For a historian, the figure of Oliver Cromwell lingers about this Scottish Referendum debate like someone standing just beyond the light of a campfire. Someone that we know is there, but don’t mention. Cromwell’s Protectorate made the first legislative Union of the two countries, the Tender of Union of 12th April 1654, stating that ‘the people of Scotland should be united with the people of England in one Commonwealth under one Government’. This Union was dissolved on his Restoration in 1660 by King Charles II.
Arguably, Cromwell’s Union has no real relevance in the current debate; the 1707 Union was devised in a very different sprit, and it was proposed by Scotland rather than England, to the lasting benefit of both countries. But Cromwell was the first person to make Great Britain, rather than England, a power on the world stage – ‘however great Oliver was at home he was greater still abroad – and the Union may have been a crucial element in this. All the more argument for unity now.
The other thing that made me think of Cromwell this weekend was the tone of the debate on the pro-Union side. I was grinding my jaw in frustration listening to the supporters of the Union meeting impassioned argument with facts and forecasts. I was reminded of the episode described here by Tristram Hunt MP when William Beveridge was compiling his famous report that led to the establishment of the Welfare State:
Over the fearful spring of 1942, as the German Luftwaffe sought to bomb the allies into surrender, William Beveridge worked away on the report set to transform postwar Britain. By nature, Beveridge was a rather dry civil servant and his draft for a new welfare state looked set to be equally austere. Until, that is, his future wife Jessy Mair got hold of it. She urged him to put aside the bureaucratic language and instead insert some “Cromwellian spirit” into the prose. And so the Beveridge report became one of the most inspiring publications of the 20th century, with its call to slay the “Five Giant Evils” of Squalor, Ignorance, Want, Idleness and Disease, and to build a new Jerusalem of social justice
Tristram Hunt is in fact a leading speaker for the Union at the moment. And as if by magic, this week, supporters of Better Together have at last begun to speak in the sort of heartfelt language that such a visceral debate demands. The Prime Minister has addressed a crowd with tears in his eyes, and Mr Darling on the Today programme gave us unshackled language that is – for a former Chancellor of the Exchequer – the equivalent of hammering the rail of a pulpit with his fist: ‘I am proud of being Scottish and British and I don’t want to give up either. Look at what we’ve achieved together over the last 300 years. Unity is strength.’
This is sidetracking me a bit. Two readers have very kindly sent me this. It’s a very interesting article from the Daily Telegraph about the portrait of the Republican Sir Arthur Haselrig (1601 – 1661), painted c.1655.
Conservation at the National Portrait Gallery has revealed that Haselrig’s portrait, a standard exercise by Robert Walker’s studio,
was actually painted over a version of Walker’s 1649 portrait of Oliver Cromwell
We do not know exactly why this happened. The NPG suggests that either a canvas was reused in the studio to save money, or – quite probably – Haselrig had his portrait painted over a Cromwell portrait that he already owned. Like Cromwell, Haselrig was one of the leaders of the Parliamentarians. He was one of the Five Members that King Charles I wanted to arrest in January 1642, and an ally of Cromwell, but the two men had fallen out by 1654. Haselrig was a staunch Republican and opposed to the single rule of any man, King or Cromwell, whereas Oliver – who would eventually be styled His Highness the Lord Protector – recognised that ‘the Government should have something monarchical in it.’
Walker and his studio never evolved a distinct portraiture for his Roundhead sitters. Ironically, the pose of Haselrig’s portrait is taken directly from Sir Anthony van Dyck’s 1640 portrait of Sir Edmund Verney (1595 – 1642) King Charles’s standard-bearer at the Battle of Edgehill in October 1642, where all three men fought. Verney was politically opposed to the King but personally loyal, and he was killed there, his hand severed but still clutching the Royal standard.