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200 years ago, the Scottish Radical War came to a head. Scottish workers’ demands were threefold: the vote for all men, annual parliaments and equal constituencies. The contempt and intransigence of the Tory government forced an escalation in tactics, and on Easter Monday of 1820, the call for a general strike was answered throughout the western counties of Scotland.

Here, Murray Armstrong, author the new history The Fight for Scottish Democracy discusses how this Radical War reverberated throughout Scotland’s history, and how the roots of today’s radical nationalism need to be reappraised.


The general strike and attempted insurrection in the west of Scotland during Easter 1820 was for democracy. It was the first known united action of the newly formed working class for a voice in government, and a new contract between the people and the lawmakers. The action took place after more than five years of unsuccessful petitioning to parliament. The radicals developed a formidable organisation in the teeth of repressive legislation and military opposition and forged links with workers who had similar political objectives in the north and midlands of England.

The attempt failed because the military might of the state was too much for them and the links with England were too fragile to ensure coordinated action. After just a week, the Scottish general strike was over, hundreds were arrested or fled the country, and punishment began. Three men were hanged and beheaded for treason and nineteen more were transported to the penal colonies of New South Wales. In England, twenty-five were arrested and charged for the near simultaneous uprising at Grange Moor in Yorkshire. Twelve of them were transported as well.

The organisations, both north and south of the border were, of necessity, secretive and so only fragments of their history survived, leaving an open book in which many different interpretations of the so-called Radical War could be written.

The condition of working people at the end of the French wars was desperate. One version of the defeat, which quickly took root, was that this had led to unachievable radical demands and their leaders were duped by an army of government-run spies and agents provocateurs into entrapment in a premature insurrection.

John Atkinson Grimshaw - Shipping on the Clyde, 1821

That there were agents and informers is incontrovertible. The biggest news story of 1817 was the unmasking in the north of England of a spy named William Oliver. Shortly after, a former leader of the Scottish weavers, Alexander Richmond, was exposed as an infiltrator on behalf of the authorities in the radical committees in and around Glasgow. There were others. But to talk of a ‘system’ of spies at that time is hyperbole. The Home Office comprised only the Home Secretary, Lord Sidmouth, his assistant Henry Hobhouse, and a couple of clerks. It was not the great state machine we know today. These spies were amateur volunteers, men who offered their services for payment and often exaggerated their reports to guarantee more work.

The government depended for its intelligence on magistrates, squires, parsons, and local military commanders. Very often they had no idea what was going on in working class districts and so engaged those who were willing to snoop whenever and wherever they could. But it was hardly an organised secret service.

For a few spies to have organised a general strike throughout the workshops, factories and mines of the west of Scotland is scarcely credible. The Glasgow Chronicle concluded at the time: ‘The whole manufacturing population of the western district were prepared, through their Committees, for the publication of the 1st of April [the call for a general strike and uprising], and they acted upon it accordingly. The simultaneous movements of that time could never have been effected by a system of espionage.’

The Peterloo Massacre

The very fact that a few spies had been publicly named was ammunition for the Whig opposition to a Tory government that had turned its face against parliamentary reform. Worse, it had supported those magistrates and military commanders who unleashed the Manchester Yeomanry on a peaceful reform meeting at St Peter’s Field in August 1819, which resulted in seventeen deaths and more than 600 injuries, in an event now dubbed as the Peterloo Massacre. The opposition could paint Lord Liverpool and his cabinet as despots or tyrants, while at the same time distancing themselves from the uninformed and deluded working people whose violent tactics had failed to secure reform, implying only moderate Whigs could deliver it. The cry went up in parliament and around the country that the general strike and insurrection had foundered because of government manipulation through spies.

Soon, some of the veterans of 1820 began to believe the hype. The radical journalist William Cobbett declared in his Political Register, ‘I suspect, and I have always suspected, that the Radicals had no hand whatever in the proclamation, which finally led to the recent beheadings and transportings in Scotland! … Oh! let but the blood of those brave Scotsmen be brought fairly home and laid upon the heads of conspirators in London!’

Thirteen years later, after the 1832 Reform Act had been passed and a Whig government sat in London, the Glasgow journalist and campaigner Peter Mackenzie cemented the idea of a vast government conspiracy in his book, An Exposure of the Spy System (1833). His goal was to defend the reputations of moderate reformers ‘from the stain that was unjustly put upon them in 1819–20’ and to rescue them from association with the guilty. ‘We are thoroughly convinced,’ he wrote, ‘that Andrew Hardie and his unfortunate companions [who were executed] were the victims of bloodthirsty scoundrels, better known by the name of spies, who at that time infested this country – to the everlasting disgrace of its then government, by whom they were encouraged and protected.’ The few people who could be identified as leaders of the rebellion were treated by Mackenzie as spies, with only circumstantial evidence to back his claims.

Mackenzie had sown a myth that was taken up by subsequent writers looking for an excuse for the failure of the first working class revolt. Rather than examining organisational or political weaknesses, they preferred to blame outside actors. In the later 1830s and 1840s the Chartist movement in Scotland was divided on the issue, with moral and physical force advocates employing different narratives. The moral force champions warned the movement, ‘Beware of spies!’.

An Independent Labour Party pamphlet, Fighters for Freedom in Scotland, written by Willie Stewart and published in 1908, took the myth into the 20th century. He claimed that ‘the agents provocateurs of the government, of whom there are always plenty in times like those, organised a sham rebellion, and managed to give it so much the appearance of actuality that many of the genuine reformers were induced to take part.’ This view was continued in 1920 by Tom Johnstone in his otherwise remarkable History of the Working Classes in Scotland.

Thomas Annan, Close, No. 37 High Street, 1868 - 1871. Taken in Glasgow.

In 1968, as radical nationalism was taking root in Scotland, a pamphlet, The Rising of 1820, by Scottish National Party member Frank Sherry, with a foreword by the SNP MP Winnie Ewing, repeated the myth and added a new one — that the rising was nationalist as well as radical. This interpretation was taken up in the only book-length treatment of the events so far, The Scottish Insurrection of 1820, by P Berresford Ellis and Seumas Mac A’Ghobhainn, published in 1970. They stood in the nationalist camp and, as well as repeating the conspiracy of spies, asserted that its purpose was to encourage untimely action to flush out the leaders and thwart a separatist or secessionist rising for an independent Scotland.

Berresford Ellis and Mac A’Ghobhainn’s book is well researched but it does not reveal the origin of its sources. They have no footnotes or references. Their book was received with mixed, generally unfavourable reviews because of this, but also because it tries to shoehorn the early radicalism into a nationalist box.

The book’s only direct reference to a possible secessionist plan is in a pair of letters from the Glasgow police chief, Captain James Mitchell, to Lord Sidmouth in March 1820. In the first letter he claims that the radical ‘plan is to set up a Scottish assembly or parliament in Edinburgh, likewise similar assemblies are to be set up by the disaffected in England and Ireland’, a claim repeated in the second letter later that month. The problem is that there is no clue as to the whereabouts of this correspondence. Academics have searched different archives and found nothing. There is nothing from Mitchell in the Home Office Scottish correspondence at the National Archives. That’s not to say that the letters don’t exist, they may be in a private collection somewhere, but until they are found the evidence must remain questionable. In any case, two letters from one individual does not alter the overwhelming evidence that the focus of the radicals was a reform of representation in the House of Commons. Of course there were enthusiastic expressions of attachment to national symbols, heroes and history, but that did not amount to a campaign for national independence.

There is little evidence to support the separatist interpretation, as the links between workers in the manufacturing districts of Scotland and England clearly show. The outlook of these radicals was shaped by the American and French revolutions, their sentiments were international, and their shared consciousness was firmly rooted in the fast-moving urban and industrial revolutions.


Murray Armstrong’s book The Fight for Scottish Democracy: Rebellion and Reform in 1820, is available to buy now.