‘Corruption’s sons … sigh for the evidence of a PLOT. Oh how they sigh! They are working and slaving and fretting and stewing; they are sweating all over; they are absolutely pining and dying for a Plot!’ So William Cobbett wrote to Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt in 1816. He did not exaggerate. The verb ‘foment’ might have been invented to describe the activities of Lords Sidmouth and Castlereagh and their spymasters in Bow Street during the turbulent 1810s. Seldom in the history of British espionage can senior ministers have got their hands quite so dirty. As E.P. Thompson grudgingly conceded in The Making of the English Working Class, ‘Notions as to the traditional stupidity of the British ruling class are dispelled by an acquaintance with the Home Office papers.’ In fact, Thompson mused, you could write a convincing history of English radicalism as it was warped by espionage. Government spies penetrated and provoked, infiltrated and informed with unbelievable zeal – and success. The Cecils’ networks had kept the Tudors and Stuarts safe from Papist plots. In the 20th century, MI5 penetrated the Communist Party and the IRA with equal facility. But nothing has surpassed Sidmouth. Before his elevation to the peerage he was known only as Pitt’s pallid stand-in – ‘Pitt is to Addington as London is to Paddington’ – but as home secretary he came into his own.
One of Sidmouth’s spies, a man called John Castle, was on the action committee responsible for organising the huge and supposedly peaceful meeting of reformers on Spa Fields that was to be addressed by the mellifluous Orator Hunt. Castle tirelessly whipped up the labourers who had just been laid off from digging the Regent’s Canal, while another member of the committee, Arthur Thistlewood, urged them to bring ‘a spike-nail in the end of a stick or anything that would run into a fellow’s guts’. The subsequent riots were the worst since the Gordon riots of the 1780s, ending in chaos and a humiliating failed attempt to suborn the soldiers at the Tower. Half a dozen of the plotters, though not Castle, were indicted for treason.
On the first day of these treason trials, three hundred desperate stockingers and miners in Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire were persuaded by ‘Oliver the spy’ to march on London to join a promised armed uprising. They were swiftly surrounded by forewarned troops and arrested at the village of Pentrich. Three of the Pentrich men suffered the traditional penalty for treason: hanging and decapitation. Fourteen more were ‘pardoned’ – that is, transported to Australia. Oliver’s role was exposed by the Leeds Mercury, and retold by Sir Francis Burdett in the House of Commons (Sidmouth ‘abused Oliver for a great fool for being detected’), but the operation was another successful exercise in sending shivers down the spines of the respectable classes and in justifying further acts of repression.
The third and most famous would-be insurrection, launched in 1820 from a dismal stable in Cato Street, just off the Edgware Road, was an even more scandalous set-up. Its leader, Thistlewood, had been banged up in the Tower of London for his part in the Spa Fields revolt. He told Castle that its failure had left him ‘perfectly well satisfied that the people were not ripe enough to act’ – the excuse of failed insurrectionaries through the ages. But he hadn’t learned his lesson. This time he trusted an even more egregious spy, a plaster-modeller going by the name of George Edwards. After their first meeting, Edwards told his friends: ‘Thistlewood is the boy for us, he’s the one who will do our work.’ From that moment, everything Thistlewood did and said was immediately passed on to Bow Street and the Home Office.
In their Cato Street hovel and in the sleazy taverns where they found a few dozen supporters, this small crew of underemployed shoemakers and loudmouthed drunks were endlessly bragging about how they were going to knock the blocks off Wellington, Sidmouth and the rest. One evening, Edwards spotted an announcement in the New Times that the cabinet were meeting for a dinner at Lord Harrowby’s house in Grosvenor Square the following night. What a golden opportunity to decapitate the lot of them! Edwards had of course inserted the announcement himself: the cabinet dined elsewhere, though Harrowby’s staff were kept busy cooking and decanting all evening to maintain the deceit. Just as the plotters were tucking into their pre-match cheese and porter and loading their pistols, they were stormed by Bow Street constables, followed by heavily armed troops. The conspiracy was busted before they even left Cato Street.
Vic Gatrell tells this sorry story with zest and sympathy. He is by inclination a social rather than a political historian, more concerned to recover the texture of life than the course of governance. Conspiracy on Cato Street follows the trail of The Hanging Tree (1994), City of Laughter (2006) and The First Bohemians (2013) in its capturing of Regency London in all its gaiety, violence, sexual sprawl and, above all, searing poverty. His trigger finger trembles with passion as he takes aim at the romantic curricles-and-crinolines view of the period. He might also have marked those optimistic economists such as Adam Smith, who remarked in The Wealth of Nations on ‘the universal opulence which extends itself to the lowest ranks of the people’. Britain around this time is portrayed by Gatrell as a chronically unsettled country. There had been two hundred sedition trials in the 1790s alone. Everyone was rioting: miners, tanners, weavers, debtors in their jails, young gents at Eton and Winchester. The comfortable classes, from the Iron Duke downwards, fretted that the country was staggering towards revolution.
And out of the taverns where the plots were hatched poured the most extraordinary cast of desperadoes and craftsmen down on their luck, their life stories preserved verbatim, by the miracle of modern shorthand, in the accounts of their trials and the reports of the spies who befriended them. In his Gunpowder Plot confession, Guy Fawkes was at pains to emphasise that his co-diggers under the House of Lords were all ‘gentlemen of name and blood’. The same could not be said of the Cato Street plotters. William Davidson was a Black cabinet-maker of considerable eloquence (as his speech from the dock showed), who had been born in Jamaica and run away to sea, and later once repaired furniture for Lord Harrowby. Four of the others were ex-soldiers who were more or less starving and had taken to shoemaking with little success. The defiant James Ings was a butcher. Dr James Watson was an apothecary who happened to be in debtors’ prison when the conspiracy erupted and so escaped arrest and trial. He had been an ingenious armourer for the plot, devising letter bombs and smoke bombs and also secret codes, which, alas, were cracked as soon as Edwards passed them on to Bow Street.
Unlike the rest, their leader Thistlewood had some pretensions to gentility as well as a small fortune from his two marriages, part of which was spent on treating his skint cronies and buying ammunition for the cause, and rather more on reckless gambling binges. He lost £841 of his brother’s money at hazard one night, then moved on to another dive in Pall Mall and lost £400 of his own. The many engravings done of him at his trial show him much as Gatrell describes him: ‘a graceless, truculent and unforgiving figure, and as alienated, resentful and fantasy-laden as any modern jihadist’. His ideas were as vague as they were violent: cut off a few heads, seize the Tower or the Bank of England, the troops will come over to our side and the people will rise.
As Gatrell says, ‘the last thing they had was an agenda.’ Thistlewood seemed indifferent to the cause of land redistribution, so dear to the hearts of many reformers; nor were he and his little group – never more than fifty at best – class-conscious in the Marxist sense (which is why they were of so little interest to Thompson and later labour historians). All they had were simple ideas of justice and democracy, and an ambition for universal suffrage and the secret ballot that they shared with more moderate reformers. On his last day in court, just before his death sentence was delivered, Thistlewood rose to some eloquence (though he started quaveringly, being an awkward and rather timorous speaker):
A few hours hence, and I will be no more, but the nightly breeze, which will whistle over the silent grave that shall protect me from its keenness, will bear to your restless pillow the memory of one who lived but for his country, and died when liberty and justice had been driven from its confines by a set of villains whose thirst for blood is only to be equalled by their activity in plunder.
He went on to denounce the ministers, the failure of the court to call the evidence of the spies who had helped to instigate the plot, and the military force that had been deployed against people making peaceful protests, most shamefully at Peterloo the year before. ‘High treason was committed against the people at Manchester, but justice was closed against the mutilated, the maimed, and the friends of those who were upon that occasion indiscriminately massacred.’ Finally he sought to justify the violence of his own actions: ‘It was only when all else had failed, when all channels of peaceful protest had been barred to us, that the decision was made to embark on violent forms of political struggle.’
All right, those last words were not in fact Thistlewood’s, but Nelson Mandela’s, shamelessly plundered from James Meek’s essay in the LRB of 26 May. Thistlewood put it more bluntly: ‘Insurrection then became a public duty.’ He did not possess a particle of Mandela’s grace and generosity, but his argument was essentially the same. As the chief justice prepared to deliver the death sentence, Thistlewood took a pinch from his snuffbox and looked around the courtroom, in the words of one observer, ‘as if he were entering a theatre’.
Gatrell remarks on how quickly Cato Street tends to be passed over in histories of the period, on the right because why should we care about these squalid brutes who were mercifully detected in time, and on the left because the conspiracy seems to lead nowhere, not to a growth in working-class consciousness or to an immediately renewed appetite for parliamentary reform. All it did was justify an intensification of the very repression it was protesting against. Sidmouth’s notorious Six Acts were newly law, and Peterloo was fresh in the memory.
Never had Sidmouth’s preparations been more painstaking than in the run-up to the great demonstration at St Peter’s Fields on 16 August 1819. The crowds assembled to hear Orator Hunt speak about reform have been variously estimated at between 35,000 and 150,000. Manchester magistrates had plenty of experience in dealing roughly with large protests by desperate handloom weavers. Now they were fortified by an assurance from the Home Office that they would be given indemnity in case of trouble, though warned to ‘keep this delicate subject to yourself.’ Sidmouth’s undersecretary had also told the Northern military commander of his master’s belief that ‘your country will not be tranquillised until blood shall have been shed either by the law or the sword,’ and that Sidmouth was ‘confident that he will be adequately supported by the magistracy of Lancashire’. In other words, the magistrates had carte blanche to call out the yeomanry, issue them with sharpened sabres and show no mercy. The horse artillery even brought with them two long six-pounder cannon, the weapons that had done such damage at Waterloo. From Sidmouth’s perspective, this was not an operation that got tragically out of hand – eighteen people died, and more than six hundred were injured – but rather one that went pretty much according to plan, and which fully deserved the thanks the Prince Regent sent to the magistrates a few days later.
Historians have been loath to examine quite how nefarious were the actions of the government, and sometimes reluctant to accept fully the claim made in court by one of the Cato Street conspirators later hanged and decapitated, James Ings, that Edwards ‘was the instigator and author of all the atrocity I was going to commit … I am sold like a bullock driven to Smithfield-Market.’ Even John Bew, in his excellent Life of Castlereagh, asserts that Castlereagh ‘genuinely believed that the whole cabinet had come very close to being assassinated’. Yet in the letter to his brother that Bew goes on to quote, Castlereagh boasts that they had stage-managed the whole thing:
You must allow that we are tolerably cool troops and that we have not manoeuvred amiss to bring it to a final catastrophe in which they are not only caught in their own net but that we can carry into a court of justice a state conspiracy which will be proved beyond the possibility of cavil, and which would form no inconsiderable feature in the causes célèbres of Treasonable and Revolutionary Transactions.
In other words, Castlereagh only had to pretend that he was in mortal danger.
After all the eloquent speeches from the dock and those in the House of Commons by Burdett and Alderman Matthew Wood and Byron’s friend John Cam Hobhouse (all MPs elected from constituencies with a wide franchise), the machinations of the government were widely known. Richard Carlile, the editor of the Republican, concluded that ‘the ministers have been playing with Thistlewood … they brought the Cato-street affair to maturity, just to answer their purposes for striking terror into the minds of the people on the eve of a general election.’ Shelley too was fully up to speed:
Thus much is known, that so soon as the whole nation lifted up its voice for parliamentary reform, spies were sent forth. These were selected from the most worthless and infamous of mankind and dispersed among the multitude of famished and illiterate labourers. It was their business if they found no discontent to create it.
Only a few days after the five Cato Street plotters were executed, Charles Lamb in ‘The Three Graves’ was reserving a special place in hell for the spies:
I ask’d the fiend, for whom these rites were meant?
‘These graves,’ quoth he, ‘when life’s brief oil is spent,
When the dark night comes, and they’re sinking bedwards,
I mean for Castles, Oliver and Edwards.’
The Sidmouth strategy was on its own terms triumphantly successful. Lord Liverpool was returned for the third time, with a nice majority. The cause of moderate reform was besmirched by the stain of terrorism and, despite huge popular support, effectively remained outlawed throughout the four decades of uninterrupted Tory rule from 1784 to 1830. The comfortable classes had taken fright, just as they were meant to. Byron prophesied to Hobhouse that ‘the king times are fast finishing. There will be blood shed like water, and tears like mist; but the peoples will conquer in the end.’ On the other hand, from Byron’s own personal point of view, ‘born an aristocrat, and naturally one by temper, with the greatest part of my property in the funds, what have I to gain by a revolution?’
Gatrell freely admits that ‘when all is said and done, the Cato Street men did propose the most violent and precisely aimed assault on the British political order since Guy Fawkes and friends had tried to blow up Parliament in 1605, and then since the Cromwellian regicide.’ Ministers were certainly entitled to take precautions to avoid having their heads chopped off. But it can be said equally that the ferocity of the conspirators is explained, if not excused, by the Tory government’s refusal, ever since Pitt abandoned the attempt in the 1780s, to contemplate any parliamentary reform at all.
Gatrell reminds us too of the systematic reinforcement of repression. The peacetime army after Waterloo still numbered 150,000 – twice the size of the army today, and drawn from a far smaller population. With no foreign enemies to worry about, thousands of troops could be ordered up at short notice to quell any disturbance, usually from near at hand. The 18th century had seen Ireland turned into a huge military camp – 270 barrack sites constructed across the island. Now the same thing happened in London. The barracks familiar to us today – Knightsbridge, Regent’s Park and so on – mostly date from this period. Daniel Defoe had noted long before that London had more prisons than any other city in Europe. Now further bastilles were added. London also had the highest rate of executions in Europe, although this dropped markedly with the opening of the Australian penal settlements in 1788. It is striking, by the by, how well some of the plotters did for themselves after being transported, ending up as leading citizens in several towns. One of the Cato Street shoemakers, John Shaw Strange, finished as chief constable of Bathurst. Their success was paralleled by the respectable later lives of the spies who fled to South Africa to escape public obloquy. ‘Oliver the spy’ (real name W.J. Richards) became deputy inspector of buildings in Cape Town.
With all the heavy machinery of repression already in place, we might wonder that the government went to the trouble of pushing the Six Acts through Parliament in 1819. Why bother to toughen the existing laws against seditious libel? Or further extend the punitive taxes on newspapers? Or tighten the conditions for bail and speed up court proceedings (most Old Bailey trials were already over in a matter of minutes)? Or give local JPs more powers to search for or seize arms? Or ban public meetings of fifty or more people, when the authorities could already take steps to prevent breaches of the peace? Or introduce a special law to prevent Thistlewood and his friends from doing their absurd drilling on Primrose Hill? The conventional view used to be that of Elie Halévy, that the Acts represented a panic-stricken doubling down on counter-revolution. Recently, historians have tended to regard them as rather mild measures, only sporadically enforced and in any case diluted by liberal amendments which the government was quite ready to accept.
But surely the Six Acts are perfectly explicable in terms of low politics. Gatrell says at the beginning of his salutary and often startling account that ‘a book of this kind cannot help speaking to the present.’ By speaking from the present and referring forward as well as back, we may find it easier to understand the Six Acts and the Sidmouth strategy. For they cannot help reminding us, rather forcibly, of the Five Acts that Boris Johnson’s government passed in March and April 2022. In both sets of laws, the justification is nugatory, the likely effect questionable and the side effects shameful; but the politics are blatant. The Five Acts are worth examining singly and collectively in rather more detail. They are mileposts on the long march of the right through our institutions.
The Tory manifesto of 2019 promised to ‘get rid of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act – it has led to paralysis at a time the country needed decisive action.’ In March 2022 the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Act came into force, repealing the 2011 Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, as though it had never been enacted. But the new Act purports to do rather more. Section 3 contains an ‘ouster clause’ which seeks to ensure ‘the non-justiciability of the revived prerogative powers’. In other words, no future Supreme Court will be able to strike down the prime minister’s use of his power to dissolve, as famously happened in 2019. The old ambiguity about when and if the queen could refuse a request to dissolve is apparently now ended. In future, the queen is to dissolve ‘on the advice’ of her Privy Council. She has no alternative. Prime ministers will have untrammelled power to dissolve Parliament whenever they fancy. Before 2011, they had, let us say, two-thirds of that power, but were bound by some conventions of decent behaviour. Not any more.
Another promise: ‘We will ensure that judicial review is available to protect the rights of individuals against an overbearing state’ – so far, so good – ‘while ensuring that it is not abused to conduct politics by another means or to create needless delays.’ Oh. Who is to decide which delays are needless, and what exactly does ‘conduct politics by another means’ imply? Naturally, once the election was won, there had to be some sort of task force to work out what these cloudy threats might mean in practice. The Faulks committee reported in March 2021 that, although there were one or two worrying cases, they couldn’t see much wrong with the system. This wouldn’t do. The attorney general deliberately misread the report and got going on the Judicial Review and Courts Act. As you might expect, while claiming to uphold the right of individuals to obtain remedy against unjust treatment, in practice the Act nibbles away at the individual’s rights of appeal and access. And it provides an unsettling precedent for further limitations, if hardliners come to think that this first Act hasn’t gone far enough. It is likely that ministers, emboldened by this new protection, will increasingly be tempted to include ‘Henry VIII clauses’ in future legislation, giving themselves sweeping powers to interpret their particular Act in any way they see fit. In the past, judicial review has deterred this underhand method of lawmaking. If there was ‘ministerial overreach’, there was a good chance that any dubious decision would be overturned in the courts. So here’s another way in which the Tory government is setting out to slash the trammels on its power.
British general elections have been remarkably free and fair for a long time – ever since voter personation and other dodges were finally eliminated in Northern Ireland. There has been no significant evidence of fraud at any recent general election. Yet the Tories’ 2019 election manifesto also included this pledge: ‘We will protect the integrity of our democracy by introducing identification to vote at polling stations, stopping postal vote harvesting and measures to prevent any foreign interference in elections.’ All this, now contained in the Elections Act, is an egregious solution to a non-existent problem. It can have one purpose only: to suppress the votes of poorer and less organised voters who are less likely to possess photo ID, just as the Republicans are doing in the US. When voter ID was made mandatory in Northern Ireland in 2002, the number of voters on the register dropped by 120,000, or 10 per cent. The suspicion of foul play is confirmed by a second pledge, to make it easier for British expats to vote in parliamentary elections, expats being thought far more likely to vote Tory, just as the worst off are more likely to vote Labour. It is hard to imagine a more flagrant rigging strategy. It may be that as holding voter ID becomes more universal over the years, the adverse effect will diminish. But it is clear that the motive behind the Elections Bill is to secure party advantage under the cloak of fairness.
The Elections Act also introduces a new structure for the Electoral Commission, which has always been independent of government and covers everything from the limits on campaign finance to the actual conduct of the polls. The commission asserts, quite rightly, that ‘this independence is fundamental to maintaining confidence in our electoral system.’ In future, the government will be able to set a strategic direction for the work of the commission. The change has been driven by Tory Brexiters sore about being accused of having broken the law during the 2016 referendum campaign, an accusation of which they were eventually cleared. To people not much interested in politics – which is most of us – these measures may sound relatively modest and technical. But once the government has power to reset the rules, it can progressively squeeze the shape and size of the electorate, make it easier to fiddle constituency boundaries and the rules of campaign finance. This looks as if it’s just the beginning.
Then there is the Nationality and Borders Act. Among other provisions, it removes rights of family reunion from some categories of refugee. With the stated aim of deterring desperate families from crossing the Channel in small boats, it submits them to ‘offshore processing’ in a third country (though it’s not clear that this will be an effective deterrent). Several cash-strapped nations had already declined the privilege of playing this part before Rwanda opened its arms in April 2022. Small and dismally poor, it is recovering from a hideous civil war, and its human rights record is widely criticised. The idea that it can provide the ‘humane treatment’ that the home secretary, Priti Patel, promises is laughable. Not since Sidmouth’s day, when English prisoners were jammed together out at sea in rotten hulks, has a British government displayed such a callous and dehumanising attitude.
Critics of the scheme can be divided into those who think it unworkable and those who think it cruel and inhumane; some people think it is both. In his Easter sermon, the archbishop of Canterbury called it ‘ungodly’ – for which he was duly pilloried by Tory hardliners, who love it. Clause 10 of the Act allows the home secretary to strip individuals of their British nationality, in some cases without even notifying them. The UNHCR has declared that the legislation breaches the UK’s obligations under international law and the refugee convention.
People can protest against all this, or can they? Steaming alongside in this flotilla of illiberal legislation has been the enormous Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, all three hundred pages of it. The meat of the Act is the power that it gives police to shut down and criminalise public demonstrations for being too noisy, including even a protest by a single individual. The police are of course to be their own judges in the matter of what qualifies as excessively noisy. Along with extending powers of stop and search without any visible cause for suspicion, the Act gives an ill-disposed police commander free rein to prevent people doing almost anything in the street of which they disapprove. To fill in the gaps in the new Act inflicted by the House of Lords, the government is now bringing forward yet another Public Order Bill, further extending stop-and-search powers and imposing fresh penalties for protesters who ‘lock on’ to immovable structures.
We might note in passing that, in case there’s any trouble restoring order, Priti Patel has recently empowered special constables for the first time to carry tasers – sabres by another name. Shades of Peterloo. Nor will there be any shortage of storage space for the noisy. The government boasts that it has embarked on the largest prison-building programme for a century.
These five Acts of Parliament were all in force by the end of April. Each of them is intended to increase government control: over Parliament, over elections, over the courts, over immigrants and over public demonstrations. How it all brings back the dear dead days of 1819 – the hulks, the sabres, the bastilles, the transportation of illegal males without a chance to say goodbye, let alone take their families with them. For Johnson, the outrage that these Acts have generated in lefty circles is not a drawback but a brilliant success. The whole thing is a deliberate strategy to enthuse his core vote and heighten their sense of imperilment.
To give himself further elbow-room, Johnson has recently loosened the ministerial code of conduct, so that breaches of it are no longer automatically matters for resignation, and in his own foreword to the code he has also removed the stern references to the need for honesty and integrity. In recent weeks, too, his anti-corruption adviser John Penrose and his ethics adviser Christopher Geidt have both resigned in despair. Peter Hennessy once declared that, in the absence of a written constitution, the UK has had to rely on the ‘good chap theory of government’. But what happens if the prime minister no longer even pretends to be a good chap?
We may wonder whether John Bew, now ensconced in Number Ten as Johnson’s adviser on foreign policy, detects these echoes of the Castlereagh years. He will already have run into one of Downing Street’s newer recruits, David Canzini, a former colleague of Lynton Crosby. Canzini’s instructions to his cohorts have a daunting clarity: ‘Find the wedge issues in your department and hammer them.’ The concept of the ‘wedge issue’ has been familiar in Australia and the US for twenty years or so, but is rather new in the UK. The trick is to find a policy which repels the minority who were never going to vote for you but which will harden and broaden your support with the majority, who are no longer the silent majority because you are speaking up for them. This is the technique practised by populists everywhere – Trump, Bolsonaro, Erdoğan, Orbán. Whether the proposed policy actually works is beside the point; the question is whether it drives the wedge into the right place. Lord Sidmouth would have understood perfectly. He only lacked the name for it.