This article is written to commemorate the Radical War which happened in Scotland 200 years ago.
On the morning of Saturday 1st April 1820, posters had been put-up all-over central Scotland announcing a general strike commencing immediately. In addition to a strike, the poster called for the working-class to rise-up in revolt against their oppressors. Though nobody knew who had put up these posters, the call was met with great enthusiasm. After all, those times were revolutionary times.
The industrial revolution which began in the later 1700s caused massive growth of cities. Rural folk came down from their ancestral hills where they had lived off the land in the country, and into a life of industrial toil in factories and mines. They did not choose this. They were chased away from their homes as landlords and factors burnt their roofs and chased them away during the Scottish Clearances, Irish Famine and English Enclosures.
Around the same time, Revolution occurred in France. The Ancien Régime was overthrown, the monarchs executed, and a Republic declared. All aspects of French society were completely reimagined. Even the calendar system was changed, with the traditional naming of days and months after gods and rulers discarded, so as to instead celebrate flowers, plants, animals and nature.
These French ideals of a society for the many not the few spread overseas. They were championed by Thomas Muir in Scotland; by Wolfe Tone in Ireland; and by Tom Paine in England and America. The industrial towns and cities where the workers had been crammed in to slums, were particularly fertile grounds for the spread of these idealistic visions of a more just civilisation.
For example, men who had been conscripted into the army during the Napoleonic Wars, were put through hell in the Battle of Waterloo, and then returned home to hell afterwards. Growing malcontent and dreaming of a better future, some of them used their military experience to organise local working-class militias.
Yet when tens of thousands protested at St Peter’s Fields in the middle of Manchester in 1819 for parliamentary reform and cheaper bread, it was entirely peaceful. Nonetheless, the gathering was charged by soldiers on horses carrying sabres at the behest of factory-owners and aristocrats. Eighteen protestors were killed on site. Hundreds more were injured. In many instances, in those days before modern medicine, their wounds lead to gangrene, death and the inability to work again. With bitter irony, the day was dubbed Peterloo, in a reference to the Battle of Waterloo four years prior.
A month after Peterloo, a memorial parade was held in Paisley in the west of Scotland. This led to a week-long riot and further clashes between town and gown. The working-class movement in Scotland was referred to in the press as a band of ‘Ragged Radicals’. Yet the cause of these heroes was also supported by more affluent individuals in favour of reform, such as an MP and a church minister. Those supporters were punished harshly by the establishment as traitors to their own ruling-class.
When those posters were read across central Scotland on this day 200 years ago, the atmosphere can be put poetically:
Rise, like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number!
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you:
Ye are many—they are few!
On the Monday, workers had heeded the call to strike and the workplaces were totally deserted. Working-class warriors raided factories and farms for anything that could be used as a weapon. Leaders were elected: Andrew Hardie, John Baird and James Wilson. ‘Liberty or Death’ was their slogan. Unfortunately, it was to be the latter. Tragically the Radical insurrection was doomed before it had begun. The posters had been put up by government spies, and agent provocateurs deliberately led the rebellion into ambushes and traps. The leaders were executed. Many were jailed. Some gaols were sieged, with the working-class warriors helping their imprisoned comrades to escape. Yet many more prisoners were sent into penal colonies overseas. On a more positive note, hundreds escaped the law, sailing to Canada, where they continued to be involved in the Republican movement.
Working-class warriors carrying make-shift weapons and the French republican banner siege the gaol for the sake of their comrades.
In 1832, Glasgow was allowed for the first time to have its own Member of Parliament. Andrew Hardie’s mother took consolation in this, hanging a sign in her window reading:
Britons, rejoice, Reform is won!
But ‘twas the cause
Lost me my son.
Of course, this bill was designed to look good on paper, but to change very little. Three years after that, all participants in the insurrection received a full pardon of charges against them. But we know in looking back as to who the real criminals were: scabs, the British state, big business, exploitative employers and exploitative landlords.
May we take strength remembering these Radicals of the antifascist pantheon. Rest in power, and may we see their like again.