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March 16, 2006

The Development of English Political Culture: Representation and Misrepresentation in Later Stuart Britain: Partisanship and Political Culture - Mark Knights

Posted by Jeremy Black

Representation and Misrepresentation in Later Stuart Britain: Partisanship and Political Culture
by Mark Knights
Pp. xvi+431. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005
Hardback, 65

An effective work on political culture, Representation and Misrepresentation in Later Stuart Britain is a well-researched account of the development of an English national political culture. As such, it shares in a teleology found in much of the scholarship and does not probe alternative views adequately, but, within these significant constraints, this is a worthwhile and interesting study. Knights, Senior Lecturer at the University of East Anglia, argues that later Stuart politics was characterised by a high-tempo, but peaceful, partisanship, in which the limits of civil order obliged and led partisanship to take particular forms. His approach focuses on a clear tie between the process of representation and representational practices. Participation, as Knights fairly points out, was about much more than office-holding, and petitions are profitably treated as an important form of public discourse.

Knights is also very good on the inherent ambiguity of partisan print. As he points out, it was a means to inform and persuade, but also to mislead and abuse:

it aspired to rational, polite, communication but many feared it could easily become a tool for spreading slander and irrationality these ambiguities became particularly important when public discourse had become part of the structure of politics in a more systematic way than ever before.
Knights skilfully links this to a replacement of state by public as arbitrator. With public refutation of a libel through print the norm, this is seen as further proof of the rise of the public as umpire. This is only correct, however, up to a point, as legal action was taken to suppress unwanted views and challenging forms, such as unstamped periodicals in the 1740s.

Knights sees a dialectic at work, with ideals and practices emerging, specifically the need for a rational, polite, moderate and clearly-defined form of discourse, that helped not only to defuse the bitterness of the conflict, but also to suggest that it could be transformed in order to strengthen or revive earlier concepts of civility and common good. Knights indeed emphasises the degree to which the routine process of publicly competitive politics provoked each side to castigate irrationality, sophistry and slanderous abuse. Indeed, by emphasising the rationality of discourse, it was possible to challenge the ethos and arguments of opponents, and that within a context in which acceptance of the legitimacy of opposition was limited. By making the representation of arguments as irrational a key polemical and rhetorical ploy, writers looked towards the nature of Enlightenment discourse and polemic.

Knights interestingly links this to the fictional potential of news in a context in which news was contested. He relates this to the uncertainty created by contests over meaning, suggesting that they were a key element in preparing and stimulating a public appetite for prose fiction. The use of words was contested, with rhetorical practices actively deployed to manipulate readers.

Furthermore, he argues that there was a relationship between the conspiratorial, plotting mindset of the later Stuart period and the plots offered by politics to writers, specifically because politics offered a narrative peopled with characters and rogues and characterized by disguise, dissimulation and deceit. The language employed is used by Knights both to throw light on political shifts and to make interesting suggestions about developments in fiction. He links this to a plea for the importance of political history to a holistic understanding of a past in which political practice and public discourse both played a major role.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter. Amongst much else, he is the author of The European Question and the National Interest (Social Affairs Unit, 2006).

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