By Lord Anderson of Ipswich KBE QC
This extract is the Introduction to the Treasurer’s Lecture, Middle Temple Hall, given on 18 March 2019. The rest of the lecture is available to download here:
I am a proud descendant of extremists. Farmers in Galloway during the Killing Time of the 1680s, the brothers Gilbert and John Milroy were from the theocratic strain of that Covenanter tradition, later described by Sir Walter Scott in Old Mortality, which sought both to practise and to impose on others its own austere and uncompromising religious beliefs.
The warlike intolerance of Gilbert and John was equalled, indeed surpassed, by that of the authorities whom they defied. The brothers refused in 1685 to take an oath of allegiance to the King, fled to the hills and after “many remarkable escapes” were run to ground. Their livestock was taken, and their wives were tortured with matches set alight between their fingers. John had his ears cut off and was then hanged, as his gravestone still angrily declares, “without sentence of law”. My ancestor Gilbert, initially spared because he “appeared a dying man”, was on his recovery banished to Jamaica with the status of slave, enduring a voyage of three months in which the prisoners were shackled in sixes, and 32 of them died.
His troubles did not end there. His master almost killed him with a sword when he refused to work on the Lord’s Day. His subsequent promotion to overseer inflamed his African fellow-slaves, who first struck him on the head with a pole, leaving him “a little paralytic”; and then administered poison by which he was saved “only by many timely applications of an antidote”.
But Gilbert’s story ended peacefully, as a beneficiary of the limited tolerance afforded by the Glorious Revolution of 1688. He was pardoned by the new regime, returned home to his wife, and was described in 1710 as “a very useful member of the Session of Kirkcowan”. Any subsequent extremism in the family seems to have been of the non-violent variety: 150 years later, William Milroy of Ohio published a pamphlet in which he promoted conscientious objection in the American Civil War on the basis of a strict construction of the 1648 Solemn Declaration and Covenant
Many of us must have similar stories in the family. Who would not be proud to be descended from a militant suffragette, from a participant in Dublin’s Easter Rising or from a leading light in the banned African National Congress? And who could deny that extremists and enemies of the state, reviled as such during their lives, may subsequently be hailed as mould-breakers and visionaries?
But there are also extremists whom history condemns: and actions or beliefs which challenge the established order, even if they are eventually seen as beneficial, are only rarely welcomed by it at the time. EM Forster put it very well:
“We are willing enough to praise freedom when she is safely tucked away in the past and cannot be a nuisance. In the present, amidst dangers whose outcome we cannot foresee, we get nervous about her, and admit censorship.”
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