John Barrell

  • John Wilkes: The Scandalous Father of Civil Liberty by Arthur Cash
    Yale, 482 pp, £19.95, February 2006, ISBN 0 300 10871 0

The last time I wrote for the LRB, I mentioned a speech made by Tim Collins, the then shadow education secretary, calling for a review of the teaching of history in schools. ‘Nothing is more important to the survival of the British nation,’ he had declared, ‘than an understanding among its young of our shared heritage and the nature of the struggles, foreign and domestic, which have secured our freedoms … a nation which loses sight of its past cannot long expect to enjoy its future.’ A Tory politician asking us to include among ‘the national heroes of our past’ those who had ‘struggled to widen the franchise’ – usually in the teeth, Collins did not add, of ruthless Tory opposition – was obviously too much (or so I choose to believe) for the electors of Westmorland and Lonsdale, who responded at the last election by making Collins one of the very few Tory MPs to lose his seat.

Now, Bill Rammell, the intrepid minister for higher education, has picked up the black spot that fell from Collins’s hand. He has set up a review which is apparently likely to recommend that citizenship classes should deal with the ‘core British values’ of democracy, freedom of speech, fairness and responsibility, and how they have developed in Britain’s ‘cultural and social history’. Collins had a majority of more than three thousand, and lost by 267; Rammell is holding Harlow by less than a hundred votes. It will be interesting to see how his constituency feels at the next election about a government minister proposing to make schoolchildren learn a history which the government itself would surely rather ignore. If he loses his seat, as he surely will, he will have had fair warning.

One of those with a strong claim to be remembered for his efforts in securing democracy, freedom of speech and fairness was John Wilkes, the subject of Arthur Cash’s informative and enjoyable new biography. Now that ‘high politics’ is taught less and less in schools and universities, Wilkes’s great political achievements, which included lowering the tone of high politics, are less and less remembered, and he is probably now best known as a member of the Hellfire Club and for his involvement in the editing and publishing of his friend Thomas Potter’s poem An Essay on Woman, which succeeded in lowering the tone even of pornography. Cash told the full story of that poem in ‘An Essay on Woman’ by John Wilkes and Thomas Potter (2001) and does not rehearse it here, although he does insist that the poem is not pornographic at all, just good-natured bawdy, so perhaps I am simply not man enough to enjoy it for what it is. Wilkes’s enemies, many of whom became his friends, all agreed that however roguish and irresponsible they thought him, he was a delightful companion: brilliant, charming and polite. Cash, too, is hugely attracted to Wilkes and can forgive him anything. In his relations with women especially there was much that needed forgiving, but the mistresses he abandoned, at least in Cash’s tolerant account, seem to have regarded him with little rancour.

Summing up Wilkes’s political career to the point at which, 15 years before his death, he was swept out of the mainstream of politics, Cash writes:

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[*] The essay can be found at jurist.law.pitt.edu/forumy/2006/04/suing-ma-bell-to-stop-nsa-wiretapping.php

[†] www.law.duke.edu/journals/dlj/articles/dlj48p787.htm