The Battle of Waterloo: a disaster for the Scottish Highlands? The Battle of Waterloo: a disaster for the Scottish Highlands?

by George Gunn

This is the story of two working class soldiers who both died in battle. One was a crofter from Caithness and the other a weaver from Lancashire. One was killed fighting a “tyrant” who would have probably set him free. The other was killed by a tyrannical “free” government he had fought to defend.

Donald Sutherland from Badbea met his end at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 fighting the army of Napoleon. In 1792 Donald along with 80 other people were evicted from their native Langwell strath by Sir John Sinclair of Ulbster to make way for Cheviot sheep and condemned to subsist on a windswept cliff top 200 feet above the Moray Firth. Mothers had to tether their children, like their animals, to the rough ground in order to stop them from being blown away.

On the 16th of August 1819 John Lees from Oldham, along with 60 to 80,000 other people, attended a public meeting on St Peter’s Field in Manchester to hear Henry Hunt give a talk about the need for Parliamentary reform, universal suffrage and an end to taxation without representation, poverty, hunger and unemployment. Along with 15 other people he was cut down and killed by the cavalry sabres of the 15th Hussars who, aided by the mounted Manchester and Salford Yeomanry, charged into the crowd to arrest the speakers. Between 600 and 700 people were seriously injured as a result of this violent military action. John Lees was a veteran of Waterloo. He died some days later from the wounds he received at Peterloo, as the St Peter’s Field massacre became known.

From Badbea to Waterloo – and from Peterloo to the present – is just over two hundred years. Indeed later this month there will be lots of patriotic celebrations to mark the 18th of June 1815 when the army of the Seventh Coalition under the command of the Duke of Wellington, with the timely assistance of Blücher and the Prussians, defeated the French army of Napoleon Bonaparte in a muddy field in Belgium. This bicentenary will celebrate this bloody affray which the narrative of conservative history declares created “the modern world”. The French incurred 41,000 dead and wounded at Waterloo and the Seventh Coalition 24,000. These figures are approximates and do not take into consideration those who went missing or simply (sensibly) deserted. By the late evening Wellington’s army had been effectively destroyed and if had not been for the arrival of Blücher’s fresh regiments history would tell a different story.

Napoleon may have been finally defeated in 1815 and the crowned heads of Europe could at last breathe a sigh of relief but there was no victory for the ordinary people on either side of the conflict. No sooner was the Napoleonic War over than the economy of Britain collapsed and the state entered into a deep economic and political crisis. What Waterloo ensured was that the hierarchal political structure of Europe remained the same. What was triggered in its aftermath was a general desire within the emerging working class for political and economic reform. It became apparent very quickly to the weavers and textile workers of the North England and to the crofters and fishermen of the North of Scotland (who were Wellington’s foot soldiers) that economic inequality leads inevitably to political inequality. After Waterloo the British could concentrate on building and securing their empire now that their main rivals, the French, were subdued.

The reaction and instinct of the British government then – as it is now – to any demand for political reform was to restrict the rights of the people, clamp down on press freedoms such as they were and to treat every gathering of ordinary people with the suspicion that sedition or even revolution was being planned. They were right to be alarmed. What Peterloo proved was that they were actually clueless – as they still are now – as to how to deal with peaceful demonstrations by ordinary people with real and genuine grievances. Their immediate response was to go on the attack.

The “Six Acts” passed by the then Home Secretary Lord Sidmouth in December 1819 treated any meeting for “radical reform” as “an overt act of treasonable conspiracy”. These were the most reactionary pieces of legislation passed by any British government and effectively outlawed free assembly, publishing without a government “stamp”, writing that was considered blasphemous or seditious and sped up the process of prosecution in the courts while at the same time restricting the opportunities for bail. The Prime Minister Lord Liverpool introduced these measures to the House of Commons in order “to prevent a revolution”. Has Theresa May been consulting with Lord Sidmouth one wonders? Sidmouth was, after all, the father of the conspiracy of the government against the people.

What could be accurately argued that what was a “treasonable conspiracy”, unlike the cries for reform, was the introduction of the Corn Laws in 1815 to protect British farming interests and the landed and property class that benefit from it. This resulted in a spiralling of food prices and contributed to the lowering of wages; so that before Waterloo a weaver, who could expect to earn 15 shillings a week, was earning as little as 5 shillings or less after Waterloo. So with less money the people were expected to pay more for their food. There was no relief offered. The industrialists blamed it all, as now, on “market forces”. These same market forces cleared the inner straths of the Highlands of Scotland of their people in order to make way for sheep but once the wool price collapsed after 1815 the landlords had to create an alternative income stream which is the hunting, shooting and fishing estates we “enjoy” today. You could argue that Sutherland is empty today because of Waterloo.

Instead of “celebrating” the bicentenary of the battle (the French, unsurprisingly, are not so keen) what we should be concerned about in 2015 is that we are returning to the same economic situation which existed post-1815, with the same attached, Sidmouth-like, repressive legislation to go along with it. How else can you explain the Tories notion to opt out of The Human Rights Act, which only came into force in UK in October 2000 and which, reasonably, has the effect of codifying the protections in the European Convention on Human Rights into UK law? They may not have flagged it up in the recent Queen’s speech but they are determined to be rid of it.

The European Convention itself takes as its inspiration the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which was a response to the Second World War and more locally a response to the growth of totalitarian regimes in Eastern Europe. The idea is that the Convention, by protecting human rights across Europe, can also protect member states from “subversion” – obviously in the 1950’s this was from communism – and explains the constant references to values and principles that are “necessary in a democratic society.” The tragic flaw here is that the European Convention on Human Rights does not define what these values and principles actually are. For Scotland this “subversion” is reactionary legislation forced upon us by a Tory government in Westminster.

If these values and principles were so defined and acted upon then David Cameron would not get away with the tawdry ploy of excluding 1.5 million European Union citizens from his UKIP inspired forthcoming referendum on the EU. Like their predecessors in the early nineteenth century the current Tories are equally allergic to democracy when it doesn’t suit them. The Scots returning 56 SNP MP’s last month was “madness”. Allowing EU citizens living in Britain to vote in a referendum which would directly affect them would be an “unacceptable dilution of the voice of the British people”. Was that the 19th century Foreign Secretary Lord Castlereagh or the former Defence Secretary Liam Fox: can anyone spot the difference?

The Tories have never understood that the first part of the word democracy, the Greek “deme”, means “resident”. It was the only way the ancient Athenians could make their new-fangled representative system work to protect them against tyranny. Residency was also the basis of the right to vote in the Scottish referendum last year. It was what gave the process political integrity. What the Tories are proposing is a violation of these EU citizens’ human rights and a deliberate dilution of democracy. It would be germane to remember here that in Britain we, constitutionally, are “subjects” not “citizens” and that we do not actually live in a democracy; we live in a monarchy. Such things as the recent dissolution of the Westminster Political and Constitutional Reform Committee does not auger well for any future change to the status quo emanating from that parliament. The Tories want everything to stay the same on the surface while changing everything to their advantage behind a smokescreen of information redacting cac which are the red top tabloids. The proposed Bill of Rights and Responsibilities will ensure, no doubt, that we abrogate our rights in order to fulfil our responsibilities which are, make no mistake, to agree at all times with the Tory government and “dae whit wur telt”.

The Tories also plan to revive the Communications Data Bill which is known as “the snooper’s charter”. This Bill will require internet providers and mobile phone companies to maintain records of all their customers’ activities, including email correspondence, voice calls and website usage. Home Secretary, Theresa May, has vowed to put the bill to parliament in this term of government. Lord Sidmouth just used to open the letters of political suspects, have them copied, and then put them back in the post, but I suppose surveillance is only limited by the available technology. Where are human rights in all this data gathering? Sidmouth, Liverpool, and Castlereagh – Osborne, Cameron and May: is there a pattern emerging? Where exactly are the values and principles in these dark days that are “necessary in a democratic society.”? Just as in Sidmouth’s regime in 1819 when they were trampled under the hooves of the 15th Hussars horses so in 21st century Britain they are being eroded under the concocted paranoia of an authoritarian administration.

In the play “Agamemnon” (circa 458 BC) Aeschylus has the hero of the title make a choice –whether or not he should sacrifice his daughter for a fair wind to sail to Troy? Agamemnon makes the wrong choice – he slaughters Iphigenia. The belief system of ancient Greece was driven by an addiction to Fate but the Chorus in the play remind the audience that Fate is not absolute: Fate confronts humanity with a choice, and if an individual makes the wrong choice the fault is theirs. Aeschylus then writes that by doing this cruel deed Agamemnon

“Then put on

The harness of Necessity.”

For us in modern Scotland the political “harness of Necessity” is ensuring that the SNP stay in power until Scotland becomes an independent country. When it is we can vote for someone else. We can also, at some point in the near future, choose not be oppressed by right wing Tory governments voted into power by an English electorate who continue to make the wrong choices. We can lever our country into independence by our political will because it is a just cause and it will ultimately, as Thomas Muir insisted, prevail.

In 1819 John Lees of Oldham was murdered on St Peter’s Field in Manchester by the contempt and fear his rulers had for those they ruled over. A contempt the Duke of Wellington shared for the ordinary soldiers who served and died for him. Donald Sutherland fell at Waterloo fighting for the wrong side. He and his fellow soldiers in the 92nd Highland Foot should have turned their muskets around and joined the French and perhaps in an alternative history, where the values of the French Revolution prevail, his beloved straths and glens would not be currently empty and owned by a small band of monied kleptocrats.

The Battle of Waterloo did not create the modern world. The people of Scotland, at least in our own country, can. It is necessary and it does not need to be a harness.

© George Gunn 2015


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