Walter Scott as a Conservative Thinker

by J MW

Walter Scott as a Conservative Thinker

by Diana Spearman

It is notorious that Scott was a conservative, and since Carlyle declared that his novels contained no ‘message’, equally notorious that he was no thinker; no one, however, has ever denied that he had a powerful influence on political opinion. On the contrary, the tendency has been rather to exaggerate that influence. From Lockhart, who said that ‘his services, direct and indirect, towards repressing the revolutionary propensities of the age were vast’ (Life of Sir Walter Scott), to Mark Twain, who maintained that he was the real author of the American Civil War, Scott has been credited with the ability to mesmerise his readers into acceptance of his social and political ideas. Even in 1943, the Scottish poet, Hugh MacDiarmid, blamed Scott for ‘the paralysing ideology of defeat in Scotland’ (see his ‘Burns and Scott’ in Lucky Poet).

Although read to acknowledge the effect of Scott’s ideas, after the middle of the nineteenth century historians and critics seldom took them seriously. Even his admirers felt impelled to apologise for them, and with the collapse of Scott’s reputation his ideas, if mentioned at all, were usually treated as a symptom of his intellectual limitations. It is only since the revival of critical interest in his work and the stirrings of Scottish nationalism that they have been discussed with respect, if not always with understanding.

Scott asserted in his Journal that he cared little about politics: ‘and from year’s end to year’s end have scarce a thought connected with them’. He did admit that ‘actually important events have always hurried me off my feet’. In reality he was continually engaged in the lower reaches of politics: in electioneering, in patronage (which was partly an aspect of electioneering), and in recruiting volunteers when civil order was threatened. He sat on government committees on the reform of Scottish law and the organization of Scottish universities. He openly supported the Tory party, was a friend of Wellington, Peel, Canning and Croker, and wrote a pamphlet furiously attacking the attempt to stop Scottish banks from issuing their own notes (which they still do, thanks to Scott). No other major literary figure has been so much and so long engaged in the more lowly and quotidian aspects of politics.

His influence, in both the eighteenth century and the modern sense of the word, arose from his reputation as the greatest writer of the age; and his political ideas came to most people through his novels—which is why Scott is so often misunderstood as a political thinker.

Although plainly conservative in their general tendency, the Waverly novels are not political novels in the ordinary sense; they were not written to promote any particular creed, indeed they were primarily meant to entertain — a fact which many critics have found the most shocking things about them. Scott had other and more serious purposes, which were apparent to perceptive readers in his own day, but which subsequently became invisible. The underlying motive of his first novels—those with Scottish themes—was the desire to preserve Scottish institutions and traditions from the threat of assimilation into a uniform, liberal society. The wish to defend traditional values from loss or transformation under foreign influence is an instinctive reaction; but Scott’s views had a firm theoretical basis. He believed in the importance of the national culture, and of its local variations, both in moulding individual character and in defining the duties attached to each station. It was only in recognising and fulfilling these duties that the individual could acquire self-respect and the limited amount of happiness that is available to human beings.

Scott’s attitude to social and political questions was derived from his experience of the society of his time, and from the contrast between the former condition of the Highlands, as remembered by people still living, and the condition of the rest of Britain. But he also inherited from the philosophers of the Scottish enlightenment the theory of ‘the stages of society’ —arrangements which, in their main outlines, were identical in every part of the world and a part of universal history. Feudalism, for instance, was one of these stages, and would appear ‘in all nations when placed in certain situations’. In all cases it would create similar social values and similar personalities. Men’s characters are shaped by the society in which they live, and it is the fact of being at different stages which explains the difference between the Highland Chief and the English nobleman.

Insistence on the power of social forms, structures and systems is a staple of a certain type of left wing thought, and has, in our time, been the companion of moral and intellectual relativism. It is obvious, both from his novels and from his other writings, that Scott drew no such conclusion. Other influences gave him that essentially conservative trust in objective standards without which the novelist’s sympathy is no better than a sham. The most fundamental of these influences was his religious faith. Scott was a Christian, albeit a Christian who sought confirmation of the truth of Christianity in its social usefulness. In his Journal he wrote:

I would, if called on, die a martyr for the Christian religion, so completely is (in my poor opinion) its divine origin proved by its beneficial effects on the state of society. Were we but to name the abolition of slavery and polygamy, how much in these two words has been granted to mankind by the lessons of our Saviour?

A Christian must accept the existence of absolute moral values, and must recognise these elements in human nature, which according to his creed, are not solely the product of a particular ‘stage of society’. The elements do not appear prominently in Scott’s novels, as Carlyle and others after him complained; nevertheless, no one reading the novels can fail to see that Christian values formed a part of Scott’s conception of human nature, and the underlying motive for his sanctification of Scotland and its history.

Any tendency to social determinism in Scott’s attitudes was also modified by his acceptance of the eighteenth century view that human nature is in essentials fundamentally constant in all periods and in all social conditions. In the first chapter of Waverly he explains that he means:

To throw the force of my narrative on those passions…common to man in all stages of society, and which have alike agitated the human heart, whether it throbbed under the steel corselet of the fifteenth century, the brocaded coat of the eighteenth or the blue frock and white dimity waist-coat of the present day. Upon these passions it is no doubt true that the state of manners and laws casts a necessary colouring, but the bearings, to borrow the language of heraldry, remain the same, though the tincture may not only be different, but opposed in contradistinction.

Those remarks seem to contradict the idea of the social creation of personality. Nevertheless the two conceptions of man—as endowed with a common and constant store of passions, and as taking his personality from his immediate social conditions—are not contradictory. Indeed Scott reconciles them in his novels, showing the interaction between the qualities which must be supposed to exist at birth, and the social forces which mould the mature personality. Balie Nicol Jarvie has qualities of courage, kindness and honesty, and the ‘passions’ common to many men. But he exhibits them in his own socially endangered manner. His attitude to the Union and to his outlaw cousin, Rob Roy, come from his Presbyterian education, from his profession of merchant and from the Scottish sense of kinship. Jeannie Deans’ refusal to lie to save her sister’s life is dictate by the austere form of Calvinism in which she has been brought up, while her determination to go to London to seek a pardon has origins that go to the root of the distinct human life which is hers.

If certain elements in human nature are constant, so too are certain virtues (and not only those inculcated by Christianity). Courage, loyalty and love of country (in the sense of devotion to one’s own people and traditions) are of universal value. Scott passed a harsh judgement on the Highland clan system in Tales of a Grandfather:

the system of society under which the Highland clans were governed, although having much in it which awakens both the heart and the fancy, was hostile to liberty and to the progress both of religious and moral improvement, by placing the whole existence of tribes at the disposal of individuals, whose power of administration was influenced by no restraint saving their own pleasure.

He was, however, ever ready to celebrate the courage and loyalty of the Highlander, and did this so skillfully in Waverly that his readers did not notice the criticism of the Chiefs implicit in many episodes. If the individual was not able to feel loyalty to his society and its distinctive culture much of the meaning of his life would be lost. Half the argument in the Letters of Malachi Malagrowther is concerned with the economic dangers of forcing Scottish banks to return to gold payments. The other half is devoted to the evils which must arise from the Government’s attempts to ‘reform’ Scottish institutions in accordance with English ideas:

Would the British empire became stronger, were it possible to annul and dissolve the distinctions and peculiarities, which, flowing out of circumstances, historical events and differences of custom and climate, makes its relative parts still, in some sense, three separate nations, though intimately incorporated in one empire? … For God’s sake let us remain, as nature made us, Englishmen, Irishmen and Scotsmen.

The anger which inspired the letters was not only due to Scott’s love of his country’s ancient institutions and traditions. He was certain that if the fabric of society was torn apart by unnecessary innovations, people would lose their identity and become alienated from one another. He expressed this conviction even more forcefully to Croker, who was extremely annoyed by the Letters:

Depend upon it, that if a succession of violent and experimental changes are made from session to session…Scotland will, within ten or twenty years…read a more fearful commentary on poor Malachi’s epistles than any statesmen residing out of the country can possibly anticipate…there is yet a great deal of good and genuine feeling in the country. But if you unscotch us you will find us damned mischievous Englishmen.

And in a letter to Lockhart:

Scotland will in twenty years be revolutionised from head to foot…England will catch fire in her turn…and all this from encouraging a spirit of innovation in the most quiet and peaceful country in Europe.

Although Scott has been represented as hostile to every change, he had too good an understanding of social processes and too strong a moral sense to adopt such a position. He thought the clan system in the Highlands would have disappeared through the operation of modern social forces, even without the measures taken by the Government after 1745, and indeed had only survived so long because of the Chiefs’ attachment to the Stuart cause—an attachment which made them look on their people as potential soldiers. He even approved of certain planned changes, arguing, for instance, that the abolition of Hereditary Jurisdictions, which had allowed landowners to try certain cases in their own courts, was oppressive and obsolete, and that the Constitution itself stood in need of ‘repairs’. It was the large-scale alteration of deeply rooted national customs and institutions which he deplored. And it was not only political change that aroused his distaste and apprehension. He denounced the new industrialism, or rather, the new employers. Reflecting on the causes of crime he wrote:

the state of society now leads so much to great accumulations of humanity, that we cannot wonder if it ferment and reek like a compost dunghill…We have accumulated in large cities and smothering manufacturers the numbers which should be spread over the face of a country, what wonder that they should be corrupted? 

According to Scott, all societies above the primitive level are hierarchical. But this does not prevent the different strata from being bound together, on the one hand by kindness and consideration, and on the other by gratitude and loyalty. As long as these ties existed there need be nothing morally repugnant in the traditional social order. Nature had ordained it and ‘it was useless to wage war with her’. But hierarchy must not degenerate into despotism. The decadence of France, which had led to revolution and military dictatorship, was ultimately due to the overweening power of the sovereign and the consequent decay, both in status and mentality, of the nobility. Those who should have been the guardians of liberty, proved to be its destroyers. In spite of his sympathy with the Jacobites, no Whig could have spoken more harshly of James II, or welcomed the Glorious Revolution more warmly, than Scott:

No room was left for doubt that James designed to imitate the conduct of his friend and ally, Louis XIV of France, in the usurpation of despotic power over the bodies and consciences of his subjects…to…the Convention Parliament the Britannic Kingdom owes the inestimable blessings of civil and religious liberty.

The constitutional settlement had guaranteed liberty. It had also secured the only possible or valuable form of equality, which is equality before the law. Apart from this, inequality was a fact of life and indeed essential for the progress of society. Great differences in power and wealth are inevitable in a free constitution, and also useful. At the same time, the higher ranks have duties to the lower; especially is this true of landowners, who have obligations to everyone living on their land. These obligations included reducing rents in times of hardship, seeing that the local schoolmaster is adequate to his task, caring for widows and orphans. The landowner must also become acquainted with his tenants and share in all aspects of local life.
Scott’s ideal was realised by:

The plain country gentleman, who, living on his own means, amongst his own people, becomes the natural protector of and referee between the farmer and the peasant, and in cases of need the firmest asserter of their rights and his own against the aggression of the crown, or the independent and dauntless defender of the crown’s rights against the innovations of political fanaticism.

That quotation is from the Life of Napoleon. But there are many other pictures of the good landlord in the novels, and here Scott’s ideal is more persuasive, being portrayed in the characters of living men, with all their foibles and absurdities, and being consciously set beside a picture of the misery which bad landlords bring upon the innocent and helpless.

The nobility have greater responsibilities because they have greater power and privileges. Scott’s defense of aristocracy has puzzled and worried many, even among his admirers, who have often regarded it as a romantic foible. In reality, however, it was a rational aspect of a rational social theory. Scott regarded aristocracy as a social institution with a number of useful functions. From its origins in the age of feudalism it had been a bulwark against tyranny, while in the modern age an aristocracy was a force for both stability and freedom—provided, that is, that its members fulfilled their obligations to the society upon which they ultimately depended for their power, privilege and rank. If the nobleman failed, as had the French nobles, he was in effect committing treason, both to his own rank and to the community in general.

Scott’s ideal was of course by no means original. Marxists would describe it as the ideology of a ruling class, forced into self-consciousness by the advancing catastrophe of industrialisation. But the prevalence of the aristocratic ideal was not merely due to the need to protect the status quo. Before the 1832 Reform Act, the predominance of the landed interest, and the position of the House of Lords in preserving the balance between the prerogatives of the crown and the liberties of the subject, were part of the orthodox theory of the Constitution. And this theory rested, in the end, on a belief that wealth, power and responsibility could coexist in a single class. The belief survived into the late nineteenth century, and even now the Constitution of the kingdom is hard to understand or to justify unless one takes it seriously.

Where Scott’s vision of society differed from that of most of his contemporaries, whether Tory or Whig, was in providing a place for the poorest and most despised. Even gypsies had a place in Scott’s comprehensive vision of an organic society. Tiresome as gypsies may be, they had connections with other classes, and ties with society as a whole, which prevented them from being entirely mischievous:

The women spun mittens for the lady, and knitted boothose for the laird, which were annually presented at Christmas with great form…the men repaired her ladyships’s cracked china, and assisted the laird in his sporting parties…the children gathered nuts in the woods, and cranberries in the moss, and mushrooms on the pasture, for tribute to the Place. These acts of voluntary service were rewarded by protection on some occasions, connivance on others and broken victuals, ale and brandy when circumstances called for a display of generosity.

Such a relationship, between gypsy and landowner, is neither patronising nor self-deceived. One may reasonably wonder whether modern states have found so effective a way of establishing peaceful relations between settled and nomadic people.

Perhaps, however, Guy Mannering gives too romantic an account of the gypsies. Nevertheless, Scott understood the grievances, both justified and unjustified, of those lowest on the scale. There are few comments in fiction more bitter than Christie Steele’s:

Ye maun ken little of the warld, sir, if ye donna ken that the health of the poor man’s body, as weel as his youth and his strength are all at the command of the rich man’s purse. There never was a trade so unhealthy yet, but men would fight to get wark for two pennies a day abune the common rate.

Christie is not speaking for herself. Although disagreeable and clearly ‘a radical’ she is not malevolent as are the old women watching the wedding in The Bride of Lammermuir. Those speak from the depths of hatred felt by the miserable poor for the apparently happy rich:

Their gifts are dealt out for nae love of us—nor out of respect for whether we feed or starve. They would gie’ us whinstoens for loaves, if it would serve their vanity, and yet, they expect us to be gratefu’ as they ca’ it, as if they served us for pure love and liking.

A conservative theory which sees that there are victims of the social order is more impressive than one which is blind to them. However, Scott had no solution to the problems of poverty and petty crime, except the recognition by ‘superiors’ of their duty to the less fortunate. The limitations of such an idea—in which all political problems are simply referred to the moral sense—are obvious. Not only was Scott’s solution to the social problems of his day untenable. His forebodings themselves have not been fulfilled. Scotland, transformed as he foresaw it would be, annoying as it is to Conservative governments, has not exported revolution to England. She has retained her identity, not perhaps in a form in which Scott would approve, but in a form that is more coherent, more peaceloving, and more reasonably proud than the modern identity of Ireland. The vast changes produced by industrialisation and technology could not but make elements in Scott’s thought irrelevant to our modern condition. Land is no longer the main source of wealth and employment, and the landowner therefore no longer occupies the key social and economic position. Nevertheless, Scott’s view of the relations between the individual and society remains valid, and also mercifully free from the exaggeration and hysteria characteristic of the left-wing versions of pastoral. He was surely right in believing that to destroy the traditional cultural background is to to make life more difficult and less interesting for the average person. It is now England rather than Scotland which is in danger of losing her national identity, not so much from the intrusion of peoples from other cultures, as by the preference of teachers and television journalists for everything that challenges, violates and relativizes the native culture of England.

Scott’s reluctance to support the goal of Scottish independence, so exasperating to Scottish nationalists, throws some light on the English situation. He was, as Trevor-Roper stated, ‘A British patriot’. Nelson, Wellington and Pitt were as much his heroes as Wallace and Bruce. But apart from loyalty to the ‘empire’, he realised that political independence was not enough to save a national culture, and that more subtle influences were operating to disintegrate Scottish traditions. In Scott’s day the brain drain took the form of the gravitation of clever young men (including Scott’s son-in-law) to London, and of ‘young men of fortune’ to English schools. Such tendencies were unlikely to be reversed by any alteration in the political system. Similarly, the sovereign status of Britain, if indeed it still exists, cannot prevent the loss of everything which gives it value, once the country has become what one of Enoch Powell’s correspondents so aptly described as a ‘multicultural mish-mash’.

Industrialisation has brought enormous benefits, which no one would appreciate more fully than Scott. But, as he foresaw, the ‘accumulations of humanity’—in other words the huge towns of the modern world—breed alienation and disrupt the social fabric. Scott was one of the many conservatives who, having taken note of this evil, looked backwards rather than forwards for a remedy, encouraged by his conviction that hierarchy is inescapable in any society, and that it was the breakdown of hierarchies that left man so alone and exposed in the soulless conurbations of the emerging world. We may not be able to accept the particular vision of hierarchical order that Scott endorsed; but we have seen how the pursuit of equality has ended in a tyranny far worse than any he could have imagined. We must accept the fact of inequality, and endeavour to alleviate its consequences. In civilized societies there is a kind of equality which transcends difference of degree. We could learn from Scott that no occupation is menial and no status despicable. Edie Ochiltree in the The Antiquary is a beggar. Yet he performs many services for his community and lives on terms of a kind of equality even with the ‘gentlemen’, rebuking them when he thinks they need it. Such a form of social interaction does not deny but requires a difference of degree. Britain is unique in the modern world, in that some vestige of Scott’s vision still influences the process of government. And we should do a service to humanity if, instead of despising that vision, we learned how to adapt and renew it.

This article was first published in The Salisbury Review (Summer, 1987) 

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