The Jacobites: A lost cause kept alive in slogans of today

Not just books, by Roger Hutchinson

Following the Scottish independence referendum of 2014 the country was awash with badges, pin-buttons and car stickers which announced “We Are the ’45”, or more succinctly, “The ’45”.

Few Scots needed an interpreter.

The reference was easy. Fifty-five-point-three percent of those who offered a preference voted No to Scottish independence in 2014.

Forty-four-point-seven percent voted Yes.

The classic depiction of the Battle at Culloden

Round up that 44.7 percent and you have the number 45. The implications of the number 45 are as hardwired into the Scottish national psyche as the Iliad or the Odyssey is in that of Greece.

In our case it is the abbreviation of a date, the year 1745, when the last and most substantial Jacobite Rising kicked off in the north-west of Scotland.

North of the River Tweed the Forty-five needs no more explanation than a wooden horse inside the gates of Troy.

Those three syllables and one little number represent to many Scots just about all they need to know of their country’s history.

The number 45 has come to be a slogan for Scottish independence

It is of course the numerical symbol of Jacobitism; of the long campaign to restore King James II and VII and his Stuart dynasty to the throne of the United Kingdom.

It is difficult to think of another lost cause which has been quite so lauded in print, film, paint and song.

Every generation seems to need its Forty-five, and every generation has had its Forty-five.

They have varied wildly.

There can have been few more committed Scottish unionists than the novelist Sir Walter Scott. But Scott managed, by extraordinary sleight of hand, to reconcile unionism and Jacobitism in one imagined Scotland which could somehow accommodate the two.

Walter Scott could have it both ways because he concentrated on a dual romanticism.

Most such national mythologies are romantic at heart. Scott invested romance into both the Forty-five and its opposition.

The former, with its dashing young prince in the Highland heather, was not difficult and sustained Jacobitism for centuries.

The latter, with little more to work with than Hanoverian clay, was trickier.

It is a tribute to Scott’s brilliance that he pulled it off.

In fact, for an essentially just cause, it is remarkable that Jacobitism attracted so little popular support between the 17th and 20th centuries.

The first thing to understand is that the Jacobites were right. All the rest is politicking.

If you believe in hereditary monarchy, or hereditary anything, the Jacobites had an irrefutable claim to the throne in London.

They were robbed of their God-given dues by an establishment, a government, a parliament and a state apparatus which no longer believed in the divine right of monarchs and which no longer trusted the House of Stuart to preside over a parliamentary democracy.

Most of us in the 21st century can sympathise with that sedition. Most people in the 17th century did not, which should have given the early Jacobites a large portion of public support and moral high ground, had they known how to occupy it.

As Desmond Seward writes in this year’s Jacobite book, ‘The King Over the Water’, it was impossible to regain the crown of the United Kingdom without support from the majority in England.

And apart from such recusant enclaves as Lancashire, England was not Jacobite.

England was emphatically not Jacobite.

When Charlies Edward Stuart raised his banner in 1745 it is likely that the hearts of fewer than four per cent of English families thrilled to the news.

You cannot win a revolution with four per cent of the population behind you.

As the 18th century turned into the 19th century and most Scots joined merrily with their southern neighbours in the great games of empire-building and industrial and economic expansion, the term Forty-five grew increasingly irrelevant.

It did not even have to be reconciled with the status quo: Jacobitism was increasingly seen as a slightly embarrassing hangover from the bad old past.

“The accepted idea of the Forty-Five in the minds of most people is a hazy and picturesque combination of a picnic and a crusade…” wrote the Scottish historical novelist Winifred Duke a century after Walter Scott.

“In cold reality, Charles was unwanted and unwelcomed.”

Duke was not alone in her analysis.

How have we gone from there to here? How from unwanted and unwelcomed to “We are the ’45”?

It can only be because whatever its other qualities, Jacobitism has displayed that most awkward of political tricks: it has achieved longevity.

A series of campaigns inspired merely to reinstate a political dynasty in the era of absolute monarchies has somehow managed to recover relevance in the era of democratic identity politics.

Very few members of the current Scottish National Party will share policies with the deposed King James II and VII.

They have however, no difficulty in sharing his slogans.

‘The King Over the Water, A Complete History of the Jacobites’, by Desmond Seward, Birlinn, £25.00