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Which Heads Will Roll, Now the Fight for Independence Is Over?

22/09/2014 11:12 BST | Updated 19/11/2014 10:59 GMT

By Charles Spencer, author of Killers of the King.

Civil wars are costly affairs: the American one of the 1860s and the British one that erupted 220 years earlier remain the two bloodiest conflicts either nation has ever suffered, with a combined casualty rate of nearly a million men.

The independence debate in Scotland - although without pike or bayonet having been drawn - has similarly cast fellow countrymen against each other in a bitter and narrowly fought contest, in which a very large proportion of the utterly sincere participants will end up on the side of the defeated. This will leave their leaders especially vulnerable.

For history dictates that the only way for Scotland to move forward from this low place of bitterness will be through the sacrifice of scapegoats. In England in January 1649, earnest Parliamentarians settled on King Charles I as the man who must die, if the nation could find peace once more after its vicious struggles. They called him a "man of blood" - in reference to a vengeful verse in the Old Testament's Book of Numbers - and fancifully laid all the loss of life of the previous decade at his feet. Charles's refusal to bow to the court would not save him: the serried ranks of commissioners called to judge him rose unanimously to approve his sentence of death. Days later he laid his head on a six-inch high block in Whitehall, and was beheaded by a masked executioner with a single axe-blow.

A dozen years later the regicides - the killers of the king - were themselves vulnerable to the charge of high treason: almost out of nowhere, having lived for years as an impoverished and desperate exile in Europe, Charles II had been restored to the English crown. Though he had to promise not to avenge himself of the 50% of the nation that had defeated his father in warfare, he successfully sought the punishment of the 80 men intimately involved in his father's death - even the dead were exhumed for posthumous retribution. The survivors reacted in a variety of ways - some stoically awaiting their arrest, happy to stand proudly for the cause they still held dearer than their lives; while others lied in the hope of being excused their crime. The remainder fled - to Switzerland, Germany and the Netherlands, and to the American colonies. For the remainder of their lives, they were the prey of Royalist assassins and kidnappers.

Those caught and condemned suffered terribly, through the barbarism of hanging, drawing and quartering. Among their judges sat former comrades in arms, who had fought with them against the late king. These turncoats were able to find power and reconciliation with the crown by pointing with horror at the killers of the king: these, they claimed with feigned horror, were surely the true villains of the piece! Their own rebellion surely paled into insignificance by comparison.

It seems improbable that the Scots can recapture their everyday equilibrium after the recent severe bruising, without quickly finding useful scapegoats. These are likely to be the highest flyers on the losing side: that is the habitat in which scapegoats graze. As Malcolm Laing, historian of Scotland, wrote 200 years ago: "The fury of civil wars, when the battle has ceased, is almost invariably reserved for the scaffold". The coming weeks will see which defeated leaders follow this well-trod path to oblivion.

Charles Spencer is the author of Prince Rupert and The Spencer Family, published by Endeavour Press.