waugh ‘sugary’, Jane Austen ‘morally ambivalent’. There is also a stray facile comment on the work of Eric Quayle in exposing Scott’s financial sharp practice: ‘unconvincing’. It may not have convinced Mr Wilson, but to many admirers of Scott is has been strong grounds for discerning moral ambivalence in him and such an important aspect merits more than a single disparaging adjective. Mr Wilson should learn from Scott that there can be merit in both sides of a difference of opinion.