Sir Walter Scott, by Richard Holt Hutton

Chapter 14.

Scott as a Politician.

Scott usually professed great ignorance of politics, and did what he could to hold aloof from a world in which his feelings were very easily heated, while his knowledge was apt to be very imperfect. But now and again, and notably towards the close of his life, he got himself mixed up in politics, and I need hardly say that it was always on the Tory, and generally on the red-hot Tory, side. His first hasty intervention in politics was the song I have just referred to on Lord Melville’s acquittal, during the short Whig administration of 1806. In fact Scott’s comparative abstinence from politics was due, I believe, chiefly to the fact that during almost the whole of his literary life, Tories and not Whigs were in power. No sooner was any reform proposed, any abuse threatened, than Scott’s eager Conservative spirit flashed up. Proposals were made in 1806 for changes — and, as it was thought, reforms — in the Scotch Courts of Law, and Scott immediately saw something like national calamity in the prospect. The mild proposals in question were discussed at a meeting of the Faculty of Advocates, when Scott made a speech longer than he had ever before delivered, and animated by a “flow and energy of eloquence” for which those who were accustomed to hear his debating speeches were quite unprepared. He walked home between two of the reformers, Mr. Jeffrey and another, when his companions began to compliment him on his eloquence, and to speak playfully of its subject. But Scott was in no mood for playfulness. “No, no,” he exclaimed, “’tis no laughing matter; little by little, whatever your wishes may be, you will destroy and undermine, until nothing of what makes Scotland Scotland shall remain!” “And so saying,” adds Mr. Lockhart, “he turned round to conceal his agitation, but not until Mr. Jeffrey saw tears gushing down his cheek — resting his head, until he recovered himself, on the wall of the Mound.”1 It was the same strong feeling for old Scotch institutions which broke out so quaintly in the midst of his own worst troubles in 1826, on behalf of the Scotch banking-system, when he so eloquently defended, in the letters of Malachi Malagrowther, what would now be called Home–Rule for Scotland, and indeed really defeated the attempt of his friends the Tories, who were the innovators this time, to encroach on those sacred institutions — the Scotch one-pound note, and the private-note circulation of the Scotch banks. But when I speak of Scott as a Home–Ruler, I should add that had not Scotland been for generations governed to a great extent, and, as he thought successfully, by Home–Rule, he was far too good a Conservative to have apologized for it at all. The basis of his Conservatism was always the danger of undermining a system which had answered so well. In the concluding passages of the letters to which I have just referred, he contrasts “Theory, a scroll in her hand, full of deep and mysterious combinations of figures, the least failure in any one of which may alter the result entirely,” with “a practical system successful for upwards of a century.” His vehement and unquailing opposition to Reform in almost the very last year of his life, when he had already suffered more than one stroke of paralysis, was grounded on precisely the same argument. At Jedburgh, on the 21st March, 1831, he appeared in the midst of an angry population (who hooted and jeered at him till he turned round fiercely upon them with the defiance, “I regard your gabble no more than the geese on the green,”) to urge the very same protest. “We in this district,” he said, “are proud, and with reason, that the first chain-bridge was the work of a Scotchman. It still hangs where he erected it a pretty long time ago. The French heard of our invention, and determined to introduce it, but with great improvements and embellishments. A friend of my own saw the thing tried. It was on the Seine at Marly. The French chain-bridge looked lighter and airier than the prototype. Every Englishman present was disposed to confess that we had been beaten at our own trade. But by-and-by the gates were opened, and the multitude were to pass over. It began to swing rather formidably beneath the pressure of the good company; and by the time the architect, who led the procession in great pomp and glory, reached the middle, the whole gave way, and he — worthy, patriotic artist — was the first that got a ducking. They had forgot the middle bolt — or rather this ingenious person had conceived that to be a clumsy-looking feature, which might safely be dispensed with, while he put some invisible gimcrack of his own to supply its place.”2 It is strange that Sir Walter did not see that this kind of criticism, so far as it applied at all to such an experiment as the Reform Bill, was even more in point as a rebuke to the rashness of the Scotch reformer who hung the first successful chain-bridge, than to the rashness of the French reformer of reform who devised an unsuccessful variation on it. The audacity of the first experiment was much the greater, though the competence of the person who made it was the greater also. And as a matter of fact, the political structure against the supposed insecurity of which Sir Walter was protesting, with all the courage of that dauntless though dying nature, was made by one who understood his work at least as well as the Scotch architect. The tramp of the many multitudes who have passed over it has never yet made it to “swing dangerously,” and Lord Russell in the fulness of his age was but yesterday rejoicing in what he had achieved, and even in what those have achieved who have altered his work in the same spirit in which he designed it.

But though Sir Walter persuaded himself that his Conservatism was all founded in legitimate distrust of reckless change, there is evidence, I think, that at times at least it was due to elements less noble. The least creditable incident in the story of his political life — which Mr. Lockhart, with his usual candour, did not conceal — was the bitterness with which he resented a most natural and reasonable Parliamentary opposition to an appointment which he had secured for his favourite brother, Tom. In 1810 Scott appointed his brother Tom, who had failed as a Writer to the Signet, to a place vacant under himself as Clerk of Session. He had not given him the best place vacant, because he thought it his duty to appoint an official who had grown grey in the service, but he gave Tom Scott this man’s place, which was worth about 250l. a year. In the meantime Tom Scott’s affairs did not render it convenient for him to be come-atable, and he absented himself, while they were being settled, in the Isle of Man. Further, the Commission on the Scotch system of judicature almost immediately reported that his office was one of supererogation, and ought to be abolished; but, to soften the blow, they proposed to allow him a pension of 130l. per annum. This proposal was discussed with some natural jealousy in the House of Lords. Lord Lauderdale thought that when Tom Scott was appointed, it must have been pretty evident that the Commission would propose to abolish his office, and that the appointment therefore should not have been made. “Mr. Thomas Scott,” he said, “would have 130l. for life as an indemnity for an office the duties of which he never had performed, while those clerks who had laboured for twenty years had no adequate remuneration.” Lord Holland supported this very reasonable and moderate view of the case; but of course the Ministry carried their way, and Tom Scott got his unearned pension. Nevertheless, Scott was furious with Lord Holland. Writing soon after to the happy recipient of this little pension, he says, “Lord Holland has been in Edinburgh, and we met accidentally at a public party. He made up to me, but I remembered his part in your affair, and cut him with as little remorse as an old pen.” Mr. Lockhart says, on Lord Jeffrey’s authority, that the scene was a very painful one. Lord Jeffrey himself declared that it was the only rudeness of which he ever saw Scott guilty in the course of a life-long familiarity. And it is pleasant to know that he renewed his cordiality with Lord Holland in later years, though there is no evidence that he ever admitted that he had been in the wrong. But the incident shows how very doubtful Sir Walter ought to have felt as to the purity of his Conservatism. It is quite certain that the proposal to abolish Tom Scott’s office without compensation was not a reckless experiment of a fundamental kind. It was a mere attempt at diminishing the heavy burdens laid on the people for the advantage of a small portion of the middle class, and yet Scott resented it with as much display of selfish passion — considering his genuine nobility of breeding — as that with which the rude working men of Jedburgh afterwards resented his gallant protest against the Reform Bill, and, later again, saluted the dauntless old man with the dastardly cry of “Burk Sir Walter!” Judged truly, I think Sir Walter’s conduct in cutting Lord Holland “with as little remorse as an old pen,” for simply doing his duty in the House of Lords, was quite as ignoble in him as the bullying and insolence of the democratic party in 1831, when the dying lion made his last dash at what he regarded as the foes of the Constitution. Doubtless he held that the mob, or, as we more decorously say, the residuum, were in some sense the enemies of true freedom. “I cannot read in history,” he writes once to Mr. Laidlaw, “of any free State which has been brought to slavery till the rascal and uninstructed populace had had their short hour of anarchical government, which naturally leads to the stern repose of military despotism.” But he does not seem ever to have perceived that educated men identify themselves with “the rascal and uninstructed populace,” whenever they indulge on behalf of the selfish interests of their own class, passions such as he had indulged in fighting for his brother’s pension. It is not the want of instruction, it is the rascaldom, i. e. the violent esprit de corps of a selfish class, which “naturally leads” to violent remedies. Such rascaldom exists in all classes, and not least in the class of the cultivated and refined. Generous and magnanimous as Scott was, he was evidently by no means free from the germs of it.

One more illustration of Scott’s political Conservatism, and I may leave his political life, which was not indeed his strong side, though, as with all sides of Scott’s nature, it had an energy and spirit all his own. On the subject of Catholic Emancipation he took a peculiar view. As he justly said, he hated bigotry, and would have left the Catholics quite alone, but for the great claims of their creed to interfere with political life. And even so, when the penal laws were once abolished, he would have abolished also the representative disabilities, as quite useless, as well as very irritating when the iron system of effective repression had ceased. But he disapproved of the abolition of the political parts of the penal laws. He thought they would have stamped out Roman Catholicism; and whether that were just or unjust, he thought it would have been a great national service. “As for Catholic Emancipation,” he wrote to Southey in 1807, “I am not, God knows, a bigot in religious matters, nor a friend to persecution; but if a particular set of religionists are ipso facto connected with foreign politics, and placed under the spiritual direction of a class of priests, whose unrivalled dexterity and activity are increased by the rules which detach them from the rest of the world — I humbly think that we may be excused from entrusting to them those places in the State where the influence of such a clergy, who act under the direction of a passive tool of our worst foe, is likely to be attended with the most fatal consequences. If a gentleman chooses to walk about with a couple of pounds of gunpowder in his pocket, if I give him the shelter of my roof, I may at least be permitted to exclude him from the seat next to the fire.”3 And in relation to the year 1825, when Scott visited Ireland, Mr. Lockhart writes, “He on all occasions expressed manfully his belief that the best thing for Ireland would have been never to relax the strictly political enactments of the penal laws, however harsh these might appear. Had they been kept in vigour for another half-century, it was his conviction that Popery would have been all but extinguished in Ireland. But he thought that after admitting Romanists to the elective franchise, it was a vain notion that they could be permanently or advantageously deterred from using that franchise in favour of those of their own persuasion.”

In his diary in 1829 he puts the same view still more strongly:—“I cannot get myself to feel at all anxious about the Catholic question. I cannot see the use of fighting about the platter, when you have let them snatch the meat off it. I hold Popery to be such a mean and degrading superstition, that I am not sure I could have found myself liberal enough for voting the repeal of the penal laws as they existed before 1780. They must and would, in course of time, have smothered Popery; and I confess that I should have seen the old lady of Babylon’s mouth stopped with pleasure. But now that you have taken the plaster off her mouth, and given her free respiration, I cannot see the sense of keeping up the irritation about the claim to sit in Parliament. Unopposed, the Catholic superstition may sink into dust, with all its absurd ritual and solemnities. Still it is an awful risk. The world is in fact as silly as ever, and a good competence of nonsense will always find believers.”4 That is the view of a strong and rather unscrupulous politician — a moss-trooper in politics — which Scott certainly was. He was thinking evidently very little of justice, almost entirely of the most effective means of keeping the Kingdom, the Kingdom which he loved. Had he understood — what none of the politicians of that day understood — the strength of the Church of Rome as the only consistent exponent of the principle of Authority in religion, I believe his opposition to Catholic emancipation would have been as bitter as his opposition to Parliamentary reform. But he took for granted that while only “silly” persons believed in Rome, and only “infidels” rejected an authoritative creed altogether, it was quite easy by the exercise of common sense, to find the true compromise between reason and religious humility. Had Scott lived through the religious controversies of our own days, it seems not unlikely that with his vivid imagination, his warm Conservatism, and his rather inadequate critical powers, he might himself have become a Roman Catholic.

1 Lockhart’s Life of Scott, ii. 328.

2 Lockhart’s Life of Scott, x. 47.

3 Lockhart’s Life of Scott, iii. 34.

4 Ibid., ix. 305.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:29