Voting and not voting in Cromwellian Scotland

Today, on St Andrew’s Day we have a Scotland themed blog from Dr Patrick Little of the House of Commons 1640-1660 Section as part of our Patron Saints series. He discusses voting in Cromwellian Scotland…

Nowadays the Scots have the reputation for being enthusiastic voters. Recent General Elections have seen more than two-thirds of the electorate casting their ballots (71% in 2015, 67% in 2017) and the Scottish Independence Referendum of 2014 saw the highest turn-out of any UK election in modern times: 85%. Three and a half centuries before, during the Cromwellian occupation of Scotland, the situation was very different.

The conquest of Scotland by Oliver Cromwell in 1650-1 was followed by concerted attempts by the English government to unite the two countries, and central to this was the election of MPs for Scotland to sit at Westminster. As a result, the three Union Parliaments of 1654-5, 1656-8 and 1659 included 30 Scottish MPs, 20 for the shires and 10 for the former royal burghs. Naturally, many historians have dismissed these elections as a ‘hollow sham’ (W. Ferguson, Scotland’s Relations with England: a survey to 1707 (Edinburgh, 1977), but there is no doubt that they actually took place, or that the voters were overwhelmingly Scottish – as the surviving election indentures in the National Archives attest. The involvement of Scots in these elections – either as voters or as candidates – is noteworthy, not least because of the ‘qualifications’ imposed on all those involved in the process. These were restrictions, outlined in the Instrument of Government, specifically designed to exclude former royalists, Catholics and other undesirables. In theory these qualifications would limit the electorate considerably, as most Scots had supported Charles II in 1650-1, and there were very few who could not be condemned as former royalists. This would certainly seem to justify those historians who see participation as limited to ‘a radical handful’. (A. Macinnes, The British Revolution, 1629-1660 (Basingstoke, 2005), 202-3. But everything depended on how strictly the qualifications were observed.

The elections for the first protectorate Parliament, held in August 1654, were thus something of an experiment, as neither the government, under the control of the relatively benign figure of General George Monck, nor the voters of Scotland knew what to expect. A further complication was caused by the continuing war against royalist rebels in the highlands led by the earl of Glencairn, which prevented some elections from taking place and put restrictions on others. But the insurgency was not the only stumbling block in the north. In Aberdeenshire, the gentry protested that ‘they were very willing and ready to serve and observe the commands of my lord protector in anything, but in this they could not but acknowledge that they all came within the compass of the exceptions, and … could not see but each man was incapable of giving a voice in the election’ (Akerman, Roundhead Officers, 89-91). As a result of these scruples, no election was held. In Perthshire, also on the highland line, elections went ahead despite rebels operating in the neighbourhood, but it is clear from the indenture that very few of the major landowners were willing to participate, with the Campbells, led by the laird of Glenorchy, and the various branches of the Menzies clan – all associated with the radical ‘Protester’ faction of the Kirk – refusing to take part. It was ironic that the MP returned, the earl of Linlithgow, was an active royalist who had only recently made his peace with the Cromwellian invaders. The divisions in Perthshire are a reminder that the Scots were themselves deeply divided along political and religious lines.

Tensions between Scots could also have a geographical element. In the combined Peebles and Selkirk shires in August 1654 a reasonable number of local lairds signed the resulting indenture, but all was not as it seemed. The leading signatories included former royalists such as John Lord Linton, and all of them came from the more conformist Peeblesshire: the lairds of Selkirk – many of them Protester sympathisers – stayed away. The shires of Ayr and Renfrew, in the Protester heartland in the south-west, presented particular difficulties. There the lairds refused to participate at all, leaving Monck with a major problem on his hands. Interestingly, he immediately contacted a former royalist, William Lord Cochrane, promising him that elections could be held ‘notwithstanding the qualifications of the persons electing’ (Worcester College, Oxford, Clarke MS xlvi, unfol.: 2 Oct. 1654). Monck’s willingness to discard the qualifications is at first sight surprising. He had not made the same concession to the lairds of Aberdeenshire, despite their professions of loyalty, yet in the south west he positively embraced former royalists, such as Cochrane, widely seen as the enemies of the regime. Perhaps the obstructiveness of the Protesters had left him with little choice.

Overall, the Scottish elections in 1654 were not a great success. Only 22 of the 30 Scottish MPs were returned, and this was an embarrassment to the government. But under the careful management of Monck and other moderates the fiasco was not repeated. Indeed, a comparison of the surviving indentures for 1654 and 1656 confirms the impression derived from other sources that participation grew rapidly as the decade continued and Cromwellian rule became accepted as a permanent (if unwelcome) feature of Scottish life, with even the Protesters gradually taking their places in the local administration and even taking posts in the law courts and other institutions of national government. Those who had stayed away from the polls in 1654 were out in force two years later, and it is perhaps telling that the elections in 1659 saw a greater number of contested elections, some even ending in violence. This was something of a back-handed compliment to the Cromwellian regime in Scotland. Those who had previously refused to engage with the occupiers, and had boycotted both local commissions and parliamentary elections, had by the end of the decade chosen to participate, in the hope of shaping the future settlement of Scotland. It was small comfort to Monck and his colleagues, but even the most radical of Scots now accepted that it made more sense to vote than not to vote.


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