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Wilkes and liberty

George III was the first Hanoverian to be bom in Britain. Unlike his father and grandfather he had no interest in Hanover. He wanted to take a more active part in governing Britain, and in particular he wished to be free to choose his own ministers. As long as he worked with the small number of aristocrats from which the king's ministers were chosen, and who controlled Parliament, it did not seem as if he would have much difficulty.

Parliament still represented only a very small number of people. In the eighteenth century only house owners with a certain income had the right to vote. This was based on ownership of land worth forty shillings a year in the counties, but the amount varied from town to town. As a result, while the mid-century population of Britain was almost eight million, there were fewer than 250,000 voters, 160,000 of them in the counties and 85,000 in the towns or "boroughs". Only 55 of the 200 boroughs had more than 500 voters. The others were controlled by a small number of very rich property owners, sometimes acting together as a "borough corporation". Each county and each borough sent two representatives to Parliament.

This meant that bargains could be made between the two most powerful groups of people in each "constituency", allowing the chosen representative of each group to be returned to Parliament.

It was not difficult for rich and powerful people either in the boroughs or in the counties to make sure that the man they wanted was elected to Parliament. In the countryside, most ordinary landowners also held land as tenants from the greater landowners. At that time voting was not done in secret, and no tenant would vote against the wishes of his landlord in case he lost his land. Other voters were frightened into voting for the "right man", or persuaded by a gift of money. In this way the great landowning aristocrats were able to control those who sat in Parliament, and make sure that MPs did what they wanted. Politics was a matter only for a small number of the gentry who had close connections with this political aristocracy. No one could describe Parliament in those days as democratic.

However, there was one MP, John Wilkes, who saw things differently. Wilkes was a Whig, and did not like the new government of George III. Unlike almost every other MP, Wilkes also believed that politics should be open to free discussion by everyone. Free speech, he believed, was the basic right of every individual. When George III made peace with France in 1763 without telling his ally Frederick of Prussia, Wilkes printed a strong attack on the government in his own newspaper, The North Briton. The king and his ministers were extremely angry. They were unwilling to accept free speech of this kind. Wilkes was arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London and all his private papers were taken from his home.

Wilkes fought back when he was tried in court. The government claimed it had arrested Wilkes "of state necessity". The judge turned down this argument with the famous judgement that "public policy is not an argument in a court of law". Wilkes won his case and was released. His victory established principles of the greatest importance: that the freedom of the individual is more important than the interests of the state, and that no one could be arrested without a proper reason. Government was not free to arrest whom it chose. Government, too, was under the law. Wilkes's victory angered the king, but made Wilkes the most popular man in London.

The ruling class was not used to considering the opinions of ordinary people. Between 1750 and 1770 the number of newspapers had increased. These were read by the enormous number of literate people who could never hope to vote, but who were interested in the important matters of the times. They were mainly clerks, skilled workers and tradesmen. Improved roads meant that a newspaper printed in .London could be reprinted in Liverpool two days later.

Newspapers in their turn increased the amount of political discussion. Even working people read the papers and discussed politics and the royal family, as foreign visitors noticed. "Conversation" clubs met in different towns to discuss questions like "Under what conditions is a man most free?", or whether secret voting was necessary for political freedom. The fact that ordinary people 'who had no part to play in politics asked and discussed such questions explains why John Wilkes was so popular. His struggle showed that public opinion was now a new and powerful influence on politics.

Wilkes's victory was important because he had shown that Parliament did not represent the ordinary people, and that their individual freedom
was not assured. As a result of his victory people began to organise political activity outside Parliament in order to win their basic rights. Politics were no longer a monopoly of the

landowning gentry. Newspapers were allowed to send their own reporters to listen to Parliament and write about its discussions in the newspapers. The age of public opinion had arrived.



Date: 2015-01-02; view: 745

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