Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Fragment from a Border Ballad

Having been brought up in the Lake District, I've always loved the Border Ballads; those anonymously-composed tales of the turbulent, lawless world of the Scots-English frontier in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, when the region was the haunt of  the "rievers": clans of armed raiders such as the Armstrongs, Eliots, Nixons, Grahams and many others. No doubt this was the reason why one morning, awaking from a dream, I found I had the following lines of verse in my mind:-

"Young Jamie Hepburn was a braw lad,
He thought the Kirk ould no' do wi'out him.
He went to Bothwell Brig with a feather in his hat
And the Covenant lords all about him".

I tried to construct how these lines had come about. The start was easy enough: I once knew someone called Jamie Hepburn, and the Hepburns, Earls of Bothwell, were a powerful Borders family, the lords of Hermitage castle; their most notorious member being the lover of Mary Queen of Scots. The Kirk was the Calvinist Presbyterian Scottish church, established in the 16th century but outlawed when the monarchy was restored in 1660. But what was Bothwell Brig, and how did it link to what followed? This remained mysterious until I learned from Walter Scott's historical novel, "Old Mortality" that Bothwell Brig was a battle in which in 1679 the government forces under the Duke of Monmouth and James Graham of Claverhouse crushed the Covenanters: the extreme Calvinist rebels. This accounted for the references to the Kirk and the Covenant Lords. Now I suppose I must have come across the story of Bothwell Brig some time earlier, but if so, I had totally forgotten it. 

Of course, my fragment won't really do as a proper Border Ballad. The Border was pacified after the union of the Scots and English crowns under James I in 1603, and although the violent world of the ballads overlapped with the establishment of the Presbyterian Kirk in the 16th century, it was long past by the time of the Covenant and Bothwell Brig. Furthermore, the Border Ballads are notorious for their lack of any trace whatsoever of Christianity, whether Catholic, Anglican or Presbyterian. They are entirely pagan in spirit; telling of raids and feuds, heroism and betrayal, and the heroic deeds of men who were really no more than thieves, cut-throats and cattle-rustlers ("Ma name is little Jock Eliot; Wha dares to meddle wi' me?"); in fact, a world-view scarcely different from that of the Viking sagas, or even of Homer. 

(The story of the Borders and their violent history can be found in "The Steel Bonnets" by George MacDonald Fraser) 

Monday, 12 February 2018

The Very Short Government of 1746

February 10th-12th is the anniversary of the shortest-lived government in British history, in 1746. What happened was that the Prime Minister, Henry Pelham, was so annoyed at the complete lack of confidence in him shown by King George II that the entire cabinet resigned in protest on February 10th. The King then asked William Pulteney the Earl of Bath, and Lord Granville to form a government; but the pair were unable to attract any men of substance to join them, and had no chance of securing a majority in Parliament; so that after just two days they gave up, and the King had no option but to ask Pelham back. 
   Horace Walpole's comment on the episode was that "Men dared not walk the streets of London for fear of being press-ganged as a cabinet minister", and the satirists of the time had fun arguing that the Pulteney-Granville government would have to be rated the best in our history, since during its time in office it had not stolen a penny from the public purse, had not enacted a single oppressive law, had never engaged the country in a disastrous war, etc etc.
  Henry Pelham then remained as Prime Minister until his death eight years later. Although farcical, this incident was of considerable constitutional significance, since it showed that the King's right to choose his ministers was not absolute, but constrained by party political realities. 

Henry Pelham remains one of our least-remembered Prime Ministers. Consider this: very many people have heard of Bonnie Prince Charlie, but how many could name the Prime Minister who defeated his 1745-6 Jacobite Rising? Henry Pelham, of course!

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Votes for Women!

This month sees the centenary of the 1918 Representation of the People Act, which for the first time gave women the vote in Parliamentary elections. The heyday of the Suffragette campaign had been in the years immediately before the First World War; so why had the campaign achieved no results until 1918?
   It is important to remember the political circumstances. From 1910, Britain had a hung Parliament, with the Liberals and Conservatives almost exactly equal in the House of Commons; the balance being held by the 80 Irish Nationalist M.P.s and the 40 of the new Labour Party. Asquith, the Liberal Prime Minister, was not a supporter of women's suffrage, but took no initiative of any kind on the issue; seeming to hope that it would all just fade away in time. Both the two main parties were hopelessly divided on the question of votes for women; but the Irish Nationalists were strongly opposed, and even the Labour Party was querulous. This was because at the time there was no universal suffrage even for adult males: a property qualification excluded large numbers of the poorest men. The Labour Party therefore thought it more important to achieve votes for all men as a priority. Also, since the Suffragettes campaigned principally for votes for better-off women, Labour feared, probably righly, that these new women voters would give their support to the Conservatives. Furthermore, the Trades Union movement was not sympathetic to women's causes, being strongly opposed to women being admitted to the skilled trades.
   In 1913 a Bill to bring about universal male suffrage attracted an amendment which would also give the vote to some women, but this led to the whole Bill collapsing, doubtless to Asquith's relief. There the matter rested till 1918. 
   It should be remembered that the movement for women's suffrage was overwhelming organised by middle-class or aristocratic ladies, like Mrs Pankhurst herself. Only her younger daughter, Sylvia, went to the East End of London to campaign with the poorest women workers. Sylvia later became one of the founding members of the British Communist Party. It would be more accurate to say that the Suffragettes campaigned for votes for ladies; for property-owners;  rather than for women as such.
   It is very doubtful if the militant Suffragettes' campaign of vandalism and arson actually gained them any support, though it undoubtedly won them many heroic martyrs and severely embarrassed the Liberal government. But when war broke out in summer 1914 they immediately called off their campaign and became ultra-patriotic, leading rallies calling for military conscription. Mrs Pankhurst ended her life as a prospective Parliamentary candidate for the Conservative party.  Meanwhile the economic demands of the war caused more and more women to take up full-time employment, and Lloyd George persuaded the Trades Unions to accept women into jobs from which they had previously been excluded, like engineering.
   Lloyd George, Prime Minister from December 1916, was sympathetic to the cause of women's suffrage (despite being the most openly philandering Prime Minister of the 20th century!), and in February 1918 pushed through the Representation of the People Act. (It is worth noting that, at this time, there was absolutely no reason to believe that the war would be won by the end of the year). The Act gave the vote to all men above the age of 21, but only to women of the property-owning middle class who were above the age of 30. The Suffragette leaders had been campaigning for no more than this. It was to be another decade before women were given the vote on the same terms as men. It is unlikely that many of the young working-class women who had been so crucial to the war effort by labouring in extremely dangerous conditions in the munitions factories were rewarded with the vote in 1918.
  A general election was called immediately following the Armistice in November, and women (or some of them) were able to vote for the first time. The first woman to be elected to Parliament was a true aristocrat. She was Countess Markievcz, formerly Constance Gore-Booth, whose youthful beauty had been much admired by the poet W. B. Yeats; but as an ardent Sinn Feiner who had been active in the 1916 rising, she refused to take up her seat. The first woman actually to do so was another aristocrat: Lady Astor. Inevitably, she was a Conservative. 

(The classic account of the Suffragette campaign, and the problems it caused to the government, can be found in "The Strange Death of Liberal England", by George Dangerfield).