Mark Knights. Representation and Misrepresentation in Later Stuart Britain: Partisanship and Political Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. xvi + 431 pp. $120.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-925833-8.
Reviewed by Paul Seaward (The History of Parliament, London)
Published on H-Albion (September, 2006)
Given the importance of the subject in the history of late-seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Britain, it is something of a surprise that Mark Knights's Representation and Misrepresentation in Later Stuart Britain is the first book to examine closely the impact on political discourse of the transformation of the terms of political trade over the fifty or so years spanning the turn of the century. Its subject is the development in that period of what Knights calls a "representative society"--a society "in which public representation, defined both as a political concept and as a mode of communication, was key to the justification and exercise of power" (p. 5).
In analyzing the new politics of late Stuart England, Knights is alive to the ambiguities and paradoxical meanings of statements and actions, and makes full use of many of the conceptual tools developed by historians of society, literature and political thought over the last twenty years. His aim is to retrieve for the study of political history (in its narrowest meaning) a sense of significance and excitement that he argues it has lost over the same period. And indeed, the book provides an unrivaled account of how politicians and the electorate responded to the increased opportunities for political expression that were brought about by dramatic changes in constitutional arrangements, political practices, and economic and international contexts. Frequent appeals to the public through national parliamentary elections, the arrival of the "fiscal-military state" and rapid commercial growth, ideological conflict shaped by party politics, all set conditions for the rapid emergence of a very new style of politics. The author shows how representative politics centered on public discourse: through elections, petitions, addresses, and printed propaganda, politics became a sort of constant public dialog, in which the public was appealed to in order to judge between parties which offered different prescriptions for the common good and the public interest.
The struggle helped to create a national political culture; it stimulated the development of a common public interest and public good, and a sense of a rational debate. But so rapid an expansion of the political marketplace could not fail to cause acute anxiety; and Knights brings out the worries shared by many politicians about its effects--even while they energetically engaged in it. One concern related to the impact on Parliament's power and prestige of allowing individual voters to review, and to question, the activities of their representative. Constituencies' practice of issuing instructions to Members and petitions and addresses encouraged a very lively debate, especially in 1701-02, about the extent to which the people devolved power on the representatives. Another debate related to the impact of party on the nation's unity, temper, and good manners, with the corrosive effect of political discourse and partisan zeal. A third involved the ways in which parties and individuals might manipulate the public into throwing its weight behind private, not public interests: how could an inconsistent, gullible, and easily bribed electorate make adequate judgements about the public interest?
In the second part of his book, Knights turns his attention more specifically to the character of political communication, or "propaganda," and discusses the impact of a shift from an essentially private rhetoric to exercises in generating conviction among mass audiences through coordinated campaigns. A phenomenal growth in the publishing sector had created a "reliable representative force" (p. 223), and provided a platform for a partisan debate whose corrupting (or at least dynamic) effect on language fed into a contemporary doubt about the status of truth-claims, now that the traditional means of validating them, the monarch and the church, were no longer valid. For many contemporary commentators, the polemical cross-fire shattered the stability of meaning of critical keywords such as liberty or property, while even party labels came to lack any solid foundation. A hothouse of shifting understandings bred specialized, private meanings ("Cant") and knowing games of dissimulation and self-identity. Knights tentatively suggests that the political culture of the later Stuart period "encouraged fictionalizing possibilities, or at the very least a destabilization of truth-claims that bordered on the imaginary" (p. 330). He notes reactions to the polemical and linguistic free-for-all in demands for a world of objective political arithmetic. But even here, he emphasizes, the plea for reason, and the claim of the irrationality of opponents was itself a key polemical and rhetorical ploy. Representation and Misrepresentation closes with the 1716 repeal of the Triennial Act, when a troubled political class found sufficient excuse to end the occasion of much of the problem. Yet, despite the apparent instability of the politics of 1675-1715, Knights argues that party politics strengthened the state, fostering strong links within communities, and helping to create senses of national identity and "an empowered state." Perhaps Representation and Misrepresentation's most telling point, though, is its engagement with Jürgen Habermas's now ubiquitous public sphere. Knights points out that what was noticeable, and noticed, during this precocious phase in which Habermas identified the emergence of a reasoned and polite debate, was in fact a coarsening of the quality of discourse.
Representation and Misrepresentation is a rich, complex and ambitious work, which tackles one of the most slippery and difficult of terms. The book's central conceit--relating ideas of political representation to ideas of literary representation--raises a hornet's nest of issues within the worlds of literature, linguistics, and democratic theory. While the point is well made that in the new political culture of public debate the objective representation of anything was the first casualty, it is not completely clear that there is any straightforward linkage of the kind the book implies between the type of political representation that was usual in the late seventeenth century (advocacy of the interests of a community) and the linguistic representation of ideas and things, and that there is real value in yoking together these terms in the concept of a "representative society." Adding, perhaps, to the ambiguities and complexities of Knights's subject, the meaning of the word representation was itself shifting in the period, and it cannot be seen as neutral within the discussion. Paul Friedland's book on a similar subject, Political Actors: Representative Bodies and Theatricality in the Age of the French Revolution (2002) argued that the Revolution of 1789 resulted in a change in the word's effective meaning, the rapid abandonment of an idea of political re-presentation as "literal embodiment" of the nation, and its replacement with an idea that the representative should accurately portray the represented. Something similar was clearly going on in Britain over the late Stuart period, while it was also being firmly resisted, as Paul Langford has shown, as defenders of the unequal distribution of parliamentary power argued that Parliament should represent not individuals, but land. In fact, the impression that Representation and Misrepresentation leaves is that competition--in business and politics--has as powerful an explanatory value within the new politics of the 1690s and after as does representation: the rise, not of a representative society, but of an inordinately competitive one.
Nevertheless, through his engagement with the unstable political culture of the period, and through an extraordinarily deep knowledge of its political literature, Knights has provided unparalleled insights into the political world of the later Stuarts. Representation and Misrepresentation succeeds magnificently in showing the uncertainties and anxieties of a political culture finding its way in uncharted waters in which authority is derived from the people and is exercised by their representatives, in which there is no authoritative arbiter of truth, and in which, as John Edwards wrote in 1714, "there are such projects and attempts as no history relates, no former annals ever acquainted us with" (quoted, p. 300).
. Paul Langford, Public Life and Propertied Englishmen 1689-1798 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991).
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Paul Seaward. Review of Knights, Mark, Representation and Misrepresentation in Later Stuart Britain: Partisanship and Political Culture.
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