Daniel Defoe left his mark on the world in two ways. Among many novels mostly forgotten with the exception of ‘Moll Flanders’, and an entire recycling plant of political pamphlets largely forgotten, he wrote the much filmed novel Robinson Crusoe. More’s the pity for Scotland, he laid the architecture of Unionist reasoning still exploited to this day.
One strand of Defoe’s thinking chimes with England’s current feverish search for cricket and warm beer purity. Defoe considered Englishness – heterogeneity – eradicated. This is a good place to start before analysing his influence on current politics.
In ‘General History’, a book in which Defoe expounds his theory that a union will see Scotland ‘regulated according to plan’, he compares Scottish hegemony with England’s.
“Tis true, England is more mixed in blood. The reason for this is plain, in that being a nation powerful in wealth, fruitful in soil, and above all, increasing in commerce, more nations have sought to settle among them, more people have flowed in upon them, from all parts of the world, blending their blood with the most ancient families, and have destroyed all that can be called National….” (‘General History’ p2)
A regular riposte from British Unionists today in arguments over immigration is the one about Scotland not suffering as England has and does from “uncontrolled immigration”. (No matter where they settle, colonial English tend not to see themselves as incomers.)
In the same treatise Defoe points out how Scots have somehow managed to preserve their ancient families. Paradoxically he goes on to argue both Scotland and England infiltrated by foreigners ‘by virtue of frequent invasions made upon them’.
This gives Defoe the excuse to suggest Scotland and England are better as one nation, Britain. Think about that; what Defoe is saying is what is said now, Scotland is safer from attack only if part of Britain. He says nothing of attack from England, a reality threatened if Scotland did not come to the negotiation table, or as in modern times, squanders its taxes on illegal wars.
In contradiction, Defoe is right there with the face both ways simultaneously, Unionist mind-set of contemporary British power.
Defoe the non-rebel rebel
Daniel Defoe (1659-1731) was born Foe, adding the ‘De’ to imply he had posh foreign ancestors, another contradiction in his quest for an English Britain.
Born in London, son of a butcher, his family were strict Puritans. Rebellion against a claustrophobic home life might be one reason he took a dislike to religions of the day except Presbyterianism, a rejection that in turn led to politics. He was certainly argumentative. His writing is not known for its humour but well skilled in contrariness.
He was a trader of tobacco, ale and wine – after the Act of Union, shipping them to Scotland, and was in and out of debtors courts so much that in time he turned to writing novels as a secondary income.
He was sharp, smart, his style acerbic and polemical. It was just as well that he had talent for the pen because having eight children by his only wife couldn’t have helped his finances. He was driven to become wealthy, a sure reason in times of penury he happily took the English gold sovereign to be their spy.
Defoe the racist
Defoe was a racist, nothing odd in his day, or now in the English psyche, considering the endless wars England with Dutch, Spanish and French. He especially disliked the French.
Troubled by the pro-French, Jacobite ethos that persisted north of the border, he gravitated to Scotland where his fellow Presbyterians were members of an established kirk. He set up shop as a trader. No sooner ensconced in Edinburgh, he began to write leaflets against Roman Catholics and Jacobites in particular. In time he came to feel that union would not just help Scotland economically, but would be good for Protestant England facing threats from the continent.
Defoe the Union spy
When Defoe went to Edinburgh in 1706, it was as a secret agent working for the Crown. Given the unpopularity of the proposed Union in Scotland, this was a risky move and an even riskier commission.
A contemporary reported Defoe was “a Spy amongst us, but not known to be such, otherways the Mob of Edinburgh had pulled him to pieces“. (Farage, please be advised.)
Defoe denied in print that he was a spy, but in private company he dropped his concealment and boasted of it. Showing off was typical of the man. There’s no doubting Defoe revelled in his role as spy. And why not? as Arnold Brown would say. A salaried spy gave Defoe status, a degree of executive authority, superiors listened to him, and he got well remunerated.
Defoe the chameleon
Defoe told his spymaster, the government minister Robert Harley, that he spoke to everybody “in their own way”, chameleon fashion.
He managed to appear the inquisitive journalist to lords, an expert in law to lawyers, the informed businessman to businessmen, and the honest broker to traders. he was adept at learning their jargon and using it to prize information from them. If speaking to an independence sympathiser he became one; if talking to a ditherer unsure of keeping Scotland separate from England’s rule he expressed similar doubts to theirs. He teased people towards a union.
A one-man publishing house
Defoe churned out hundreds of pages of pro-union propaganda, arguments familiar to students of modern Scottish history. They ranged from England being Scotland’s biggest trader, England being Scotland’s gateway to world trade – no need of another Darien-type adventure, and Scots should not be foreigners in Britain. (Yes, that old chestnut.)
Until then, Scotland had been a wealthier country per capita than England but Defoe helped promote the ‘too wee, too poor’ mantra that we hear to this day.
Behind the scenes he ghost-wrote speeches for the slow-witted and the inarticulate. That way he ensured conformity of opinion. He testified to a parliamentary committee, and made himself so indispensable that (as he later boasted) his proposals on taxing beer “stand in the Treaty of Union in my very words.” Defoe was a wizard with wily words.
A wizard with words
Just as Union propagandists today burnish their lies by omitting salient facts to spread doubt or spurious ‘alternative choices’, so did Defoe.
Take the moment in 1706 when protestors frustrated by their impotence to hold fast to their own country’s future attacked the Edinburgh home of Sir Patrick Johnston, one of the treaty negotiators. This is Crusoe’s description of the event:
“His Lady, in the utmost Despair with this Fright, comes to the Window, with two Candles in her Hand, that she might be known; and cryed out, for Gods Sake, to call the Guards: One Captain Richardson who Commanded, taking about thirty Men with him March’d bravely up to them; and making his way with great Resolution thro’ the Croud, they Flying, but Throwing Stones, and Hallowing at him, and his Men, he seized the Foot of the Stair Case; and then boldly went up, clear’d the Stair, and took six of the Rabble in the very Act; and so delivered the Gentleman and his Family.”
A straight talking man
Read the paragraph carefully and you see the dishonest journalist setting the precedent for today’s press hacks. Defoe was not there to witness the event but he makes it seem that he was. By adding small significant detail, Defoe implies he saw the attack happen: two candles in the lady’s hands, an approximation of “about thirty men”, and “six of the rabble in the very act”. Later in his report Defoe goes further by adding one of the crowd threw a stone at him for watching the fracas.
Defoe charges the rabble were all Jacobites. How did he know? Like an absent BBC Scotland head of news announcing independence supporters and Unionist supporters clashed in George Square, Defoe embellishes and in so doing purveys a lie. The event did happen, just not as he describes it.
We are subjected to those sly omissions and exaggerations daily by Unionist journalists and the thick end of councillors in their rush to kill democracy. A Daily Record headline to that story would be “SNP Mob Stone Journo”.
His propaganda literature is designed to convince a weak Scotland is under attack, and union is the only way to peace and stability. Pamphlet after pamphlet is written in this manner – the author at the centre of events, the expert warning of doom. No wonder he took to writing fiction novels late in life.
Defoe’s arch opponent
Defoe had on eloquent opponent. Indeed, people repeated key parts of his speech for years into the future, a speech made in 1706 to the Scottish Parliament supporting a free Scotland – John Hamilton Lord Belhaven and Stenton, a fiery advocate of Scotland’s sovereignty. His oration to the Parliament in Edinburgh became legendary.
The speech is too long for my purpose here, so I limit it to three excerpts.
“I see a free and independent Kingdom delivering up that, which all the World hath been fighting for since the Days of Nimrod; ….. a Power to manage their own Affairs by themselves, without the Assistance and Counsel of any other.
I speak this, my Lord, that I may encourage every individual Member of this House, to speak their Mind freely. There are many wise and prudent Men amongst us, who think it not worth their while to open their Mouths; there are others, who can speak very well, and to good Purpose, who shelter themselves under the shameful Cloak of Silence, from a Fear of the Frowns of great Men and Parties. To say, you’ll agree to the Union of the two Kingdoms, before you agree in the Terms upon which they are to be united, seems like driving the Plough before the Oxen. The delivering up of our Sovereignty, gives back with one Hand, what we receive with the other. There can be no Security without the Guarantee of a distinct Independency betwixt the Parties.
Good God! Is this an entire Surrender! My Lord, I find my Heart so full of Grief and Indignation, that I must beg Pardon not to finish the last Part of my Discourse, that I may drop a Tear, as the Prelude to so sad a Story.”
Ducking and diving Defoe
Defoe was too clever to scorn Belhaven. He didn’t ask smugly, “Do you have a Plan B?”
Just as Nicola Sturgeon’s speeches are admired, Belhaven’s was immensely popular. Street smart Defoe showed gracious respect for Belhaven’s statesmanship while planning to weaken it step by step, like a star fish cracking open a whelk to suck out the innards.
It took him almost a year to create an alternative opinion that opined, far from a powerful cri de cœur on behalf of sovereignty of the Scots, Belhaven resorted to a romantic, clans and broadsword, ancestral infused argument, a backward vision wholly unsuited to the new, thrusting age that a union promised.
Defoe wanted a union united in speaking English and reading English. And he knew enough to state that ethos should be consistent and for all time. Reading his pamphlets one gets a whiff of the arrogant Englishman telling Scots how to live better.
The intellectual tension between Defoe and Belhaven continued until Belhaven’s death in 1708. Belhaven was certain, as were other of his mind, that a colonial doctrine spelled the end of Scotland. Moreover, he also argued it would eliminate ‘England’ as a distinct nation – and in many respects he was correct.
The saddest nation
Had there been one person, one vote, union with England would never have seen the light of day. The mass of the populace were violently, passionately opposed to it. Petitions mounted in their hundreds. Looking objectively, petitions were irrelevant, power was in the hands of the few… just as it is to this day.
Defoe was the forerunner of the conformist opinionated pundit. His malicious influence continues to stalk the independence debate. With the removal of Scotland’s regiments, English votes for English laws, forced withdrawal from Europe, endless imposed austerity, there is no union left but you’d never believe that to listen to Unionist politicians. Defoe would be proud of them.
Sadly for Defoe, the future of the Britain is just as ambiguous now as it was when presented as a ‘union of equals’ by Defoe and his confederacy of lies.