Part Representation and the Public

Download 2.07 Mb.
Size2.07 Mb.
1   2   3   4   5

  1. Ideological Conflict and Politicised Religion.

A fourth motor for change was ideological conflict. Again, this was hardly a new force. The early and mid seventeenth century had been wracked by contested notions of religious and political authority. But continuity in the importance of ideological division does not negate its enduring influence as a factor for change; nor was the nature of the conflict quite the same.45 Disputes over the succession (occurring 1659-60, 1679-83, 1685, 1689, and then periodically renewed by fears about the strength of Jacobite plotting, especially in 1692, 1696, 1701-1702, 1708, and in the aftermath of the accession of George I in 1714) focused debates about the extent and legitimacy of royal or popular sovereignty and power. There were real or imagined plots first to create the restoration monarchy in 1660 and subsequently to overthrow or reform it, and then to bring about the revolution of 1688 and to try to restore the Stuarts.46 These plots forced the public to decide to what or to whom they owed loyalty and allegiance. Ideology in these circumstances was not a luxury but a fact of life. At the heart of these disagreements lay polarised views about contract, consent, the right to resist, freedom of conscience and hence also the power and rights of the people. The restoration settlement, especially its religious dimension, was hotly contested. Foreign policy split contemporary opinion about what was the national interest. The impact of war and fiscal change created fierce passions. And contemporaries constantly revisited the ideological origins of the civil war in a search for explanations that could guide them away from similar rocks. This last point is important because it suggests another way in which the later Stuart period was different from the early or mid seventeenth century.

But the nature of ideological conflict had also slightly changed. To put it most provocatively, we sense a shift in the way religion was defined and debated; and a heightened sense of a public (as opposed to the 'godly') that was engaged in, and even judge of, those debates. Such an assertion immediately raises the spectre of 'secularisation'. But as Blair Worden has persuasively argued, even if this term is problematic there are important differences between early and later Stuart approaches to 'religion'.47 Religious dispute did not cease to be important; but was treated in different ways (for which the decline of Calvinism may have played a key part), judged by a lay public as much as an informed clerisy, and explicitly tied to debates about civil governance.48 ‘High church’, a term in use by 1677,49 was as much a political label as a religious one. The toleration enacted in 1689 broke the intrinsic overlap between church and state, and by the early eighteenth-century conscience had lost much of its power as a guide to political judgement, so that state oaths became more routine, political affairs.50 For these reasons I think it viable to talk about the highly politicised debate about church-state relations as ‘politics’, a term that also embraces other forms of power struggle, and to consider it as part of 'political culture'. Claims to freedom of conscience were treated as political claims as much as theological ones, on the grounds that there was an intrinsic link between dissent and political sedition. In turn the established church was accused of exercising, or wanting to exercise, a form of political power, 'priestcraft', over the laity. Controversy over religion was seldom solely about private belief, but also or mainly about public practice and the ideal relationship between civil and religious power. We can therefore call most of the arguments about religion consciously political in some form or other.

This viewpoint challenges a current later-Stuart historiographical trend that stresses the predominance of religious concerns and hence emphasises continuity with the first half of the seventeenth century and/or between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries on religious grounds.51 At its most extreme, such an interpretation calls for historians to turn 'away from so-called political and constitutional history' and to recognise that 'the rise of the middle class, religious toleration, free speech, contractual government and parliamentary supremacy have all been imposed on 1688 retrospectively'.52 'Religion' was what mattered, it is alleged, and it continued to do so before and after 1688. Such views are important in so far as they correct a liberal, secular tradition that sidelined the power and importance of religious belief and practice. To be sure, political views were shaped by religious ones and only by recovering their religious context can we fully understand them; we should see political and religious concerns as entwined. But to neglect the politics of religion, or deny change, would be to neglect what was obvious to most contemporaries, that religion, as opposed to private faith, was a tool in a partisan, political contest. It was said, for example, that Sir Edward Seymour, one of the Tory leaders who lamented the 'danger' the Whigs and Low Churchmen posed to the church, had not been inside one for seven years.53

  1. Partisanship and Parties.

The fifth factor for (and facet of) change was the public partisanship that emerged during the mid-century crisis and became formalised in the later Stuart period as party politics.54 Many of the features of the impact of party, of course, can be seen earlier, whenever adversarial conflict sought to appeal to the people.55 Indeed, it is to be hoped that this study has relevance for anyone interested in partisanship and polemic across time and space. Yet in the later Stuart period the formalisation, popularisation and politicisation of partisanship were developed to new heights. Party was thus both a reflection of change and a motor for further change. Party has nevertheless become controversial in recent years.56 The coherence and novelty of parties as organised bodies, rather than ideological groupings, has been questioned and the demise of more traditional Court-Country sensibilities and religiously-determined divisions debated. Even so, the use of new labels, Whig and Tory, after 1681 is significant.57 As Terence Ball argues, party was not a term that simply replaced other ways of describing division; it reflected conceptual change and a shift in the nature of division.58 It denoted a move away from expectations of uniformity, that had been current in the early Stuart period and that the Restoration regime attempted to resurrect, towards a situation in which diversity of opinion was seldom embraced but had come to be expected and even accepted. The rise of the idea of the polity as an artificial body into which individuals contracted challenged traditional rationales for the construction of authority and created a debate about how to represent the collective people or public. Whereas faction represented the interest of an individual or sectional group, party claimed to represent the public and the public good. The achievement of scholars such as Holmes, Speck, Horwitz and others has been to show that later Stuart politics was not Namierite in character, but that party allegiance was ideologically-driven, increasingly well organised along bipartisan lines and went beyond local loyalties, personal connections and social deference. This was a new version of the political game. Certainly by Anne's reign, but often from the 1670s onwards, contemporaries were well aware of what they themselves called the 'rage' of party. A caveat is necessary, however. Although Whig and Tory provided the basic structure of politics, contemporaries also displayed a Court-Country mentality that could at times (most notably 1697-9, in the wake of the pause in warfare) temporarily disturb party lines.59 Moreover, as we shall see, High Church and Low Church were also employed as labels (often, however, overlapping with Tory and Whig), and there were also those who rejected, or professed to reject, all parties. However, whether Whig-Tory, Court-Country or Anti-Party predominated, contemporaries still saw the world in polarised terms and commented on the impact that organised ideological communities had on political culture. The focus of this book's discussion is therefore not on the chronology or definition of parties, nor their precise identity at any one point (interesting though these may be), but on the nature and impact of partisanship.

These five key factors, all in some sense concerned with an appeal to the 'public', were often intertwined; and it is the combination rather than the factors individually that might be said to have been most innovating. The elections of 1710, 1713 and 1715, for example, were partisan contests fought over the problems created by divergent ideologies and competing notions of war and commerce, producing paper warfare and public debate on a huge scale. It is also important to recognise that none of the factors just outlined relied on central direction for their impetus but were fuelled by local and personal contexts. The dispersed governance of the early modern state ensured that the nature of electioneering and the voterate, the collection of revenue and the economic response to war, the role of print and the nature of party were all locally conditioned and arose out of local circumstances.60

Generalising without regard to differences between urban and rural communities, between English and British communities, or between regions or towns is a foolhardy undertaking. For this reason it must be acknowledged that what follows relates primarily to the experience of English civic communities, and that the book's conclusions may be less applicable to rural areas or even to all English towns at all times.61 This is primarily a study of urban representational politics. Since four-fifths of MPs were elected by borough constituencies, this position is defensible. Indeed, an analysis of London’s political culture alone would be worthwhile, given the capital's growing importance and size, able to draw one in six adults to live there at some point in their lives. But much of the argument put forward in the following pages applies to, and is based on studies of, other urban societies, particularly those with large freemen or inhabitant franchises.62 As the work of Peter Borsay and others indicates, after 1660 English civic life was taking on not only a new material appearance but also a new self-conscious urbanity.63 Indeed, 'cit' and his rural counterpart 'bumpkin', were stock representations that were increasingly used in polemic.64

One important dimension of this caricaturing was the difference in the potential to acquire knowledge. John Locke argued that knowledge was deeper in urban societies where reason could be polished by conversation and debate, so that, he said, a city cobbler's understanding surpassed that of a mechanic in the country and this in turn surpassed that of a day-labourer in a country village. Indeed, he claimed, 'an ordinary coffee-house gleaner of the city' was 'an arrant statesman' compared to the country gentleman.65 This knowledge gap in rural areas may help explain why some studies of county electorates have seen popular deference rather than ideological commitment.66 This study will be concerned with exploring how such political knowledge could be gained but also how political truths could be discerned. Voters and readers were faced with hard choices. Consequently the problem of political judgement will loom large.67

Some of the features analysed in this book, particularly those to do with the press and the nature of polemic, can be found in other European countries, but a comparative framework also highlights the precocity of public debate in England and the unique combination of factors that contributed to its partisan political culture.68 Of the Europeans the Dutch were the most similar. The United Provinces saw a high degree of participation in representative politics and restrictions on the press had never been strong.69 The Dutch also had a developed financial system and religious toleration. Yet because of its highly devolved and oligarchical representative system, the country had nothing like national parties or general elections to maintain partisan feuding or develop a national 'public'. France, too, lacked the institutional framework for such a participatory politics, and had much lower literacy levels. Although its press could still reflect vigorous debate at moments of crisis, its public sphere was stunted throughout the seventeenth century.70 Outside Europe, colonial America closely followed English political life, adopting metropolitan political labels and slogans, and emulating English provinces by participating in the addressing campaigns explored in chapter 3. But neither its press nor financial system was as developed as in London and its much smaller urban populations made for a rather different context.71 Yet if England was first to experience the rise of public and nationally-contested, partisan, representative politics, few countries during the eighteenth century escaped the increasing pressures of public opinion and passionate polemic. And in that sense, this study should offer useful points of comparison across time as well as space.
B. An Evolving Political culture.
To summarise the changes that will be outlined more fully in the following pages:

  1. England (and then, after 1707, Britain) moved from a nation in which elections and parliamentary sessions had been held irregularly to one in which both were regular and frequent. Alongside this, the electorate expanded so that a higher percentage of adult males could vote than at any time before the second reform act of 1867.

  2. The later Stuart period witnessed the development of a national political culture in which allegiance to national political identities (Whig, Tory, High Church, Low Church) was routine. Thus one of the key features of this nationally applicable and nationally understood political structure and language was the emergence of political parties.

  3. The parties were groupings of allegiances that were based on shared ideologies but also increasingly on techniques developed over the course of the seventeenth century and refined in the later Stuart period, such as signing petitions and addresses; electioneering; political oath-taking; partisan polemic; and linking reward to party loyalty. Under such conditions, the notion of unity through uniformity became problematic and unsustainable.

  4. The press, freed at moments in the seventeenth century from pre-publication censorship, was permanently unshackled in 1695. Regulated by the market rather than the state (except in cases of libel or sedition), print was regarded as its own best censor. Moreover, 1695 also allowed for the emergence of a provincial periodical press and hence further to integrate a national political culture at the local level.

  5. All these developments invigorated a role for the public. The appeal to popularity was not new; but the public as a collective fiction that was both frequently appealed to as an umpire of politics and as a legitimating force was a phenomena that grew to new proportions. Moreover, the culture of plots and elections that dominated the later Stuart period repeatedly invited the public to participate by exercising its judgement.

  6. That public found new importance structurally within the state because of the factors outlined above and because for the first time a national debt was funded by the public and based on public credit.

  7. The public was also restricted and at times excluded by new political languages or shifts in existing ones. There was a reassertion of the language of consent, a new stress on popular sovereignty and an attack on 'priestcraft'. Perhaps the most striking shift was the increasingly frequent appeal to a language of politeness and reason.

  8. Such a language was in part a response to growing fears about the uses to which language was being put. To be sure, anxiety about words permeated much of the early modern period, but this was sharpened in the later Stuart period because partisans a) necessarily offered rival, opposing interpretations b) sought to use all means possible to persuade the public that they had a monopoly of truth and reason c) had new means and opportunities (for reasons enumerated above) to effect their perceived designs and d) the consequences of being misled by words were now so much the greater, because Britain was at war with France and because public credit necessary to fight that war rested on notions of credibility.

  9. Because of such fears and anxieties, the conspiratorial mindset and hostility to particular interests that characterised the early modern period was carried over into the eighteenth century, albeit shaped less by traditional 'anti-popery' or anti-factionalism and more by suspicions of 'interest', whether of self, party, crown, money or even state. Party was a vehicle that could carry anxieties previously manifest predominantly in the religious sphere into the political.

  10. Party was nevertheless also a creative force that impacted on literary culture and wherever truth-claims were made, fostering a sense of ambiguity, relativity, dissimulation and fiction.

The key aims of this book are thus to relate public discourse to the practice of politics, and to explore the concept of representation at a crucial time in its development. Two recurrent questions are: why and in what ways did Britain become a more representational society in the later Stuart period? And what were the characteristics of a national political culture based on publicly contested, partisan politics?
B. The Problem of Representation.
Conceptually, the study of representation and party politics might appear 'old hat', part of an agenda irrelevant to modern historiographical questions. It might be dismissed as a branch of 'political history' or ‘high politics’ of the type defended (albeit in needlessly aggressively and in limiting ways) by Geoffrey Elton.72 Yet this book is conceived as a study of later Stuart political culture, by which I mean the intersection between politics, society, ideas and modes of communication.73 Broadening our definition of the political in this way opens new lines of inquiry that blur the boundaries between cognate studies in political science, political thought, social history and literary studies;74 and doing so provides new reasons for returning to the passions aroused by party politics. An expanded sense of the political requires us to draw on different approaches, for, as Kevin Sharpe puts it, 'history as the study of representations collapses the boundaries traditionally placed between rhetoric and truth, play and politics: it makes all accounts of the past a cultural history'.75 As applied to the later Stuart period, this creates a very large agenda, but one that helps link it across time and across disciplines and sub-disciplines.

The book focuses on several overlapping types of representation. The two most important are the formal representation of elections contested by partisans, and the informal representation of words produced by partisans to persuade the public of their viewpoint. The underbelly of both was misrepresentation: a corrupt parliament or MPs who did not genuinely reflect the will of the people, and words that misled or lied.76 Words had political import. A vote was even called a 'voice'. An election, the site of much public discourse, was the voice of the nation.

The links between a formal and informal sense of representation can be seen in a printed tract advising the electorate about the choices before them in 1702. Objecting to the dissemination to electors of printed lists of MPs' voting behaviour, writer and physician James Drake complained that Tories were liable to be 'branded’ with unjust labels, ‘scandalous stories, libels and pernicious lying accusations'. Publicly contested politics thus, he claimed, stimulated discourse that was designed to mislead rather than inform. Such arts, Drake feared, were all too easily successful and 'prevail'd upon the simplicity of the well-meaning people'. Drake thus wrote 'to undeceive' them. In this world of political dissimulation, he alleged, 'lying and defamation' had become standard tools for his enemies, the Whigs:

by virtue of this single quality has their faction been propagated… By these arts have great numbers of our bravest gentlemen and the nation's best friends been aspers'd, and render'd unpopular in most parts of England, and many thousands of simple credulous people banter'd almost out of their faith and principles. When therefore any of the electors hear these men lay about them with the tremendous noise of Popery and French gold, those Bug-bear words, which fright the poor silly vulgar out of their senses: they may prepare themselves to hear some egregious lie.

Party politics thus relied on the manipulation of key terms and phrases, 'bug-bear words', to 'seduce numbers of people' to vote the way the partisans and polemicists desired.77 Political representation was thus about the way in which choices and candidates could be represented, or represent themselves, to the public. And political parties themselves offered a new form of representational activity. The public and the press assumed a new importance but in doing so created uncertainties about public discourse.

Download 2.07 Mb.

Share with your friends:
1   2   3   4   5

The database is protected by copyright © 2020
send message

    Main page