Rhona Brown: A tale of two Britons

John Wilkes launched his newspaper the North Briton to vilify Scots and prime minister John Stuart
John Wilkes launched his newspaper the North Briton to vilify Scots and prime minister John Stuart
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Continuing our collaboration with the University of Glasgow’s Vox Populi series, Rhona Brown considers the impact of John Wilkes on 18th century Scotland

John Wilkes was a Whig politician, a journalist …and a libertine. His political career sparked major social unrest in London, culminating in the infamous Massacre of St George’s Fields in 1768, when seven of his supporters were killed by government soldiers. That year he fought for (and won) the parliamentary seat of Middlesex from his cell at the King’s Bench Prison. In 1763, he was gravely injured in one of many duels, and was the subject of an assassination plot by the brother-in-law of the Scottish poet and Enlightenment philosopher James Beattie. He was exiled to France from 1764-68.

Despite his bumpy political career, Wilkes was elected again and again, and became lord mayor of London in 1774. This thin veneer of public respectability, however, hid a complex character. He was a devoted father (if not husband), and was the author of Essay on Woman (1754) – an obscene parody of Alexander Pope’s Essay on Man. An amiable friend and entertaining conversationalist, he was admired by Voltaire, though George III referred to Wilkes as a “devil”.

Whatever else he might have been, Wilkes was a passionate advocate of liberty, relentlessly campaigned for the freedom of the press and was an important influence on the rhetoric of the American Revolution. In Scotland (perhaps in contrast to what we care to believe about our love of roguish democrats), many were disturbed by Wilkes’s rise to political prominence and he became a figure of national hatred. This loathing was deeply held and long-lasting; indeed, effigies of Wilkes were regularly burnt at rowdy gatherings in Edinburgh well into the Victorian period.

So, what explains this English-Scottish difference of opinion regarding John Wilkes?

Scottish hatred of Wilkes was built on the foundation of a voraciously anti-Scottish newspaper edited and largely written by Wilkes, entitled the North Briton. John Stuart, third Earl of Bute (and a Scot), was Tory prime minister between 1762 and 1763, and his short term of office was far from peaceful. Wilkes was instrumental in making it so. In the eyes of Wilkes and his supporters, Bute’s “election” was disastrous.

First, the way in which Bute rose to power was seen as abhorrent. Not only did Bute end the prominence of Wilkes’s party, the Whigs, he did so by being a “favourite” of King George III, his former student. (After the death of George’s father in 1751, Bute was solely responsible for the education of the young prince, and during his time as royal tutor Bute was a confidant of George’s mother, giving rise to scurrilous rumours about the nature of their relationship.)

Second, Bute ended the international conflict known as the Seven Years’ War (1754-63) by signing the Treaty of Paris, which ensured peace with France. Wilkes saw this gesture as unfriendly to British interests: recalling the “auld alliance” between Scotland and France, Bute’s signing of the treaty was seen by Wilkes as being principally for the benefit of Scots.

Tensions between the Scots and English had been rising in the wake of the Union of 1707. The Union had, by Bute’s premiership, been in place for almost 50 years, but its ramifications and implications were still being worked through, and were brought into sharper focus when a Scotsman took on the role of prime minister. During this time, political cartoons emphasised Scottish rebelliousness (most recently evidenced in the Jacobite uprisings of 1715 and 1745) through characters such as “Sawney Scot”.

Alongside this distrust of Scots was a sentiment that, with Bute in charge, Scots were gaining too much power at Westminster and reaping excessive benefits from the Union. Acknowledging the divisions inherent in the kingdom and the vulnerability of his position, Bute founded a newspaper, the Briton, to publicise and endorse the convictions of his ministry. He chose the celebrated Scottish novelist, translator and journalist Tobias Smollett, as editor.

Bute’s appointment of another Scot to a position of authority appears to have been the final straw for Wilkes. In indignant opposition, Wilkes founded the North Briton, mainly written by himself and the notoriously anti-Scottish poet Charles Churchill.

The very title of Wilkes’s paper was contentious. In an attempt to pacify Scottish-English relations, 18th-century commentators often referred to the Scots and English as respectively North and South Britons, thus demonstrating their membership of an apparently cohesive unit. Wilkes’s North Briton, simply by its title, satirised Bute’s attempt to speak for the nation in the Briton. Instead, the North Briton concerned itself with campaigning for press freedoms, and its main targets were Lord Bute’s ministry and Scotland in general.

Eighteenth-century journalistic convention dictated that personal names were dashed out in print, leaving only initials, so that individuals could not be identified. While Smollett followed this convention in the Briton, Wilkes refused to do so in the North Briton. He named names, and gleefully exposed the “facts” of Bute’s relationship with the king’s mother. He also vilified the Scots.

In issue No44 of the North Briton (2 April, 1763), Wilkes wrote: “The restless and turbulent disposition of the Scottish nation before the union, with their constant attachment to France and declared enmity to England, their repeated perfidies and rebellions since that period, with their servile behaviour in times of need, and overbearing insolence in power, have justly rendered the very name of Scot hateful to every true Englishman.”

Not surprisingly, this approach angered Scots. But it was the paper’s seditious libel which brought it to an end at issue 46, and led to the imprisonment of Wilkes in 1764. Despite the government’s incompetence at apprehending Wilkes (by the soon-to-be discredited method of general warrant, which named the crime but not its alleged perpetrators), his outspoken attack on Scots made him the object of Scottish detestation.

The North Briton exposed its targets with joyful abandon, but more serious points were made by, for example, Wilkes’s campaigning in favour of newspaper coverage of parliamentary debates. One might argue that he took journalistic liberty too far, alienating the Scots and committing libel. (Although he defended his own privacy, he did nothing to protect that of his enemies.)

Indeed, Wilkes’s self-serving approach is central to our own debates on the freedom of the press in the wake of recent phone-hacking scandals. Many 18th-century Scots may have been asking themselves the question posed by Lord Leveson at the beginning of his inquiry: “Who guards the guardians?”

Further parallels are offered in the career of our most recent Scottish prime minister. During the premiership of Gordon Brown (2007-10), Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson was forced to issue an apology after personally insulting Brown. In this spat Gordon Banks, MP for Ochil and South Perthshire, accused Clarkson of “trying to divide the UK” – an allegation often levelled at Wilkes.

Wilkes’s worry that the Scots were taking too much advantage from the newly-formed British state continues to vex politicians today, with the West Lothian Question still a thorn in the side of English MPs.

Thankfully, 21st-century Britain is not riven by the tensions that characterised the 1760s, but many of the political problems posed by John Wilkes have yet to be solved. It remains a matter of conjecture as to whether an independent Scotland will resolve such tensions.

• Dr Brown is a lecturer in Scottish Literature at the University of Glasgow. Her seminar takes place at 5:30pm today in the Boyd Orr Building at the University of Glasgow and is open to the public.

For more details, go to the Vox Populi website: www.gla.ac.uk/events/voxpopuli