Category Archives: Law

The legend of Black Tam

Tam Dalyell, who died this week, was a kind of Mizen Head: one of those parliamentary markers to navigate by. Which is also to say — stay clear of. He was, for most of his more-than-four-decades in the Commons, individualistic, almost unclubbable, the cat who walks alone.

1962 and All That

Anyone who had the pleasure of that baritone timbre would be wafted back to the Learig Bar, Bo’ness, preferably in the days before the 1962 West Lothian by-election.

Everyone in sight knew that “Black Tam” would take it easily. His worthy Scot Nat opponent — then and for the next six contests — was Billy Wolfe. 1962, though, was the first Scot Nat showing in such parts. Wolfe was the more “lefty” of the two. Since the Communist candidate was Gordon McLennan, then of the mind-set we would later recognise as “unreconstructed tankie”, that might make Wolfe the “vote-as-left as-you-can-get” ticket. Alas! That was also a time when the Scot Nats could be dismissed as “tartan Tories”: 1962 and Wolfe were the moment that changed.

Both men were — in their different ways — noble figures.

They were a crucial decade apart in years.

William Wolfe had a background as an owner and manager in heavy metal-bashing industry. Wolfe had had “a good war”.

Tam was Old Etonian, Cambridge University, would inherit his mother’s family baronetcy, and become Sir Thomas of the Binns. Tam had learned as a squaddie in National Service to relate to the lower orders.

After an evening of canvassing the plebs, all and sundry would gravitate to the Learig Bar. Lesser, lower beings and bag-carriers hugged their pints of heavy and looked on.

If you hunt hard enough, long enough, you may yet find a tattered original of The Rebels’ ceilidh song book, published by the Bo’ness Rebels Literary Society.

Therein (provided it’s a first edition) you will find The Ballad of the Learig Bar, with the chorus:

Billy Woolf will win, will win,
Billy Woolf will win.

He didn’t. But it was a great effort all round.

Ireland intrudes

I found myself on politics.ie, trying to answer:

Could never understand [Dalyell’s] desire for Ireland to get its freedom but not Scotland.

Apart from the dubious assumption that an interest in the Troubles of Northern Ireland amounts to a desire for Ireland to get its freedom, I tried to say Dalyell’s motivation, above all, was his opposition to colonialism. That’s what radicalised him, at the time of Suez. It was one of the few postures he maintained consistently. Hence — no doubt — being sucked into the “Troops Out Movement”.

The West Lothian Question: still “tricky”

I’m of the view Dalyell was quite sincere about his “nationalism”.

He set out his objections to the Scotland Bill quite clearly, and — as the preface to the Herald Scotland obituary notes:

Tam Dalyell … was … the first to pose the still-tricky West Lothian Question about Scottish representation at Westminster.

The “West Lothian Question” was not Dalyell’s. His own term was “the West Lothian-West Bromwich problem”. It was, however, the term Enoch Powell applied to Dalyell’s reasoned point:

… the West Lothian-West Bromwich problem is not a minor hitch to be overcome by rearranging the seating in the devolutionary coach. On the contrary, the West Lothian-West Bromwich problem pinpoints a basic design fault in the steering of the devolutionary coach which will cause it to crash into the side of the road before it has gone a hundred miles.

For how long will English constituencies and English hon. Members tolerate 123 not just 71 Scots, 36 Welsh and a number of Ulstermen but at least 119 hon. Members from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland exercising an important, and probably often decisive, effect on English politics while they themselves have no say in the same matters in Scotland, Wales and Ireland? Such a situation cannot conceivably endure for long.

The hon. Member for Dundee, East [Gordon Wilson] said that members of his party would not vote on English matters, but that does not face up to the problem of the need for a Government to be sustained. The real problem is that of having a subordinate Parliament in part, though only part, of a unitary State.

Out of that comes four thoughts:

  • Had Dalyell the acid wit, quick mind and oratory of Powell, he could have been far more dangerous.
  • Dalyell was complicit in squirrelling into the 1977 Act the 40% clause, which self-detonated and destroyed that limited devolution. It consequentially brought down the Callaghan government in 1979.
  • When devolution did come, Dalyell answered his own “problem” by never voting on exclusively-English matters. To that extent, he was as good a Scottish “nationalist” as any other.
  • Let’s not quickly pass over the Enoch Powell connection. In 1977 how the UUP had given succour to the Tory opposition in 1964-66 was still a thorny matter. Powell (by 1977 the MP for South Down) joyfully exploited that, rubbing Unionist grit in the wounds all the way back to the 1920s.

Where the “West Lothian Question” still festers is the so-called “Sewel convention” (for a full explication see the Peatworrier passim[/I]), which was thought to define the relationship between Westminster and Holyrood. It was thought the 2016 Scotland Act enshrined these conventions into UK law.

As a concomitant of the Supreme Court judgment of 24th January 2017, those certainties are now much more clouded. In particular there’s paragraph 148 of the judgment, suggesting Westminster — by accident or malign design — has been weaselling:

…the UK Parliament is not seeking to convert the Sewel Convention into a rule which can be interpreted, let alone enforced, by the courts; rather, it is recognising the convention for what it is, namely a political convention, and is effectively declaring that it is a permanent feature of the relevant devolution settlement. That follows from the nature of the content, and is acknowledged by the words (“it is recognised” and “will not normally”), of the relevant subsection. We would have expected UK Parliament to have used other words if it were seeking to convert a convention into a legal rule justiciable by the courts.

Any distant rumble is “Black Tam” having a posthumous chuckle.

Above all, Dalyell (“the only member to own white peacocks”) was supremely individualist and not-to-be-confined by any passing group-loyalty. He was impossible to corral in any political grouping. He was apparently incapable of anything like “humour”. Yet he did his research: when he spoke, he knew his stuff. He gave a hard time to each and every minister dished up for his tormenting: Thatcher in particular.

Belgrano: hunting for truths.

He was against the whole Falklands adventure. He detailed that in his Falklands Polemic for the London Review of Books.

From that developed his ceaseless hounding of Margaret Thatcher, over the sinking of the Argentine cruiser, General Belgrano. Dalyell’s dogged persistence was itself the stuff of legend. In retrospect, it seems partly a piece of self-justification. It was, however, much needed: particularly so when he was able to show that the thirty hours while HMS Conqueror trailed the Belgrano proved — rather than the vessel being some naval threat — the delay was political, over Peruvian attempts to cobble peace proposals.

The main event

Then we might usefully read Dalyell’s own “last word”: The Question of Scotland: Devolution and After.

There Dalyell argues what Scotland needs is not “self-government” so much as “good government”, and primarily ” good local government”. There’s a lot of point-scoring in it: Dalyell offers a cogent argument why Labour failed. He is caustic in his treatment of Donald Dewar — the spiralling costs of the new Scottish Parliament building — and Dewar’s denials — being one main grievance. Dalyell won, Dewar nil.

Now both Billy Wolfe and Black Tam are gone. Both were imperfect. We shall not see their likes again.

Oh, East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,
Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat;
But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth!

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Prerogatives derogated

In that previous post I found myself saying:

I can just about conceive circumstances in which “Royal Prerogative” might need to be invoked — short of a declaration of War. Say the administration of a devolved Assembly became totally unmanageable …

That post was already over-long, so I omitted the small matter of:

prerog

This is an interesting document, because (at the end of the last Labour government) it attempted to identify where the Royal prerogative persisted; and even where it should be going.

Not entirely surprisingly, once Tories are running the show, that script-line gets lost. We haven’t entirely overcome the ancient Royalist and Roundhead cleavage.

One surprise, though, was just how restricted the Prerogative had become:

para12

All of a sudden, it looks “containable”, though there’s an obvious (and very relevant in the context here) quibble in the final sentence there.

When we arrive at the “summary” of the document’s purpose:

to provide an overview of areas where ministerial prerogative powers are exercised, or have been exercised recently

Here again we encounter an account of Prerogative with a particular significance in the #Brexit context:

foreign

Happily, on that basis, Messers Boris Johnson, Neil Fox and David Davis (messers all), with Madame May “directing”, can carry on diplomatically. Not that diplomacy seems to have been the name of their recent games.

May be I’m being picky (what’s new?) but then I have to see something awry:

The “Power to make and ratify treaties” doesn’t logically extend  to abrogating them.

And that’s what Article 50 does.

 

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Traitorously and maliciously levied war against the present Parliament

Recognise it? Its the indictment against Charles Stuart, 20th January 1648.

Where else to start? In a roundabout way, Paddy Kavanagh springs to mind:

Forget the worm’s opinion too
Of hooves and pointed harrow-pins,
For you are driving your horses through
The mist where Genesis begins. 

Those #Brexiteers assured us the UK would enjoy some regeneration, a second “genesis”, after 23rd June. They didn’t bother about the painful details. Now, the worm beneath the harrow is beginning to watch for where the tines will drive.

It also started here. Quite why the commenters on politics.ie should divide between ultra-Kippers and staunch defenders of the British Constitution escapes me. But for 1,700 exchanges (and continuing) they did, and do.

4256Personally, I was severely affronted by the vulgarity, the xenophobia, the sexism, the violent populism and anti-elitism fomented by the vulgar, xenophobic, sexist, arrogant,  elitist tabloid press barons in their spittle-speckled assaults on the High Court of Justice.

But back to first principles:

The whole non-event comes down to a binary simplicity:

  • Does the Prime Minister have the right to decide when and what #Brexit means, by exercise of “Royal Prerogative”?

or

  • Is Parliament the essential arbiter? 

Those three High Court judges, in their wisdom, endorsed a thousand years of English history, and declared for Parliament.

I doubt there will ever be plaques, with or without bird-turd, outside the Baby Shard (the London bunker from whence Murdoch’s The Sun rises daily), or Northcliffe House in Kensington (ditto the Daily Mail) as the one outside the Roundhouse pub, on Royal Standard Place, in Nottingham:

king-charles-placque

I laid out my understanding in that previous post.

That left me with the residual issue:

  • When might the “Royal Prerogative” ever be invoked?

As I see it, that Elephantine Object in the Newsroom, the “British Constitution”, constrains both:

  • Courts (who can only interpret the “Constitution” as a corpus of legislation going back to Norman times) and
  • Parliament (which can only act and enact within “constitutional” limits — for example, since the 1911 Parliament Act, the Lords have no powers over money bills, except a one-month delay).

Any amendment to an existing Westminster law would need an amending Act of the Westminster parliament.

We have a balanced — and ever-evolving — settlement between Parliament, devolved Assemblies, and Courts. Still,  I can just about conceive circumstances in which “Royal Prerogative” might need to be invoked — short of a declaration of War. Say the administration of a devolved Assembly became totally unmanageable …

Aha! You’re with me already!

Even then we’d need something like a Northern Ireland (Temporary Provisions) Act, which imposed Direct Rule from 31st March 1972 to its repeal on 2nd December 1999.

I therefore found myself seeing this as an exercise in speedy parliamentary activity, without use of Royal Prerogative.

A bit of parliamentary history

On 20th March 1972, Harold Wilson, under an emergency notice of 16th March, led an Opposition adjournment motion.

This came after weeks of dithering by the Heath government, and procrastination by the Unionist at Stormont. It was now common ground (except among the extremes of opinion in Northern Ireland, who were up for a local Armageddon). The Dublin government was on the verge of doing something unmentionable.

Wilson, ever the opportunist, would have known that the Heath government was about to act; and wanted to get in on the act. The Opposition had another motive : the need for a distractor. The following week the Chancellor was going to offer a crowd-pleasing budget, as a softener for a General election (which would become the “Barber boom”, and stoke up the inflation that bedevilled British politics for the next decade — but that’s another matter).

After three hours of debate (with Prime Minister Heath responding) the government defeated the motion to adjourn by 257 to 294.

Had that vote been lost, the sitting would have ended abruptly, and Heath would, by convention (another bit of unwritten “Constitution”) have had to return the following session to propose a vote of confidence in his own adminstration. Had that vote of confidence been lost, it would immediately require Heath to go the Palace (another bit of “Constitutional” flim-flam) and resign.

At that moment the Queen would have two choices: to accept the now ex-Prime Minister’s request for a General Election, or to summon the Leader of the Opposition to form a new government (who would then promptly request a General Election, which would be granted).

There then intervened three days of Budget debate.

Perspective

At this distance in time, we’d need to remind ourselves just how febrile the atmosphere was at that moment. One name in particular should be in the frame: William Craig.

Craig had lost out to the more moderate Brian Faulkner for the leadership of the Unionist Party and the stool-of-office as Northern Irish Prime Minister. He had then built a party-within-the-Unionist-Party, his private Ulster Vanguard movement — which was closely associated with the loyalists and paramilitaries of such as the UDA. Craig held his “monster rallies”, involving motor-cycle outriders, and armed men drawn up in quasi-military ranks. Craig’s speeches at these rallies are quite outrageous:

We must build up dossiers on those men and women in this country who are a menace to this country because one of these days, if and when the politicians fail us, it may be our job to liquidate the enemy.

Note there “this country”: Craig was advocating a Rhodesian-style UDI.

Keeping it parliamentary

On 24th March, Heath was back to the Commons to make a holding statement in advance of the weekend, announcing the bringing back to Westminster of powers over Northern Ireland :

Parliament will, therefore, be invited to pass before Easter a Measure transferring all legislative and executive powers now vested in the Northern Ireland Parliament and Government to the United Kingdom Parliament and a United Kingdom Minister. This provision will expire after one year unless this Parliament resolves otherwise. The Parliament of Northern Ireland would stand prorogued but would not be dissolved.

The weekend out of the way, on  27th March, the Northern Ireland (Temporary Provisions) Bill was laid before the House, and given a nominal First Reading.

On 28th March there was a full debate, and division (483-18) on the Second Reading. Willie Whitelaw , as Leader of the Commons and as emollient a creature as the Tories could contain, introduced the Bill with a formula of words worth noting in this context:

I have it in command from Her Majesty the Queen to acquaint the House that Her Majesty, having been informed of the purport of the Bill, has consented to place her interests and prerogative, so far as they are affected by the Bill, at the disposal of Parliament for the purposes of the Bill.

Got that? The “Royal Prerogative” there being made — effectively — subject (if only for this purpose) to the will of parliament. Nearly half a century ago, that must strike as a significant statement. And we have since moved much, much further in claiming democratic accountability through parliament against arbitrary, post-feudal authority.

There was a brief debate on amendments on 29th March (in effect, the “Committee Stage”).

On 30th March all the remaining stages, including the Bill passing the House of Lords, were completed, and at 12.26 pm the Lord Chancellor announced the Royal Assent: it was now an Act of Parliament, subject (see above) to annual review.

After that, interpretation would fall to the Courts.

All done and dusted, with the barest of nods at “Royal Prerogative”.

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1014 and All That

Æthelred in an early thirteenth-century copy of the Abingdon Chronicle

Æthelred in an early thirteenth-century copy of the Abingdon Chronicle

We have just had one of those moments when everyone brushes up on the English Constitution.

The High Court has pronounced on #Brexit; and dropped a great dollop of whoops-oh-nasty onto the May Government. The May Government will now try to appeal to the Supreme Court. For in law, as no where else, the Siphonaptera applies:

Great fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite ’em,
And little fleas have lesser fleas, and so ad infinitum.
And the great fleas themselves, in turn, have greater fleas to go on,
While these again have greater still, and greater still, and so on.

With some small joy, the BBC political editor, Laura Kuenssberg (herself only two generations descent from one of the great Scottish jurists) was relishing that the High Court had cited a precedent from 1610:

27. Sir Edward Coke reports the considered view of himself and the senior judges of the time in The Case of Proclamations (1610) 12 Co. Rep. 74, that

“the King by his proclamation or other ways cannot change any part of the common law, or statute law, or the customs of the realm”

and that :

“the King have no prerogative, but that which the law of the land allows him.”

So, phooey to you, Theresa May and your claims of “prerogative”.

There’s a nice extra bit in quoting Coke on the customs of the realm, because that takes us so far back behind the veil of history.

The Lady in My Life’s tattered paperback copy of G M Trevelyan’s Shortened History of England seems to have gone AWOL, so I’m having to pull this bit from Wikipedia:

The Scandinavians, when not on the Viking warpath, were a litigious people and loved to get together in the ‘thing’ to hear legal argument. They had no professional lawyers, but many of their farmer-warriors, like Njal, the truth-teller, were learned in folk custom and in its intricate judicial procedure. A Danish town in England often had, as its main officers, twelve hereditary ‘law men.’ The Danes introduced the habit of making committees among the free men in court, which perhaps made England favorable ground for the future growth of the jury system out of a Frankish custom later introduced by the Normans.

Trevelyan then moves on to remark on Æthelred (the Redeless/ the Unready — yes, him).

51njn6gh8nl-_sx331_bo1204203200_That sent me to Maddicott: The Origins of the English Parliament of which a clean, crisp copy I do have here. Because I knew there (on page 37) I would find this:

The turning point came in 1014: a year of disasters in which the victories of the Danish king Swein, culminating in his capture of London, had forced Æthelred to take refuge overseas. What followed set a precedent for future bargaining between kings and councils. Æthelred was recalled from a brief exile in Normandy by ‘all the councillors (þa witan ealle) who were in England’. In advance of his return he promised to be a gracious lord to his people and to reform what they all hated, on condition that they gave him their unqualified allegiance. John of Worcester adds that he also undertook to fall ion with their advice. These terms were clearly imposed by the councillors as the price of Æthelred’s restoration. As Sir Frank Stenton long ago pointed out, they are ‘of great constitutional interest as the first recorded pact between an English king and his subjects’.

If anyone is still in doubt: the whole government case for being able to invoke Article 50, without prior parliamentary approval, lies in a claim that the Prime Minister has the residual Crown prerogative.

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A further truth to be told

David Conn’s extended piece for today’s Guardian, on the Hillsborough cover-up, is journalism at its best, and the exemplar why some of us will support, buy and read that great newspaper until the end. Even at £2 a throw.

The on-line presentation is less cogent than what is in the printed version. For example, in the paper we find this:

Later that day, the prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, and her press secretary, Bernard Ingham, visited Hillsborough. [Chief Constable Peter] Wright briefed them. Ingham has always since said of Hillsborough that he “learned on the day” it was caused by a “tanked-up mob”. Ingham, later given a knighthood, has confirmed to there Guardian this was what police told Thatcher.

Good enough? That lets Thatcher off the hook?

Well, not for this blogger.

The culture of South Yorkshire police was “institutionally” corrupt. As Conn, also in the print edition, describes:

The evidence built into a startling indictment of the South Yorkshire police, their chain of command and conduct — a relentlessly detailed evisceration of a British police force. Responsible for an English county at the jeans-and-trainers end of the1980s, the police had brutally policed the miners’ strike, and was described by some of its own former officers as “regimented”. with morning parade and saluting of officers, ruled by an “iron fist” institutionally unable to admit mistakes. The dominance of Wright, a decorated police officer who died in 2011, loomed over the catastrophe. He was depicted as a frightening, authoritarian figure who treated the force “like his own personal territory” and whose orders nobody dared debate.

Those of us who had to drive down the A1 during the grim days of the miners’ dispute remember Check Point Charlie at the A1/A57/A614 roundabout, south of Ranby, where the A1 veers south-east. The lay-by (now by-passed by recent road-works) was where — day and night — a detachment of the Finest were posted, lest South Yorkshire miners escaped south to wreak havoc and mayhem.

CoulterJim Coulter, Susan Miller and Martin Walker produced a damning report (November 1984): A State of Siege, Politics and Policing of the Coalfields:  Miners Strike 1984. It was, but of course, just another loony lefty whinge — but it still stands up to scrutiny. The facts therein speak for themselves. The opinions have been proven by dint of experience;

It is important to understand the politics behind the policing because through the politics we can see what the Conservative government are pursuing is not the ‘rule of law’ but the ‘law of rule’; brute force and violence.

Rather than policing being an incidental spin off from the dispute it is at the very heart of it. [page 5]

Don’t believe me. Try ex-Deputy Chief Constable of Greater Manchester, John Stalker:

Britain has never been closer to becoming a police state than when Margaret Thatcher was in charge.

As Deputy Chief Constable of Greater Manchester I saw at first hand how her authoritarian policies could have permanently shattered the bond of trust between the police and the people.

She turned the police into a paramilitary force and put us on to a war footing.

I met her several times during my time as a senior police officer.

She took an uncommon interest in law and order, and always acted as if she was the Home Secretary as well as the PM.

That was never more clear than during the miner’s strike in 1984 when I believe Margaret Thatcher took Britain to the brink of becoming a police state.

She decided that “her” police force was going to keep the miners and pickets under control. It was all about showing who was boss…

We got streams of instructions from the Home Office on how the strike should be handled, cleverly covered with legal fig leaves saying things such as, “of course the Chief Constable has complete control over operational matters, but this is our advice”.

miners-strike-orgreaveThe “morgue” (the libraries of newspaper clippings, from before the days of the internet and electronic documentation) of any proper media operation will thrown up evidence that it was Thatcher’s wish and intention to create an “officer corps” to run “her” police service.

The ethos of the Thatcher era was an unremitting war against the “enemy within“.

At Hillsborough the enemy were the “animals” (yes: you will find that term used, and quoted in the subsequent Commons debate) who had to be caged. Five years earlier it had been the miners and their families whose liberties were revoked, whose homes invaded, who were strip-searched and violated.

When Thatcher and Ingham dropped in on the South Yorkshire Chief Constable, after Hillsborough, it wasn’t just a convivial visit. Whatever impression Wright foisted on Thatcher, she was more than a willing dupe.

The guilt doesn’t stop, conveniently, with Wright and his subordinates.

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A stirr’d turd stinks (2)

Back to Twitter.

A certain  (who is a declared enthusiast for Donald Trump as leader of the free world!)  took offence at — of all liberal souls — The Guardian‘s Michael White. Mr Lawrie essential grief was:

slavery always illegal Scotland. Unlike England who enslaved & murdered millions.

This was repeated several times, never with any justification, and lead on to other excesses:

  • slaves in confederate states higher standard living than British working class.
  • Scotland has an elite; called the British establishment.
  • slavery illegal under scots law. Why no slaves landed in scots ports. Not so England.
  • not troll. Is fact. Scotland never had mass slave trade. Unlike England. Accept truth here.
  • not one African slave was landed in Scotland. Because it was illegal under scots law.
  • slavery was illegal in Scotland under scots law. Doesn’t contradict
  • scaremongering self loathing rubbish as though Indy scot would unleash 4th reich.
  • The SNP did not have Nazi sympathisers. You’re promoting an offensive lie.

Those may not be in the correct order

Not to forget — a gem among gems — that somehow the US Declaration of Independence sprang from the Declaration of Arbroath.

In all that there are three items worth considering:

  1. Scotland and slavery (which what I address in this post);
  2. the uncomfortable historic link between Fascism and Scottish Nationalism;
  3. that thing about the Declaration of Arbroath.

Scotland and slavery

The Battle of Dunbar (1650) lumbered Cromwell with 10,000 (his own count) Scottish Covenanters and Royalists as prisoners. He reported he had discharge half that number as “starved, sick or wounded”. The Royalist Sir Edward Walker reckoned on 6,000 prisoners, of whom 1,000 were dismissed.

Either way, that leaves 5,000 to be route-marched south. About 3,000 were alive to be incarcerated by Arthur Heslerig at Durham Cathedral. Further deaths (the bodies were found post-WW2 in a trench on the north side of the Cathedral) reduced that to just 1,4oo.  In 1651 these were despatched as indentured labour to the American colonies.

In 1666 the City worthies of Edinburgh took Cromwell’s example, and employed Captain James Gibson. With his ship, the Phoenix of Leith, Gibson contracted to take beggars, vagabonds and others not fitt to stay in the kingdome to Virginia.

Few of these transports would have survived the seven-year indenture in the plantations. The few who did became the overseers for the cheaper, more durable, black slaves. Here, then, is one reason for all those Scottish names among the descendants of the slaves.

The Royal African Company, founded in London in 1672, soon had this new trade in humans organised. The Scots merchants, like those of Bristol and Liverpool, found themselves outside the loop. In November 1692 the Leith magistrates consigned 50 lewd women, and a further 30 street-walkers by ship to (ahem!) Virginia. In 1706 Two Brothers of Leith reported a profit on a slaving voyage.

We don’t know how many slaving voyages originated from the Clyde: the Port Books before 1742 are lost, so Scots moralists can claim barely a dozen such voyages start from Scotland. What is unquestionable is that slave-produced raw cotton, sugar, and tobacco were being imported to Greenock. By no coincidence, Abram Lyle, as in Tate & Lyle, was a Greenock man. By the start of the 19th century, a third of the Jamaican sugar plantations were Scottish owned. By the 1730s Ricard Oswald, son of the Dunnet, Caithness, manse was the factor for his cousins’ trade in tobacco, sugar and wine, and traveling the American south and Caribbean. He became a government-contractor and war-profiteer (first a small killing in the War of the Austrian Succession, then £125,000 from the Seven Years’ War), and with this bought 1,566 acres of four Caribbean plantations, and 30,000 acres in East Florida.

Hard lives and (progressively) harder decisions

The comings-and-goings of Scottish traders meant some brought back their black servants: some seventy are recorded in Scotland during the 18th century. Therein Mr Lawrie’s defence of Scottish innocence totally collapses. Several cases came before Scottish courts where black servants had to plead for release from their servitude:

  • Robert Shedden brought “Shanker” to Scotland, to apprentice him to  joiner, and so improve his price back in Virginia. In April 1756, at Beith, “Shanker’ had himself baptised as James Montgomery. Shodden took the hump, and dragged him back to Port Glasgow to be sent back to Virginia. Montgomery escaped to Edinburgh, and sought his freedom. He was clapped in gaol while the magistrates had extended deliberations, and died before a decision.
  • Dr David Dalrymple brought “Black Tom”, a slave, born in West Africa,  from Grenada to Methyl in Fife. In September 1769 “Black Tom” was baptised as David Spens at Wemyss. Spend now told his former master “I am now by the Christian Religion liberate and set at freedom from my yoke, bondage, and slavery”. Dalrymple had him arrested, and local lawyers  — financed by collections from miners and salters (more of that in a while) — issued writs for wrongful arrest. Before the case could be decided, Dalrymple died.

Next: the Somerset Case. An English matter, but this is in all the schoolbooks as the definitive one: after this no slaves in England. Nope: another example of how textbooks systematically simplify to the point of lies.

  • Charles Stewart had brought the enslaved James Somerset from Boston. Somerset made a break for it, was recaptured, and consigned back to Jamaica. Three witnesses approached the Lord Chief Justice, who ordered Somerset be kept while the case was heard.  The LCJ’s judgement walked the narrowest of lines between common law and the interests of the traders. His ambiguous ruling was: no master was allowed to take a slave by force to be sold abroad because he had deserted his service or for any other reason whatever. Read it carefully: it doesn’t make slavery illegal: it did, however, give runaways pretext to take charge of their own future.
  • Joseph Knight was an enslaved African, the possession of Sir John Wedderburn in Perthshire. Inspired by the Somerset decision, Knight demanded his service become paid. Wedderburn refused. Knight absconded, and was arrested. The abolitionists, including Dr Johnson and James Boswell, interceded. In 1778 the case came to court at Perth, and was appealed to the Court of Session in Edinburgh — in both the judgement was that the law of Scotland did not allow slavery.

Salters and miners

Both essential industries, and a law of 1606 put coalyers, coal-bearers and salters in a state of perpetual bondage to their employer. Breaking the bond put the said Coalyears, Coal-bearers and Salters to be esteemed, reput and halded as theives, and punished in their bodies. Moreover, all maisters and awners of Coal-heughs and pannes, were empowered to apprehend all vagabounds and sturdie beggers to be put to labour. So: serfdom and press-ganging.

This persisted until 1775 Act. Let there be no doubt, as the Act said:

many Colliers, Coal-bearers, and Salters are in a state of slavery or bondage, bound to the Collieries and Salt-works where they work for life, transferable with the Collieries and Salt-works, when their original masters have no further use for them.

Even then there were conditions attached. It took until 1799 before all salters and colliers were free from the bond (but, even then, only when an apprenticeship had been served, or ten years’ service registered.

 

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This grim and unpleasant land

Anyone who wis or has been a local councillor knows the problem. Mine, may years ago, involved allotment gardens which had been “enhanced” with slurry from the local stage works. The result was vegetables high in toxic heavy metals. Adjacent was a scrap-yard which, some how, in days of yore, had gained planning permission — moreover, planning permission with very little in the way of conditions.

Righting these wrongs involves one commodity: money, and shedloads of it. That is precisely the commodity of which local government is chronically lacking.

So I am acutely aware of the griefs felt by all, residents and officialdom, at Moor Street, Brierly Hill:

rubbish

Six years of to-and-fro-ing, and one of the sites’s owners, Robert McNaughton, ordered six months in the chokey: only by awarding planning permission for 90-odd flats has the thing come closer to reconciliation.

McNaughton, by the way, didn’t offend Mr Justice MacDuff by causing a gross public nuisance. His succession of wilful delays and obstructions finally were deemed contempt of court. Not quite on the level of doing Al Capone for tax evasion, but still a nice try. As McNaughton and his moll remain beneficial owners of the site, they may yet clean up.

Anything the West Midlands can do, South Yorkshire can do bigger and more noxious. It’s at Great Heck, near Selby:

Great_Heck

This one burns, stinks, pollutes and probably can be viewed from low orbit.

Again we find an uncooperative owner, who conveniently went bust last summer.

What is different here is the lack of a substantial local authority, properly resourced. Briefly Hill is in Dudley Metropolitan Borough: Great Heck is in Selby District. The population and revenue base vary by a factor of eight or ten. The Great Heack site is sandwiched between concrete plants, a motorway, and a railway line — industrial land less desirable for profitable development.

This time the financial burden has to fall on the Environment Agency, which means the general taxpayer (or more specifically by a virement from other essential schemes).

Capitalism is a dirty business. 

Oh, and by the way, that anecdotage which started this post has another sting in the tail.

Government and hope-builders cast eyes on the Thames-side marshes. The 1974 Tower Bridge to Tilbury survey for the GLC might merit being dug out of the archives. It mentions how the marshes have been used for all sorts of tipping. Not excluding low-level radio-active waste.

 

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