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“Wilkes And Liberty”

(September 1930)

First Published: R.G. (Reg. Groves), “Wilkes and Liberty”, Book Reviews, Labour Monthly, September 1930, pp.509-511.
Editing, proofing & HTML markup: Ted Crawford and D. Walters in 2009 for the Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line.
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Life of John Wilkes
By O.A. Sherrard
Allen & Unwin, 319 pp., 10s. 6d.

That Devil Wilkes
By R.W. Postgate
Constable, 288 pp., 14s.

There is a revival of interest in John Wilkes; two biographies come out simultaneously and are widely reviewed; the City of London renovates the Wilkes Memorial in Ludgate Circus; many must be asking “Who was John Wilkes?”

Wilkes, the son of a wealthy distiller, was born in 1727. He entered Parliament in 1757; there he allied himself with the group, led by Pitt, which represented trading and commercial interests. The eighteenth-century Parliament – with its “rotten boroughs,” corrupt electioneering methods and general bribery and place-seeking – formed a barrier against the efforts of the trading and commercial interests to obtain a larger share in the government of the country; behind this corrupt assembly the King and the aristocracy wielded power.

Wilkes’s fight for the right of his class to “share the spoils” began in earnest with the issuing of the North Briton in 1762. Wilkes was imprisoned for “Number 45” of that journal, his imprisonment causing great excitement. He was expelled from the House of Commons in 1764. Elected for Middlesex – which had a comparatively democratic electorate – he was four times refused his seat.

Not until 1775 was he allowed to take his seat; then – as the faithful representative of his class – he supported America in the War of Independence, and he also brought forward motions in favour of electoral reform.

Later in life he made his peace with the King and many of his former enemies. In 1780, as a magistrate of the City of London, he played an active part in the repression of the Gordon Riots, leading the imprisoning and shooting down of men and women who had supported him throughout his own struggles; for this he received the thanks of the Privy Council. Later he retired from Parliament, and he died in 1797. Postgate says: –

They engraved upon the plate of his coffin the epitaph and verdict he had chosen for himself: “The remains of John Wilkes, a Friend to Liberty!”

It is but a few years ago that Postgate wrote of Wilkes as “adventurer, libeller and adulterer ... a wit and parasite by nature; he had no fixed principles nor any fixed interests, bar seduction and indecent publications. Nature and his own choice intended him for a disreputable hanger-on of the Court, but the Court made the mistake of refusing his services and he turned in vexation to the task of making himself a nuisance.”

But this new book announces a change of front for Postgate writes:–

The writer of it began it in the usual belief that Wilkes was an amusing but entirely dishonest man. After more than three years of study he has been forced to change his opinions and believe that Wilkes was politically an honest man.

The change of opinion is not in itself important; fuller examination, new facts, more careful consideration must often reverse previous judgments. But the striking feature of these quotations is that the author’s differing estimates of Wilkes’s actions, opinions and place in history are based upon his estimate of Wilkes’s personal character. For Postgate the point at issue is not “Which class did Wilkes represent?” but, “Was he, or was he not, honest?” Prove Wilkes “politically honest” and for Postgate the “disreputable hanger-on of the Court” becomes the “Friend to Liberty.”

“Personal character” is the interest of Wilkes for both these biographers. As with Mr. Postgate, so with Mr. Sherrard who writes:–

Wilkes has been represented as utterly vile ... the following pages are an attempt to see him as he was.

Because neither of the writers have attempted to examine deeply the class struggles of the time and analyse for us the class interests represented by the group to which Wilkes belonged, neither of the books explains very much. Where the problems demand a clear estimate of the social and economic position the authors explain by references to personal character.

We give one example of the inadequacy of this method. The view of Wilkes as “A Friend to Liberty” is widely held, as is also the belief that he was “the first peoples’ member for Parliament”; both biographers encourage this idea. And yet it is manifestly untrue. True, Wilkes fought for his class – merchants, shopkeepers, traders, commercial interests – that class should do him honour; the City of London does care for his monument at this very time! But the idea that he fought for or represented the “people” – meaning the journeyman, the apprentice, the weaver, the cottager – is as completely false as would be the suggestion that Wedgwood Benn fights for, or represents, the proletariat or the peasantry of India. The grievances of the London crowds who rioted with the cry of “Wilkes and Liberty” were economic; they saw, wrongly, in Wilkes their champion; for their mistake they paid dearly. Postgate will surely not argue that because the people supported Wilkes he was therefore their champion. Neither can Postgate deny the contempt which Wilkes had for the “mob.”

Wilkes’s actions in later years show where his interests lay. Although many old “Wilkites” took part in the Gordon Riots – it was the “Wilkite mob” who formed the main body of rioters – Wilkes helped to suppress them, declaring that he “would not leave one rioter alive.” The French Revolution was denounced by Wilkes as the work of “the bloody savages of Paris.”

In the later years Wilkes was received at Court and welcomed by the aristocracy. One little incident of these later years makes his position very clear. In answer to an old woman who shouted after him “Wilkes and Liberty” he replied, “Shut up, you old fool; that’s all over long ago.”

In the face of these facts what becomes of the “Peoples’ Member for Parliament”? Neither Mr. Postgate nor Mr. Sherrard would suggest as explanation that Wilkes “sold the pass”; they would deny this. Wilkes continued to stand by his class, but that class never was the “people.” True he fought for “Liberty,” but for whom? During his years of struggle he wrote, “The merchants are firm for liberty.” The “liberty” for which Wilkes fought was liberty for the merchants; liberty to increase profits; liberty to expand commerce; liberty to crush still further the poor and drive them from their lands.

Maybe Mr. Postgate has latterly become more accustomed to view as “representative of the people” those who suppress riots; who hate revolution; who are contemptuous of the “lower classes,” and who use them but to get parliamentary place and position. We shall do well in remembering the history of Wilkes in these respects to remember also, in Mr. Postgate’s words, that “Wilkes was politically an honest man.”

Both books are well written; both use much the same material; both tell the story well; both make easy reading; the trimmings and wrappings leave little to be desired, but both writers fail to reveal the significance and place in history of John Wilkes.


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