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Wilkes in America

Huge thanks to Joey Kemper and Jon Fann, who were kind enough to share with us their discovery of a genuine eighteenth century John Wilkes commemorative medallion found in an undisturbed road bed in Virginia, about 25 miles outside Richmond. Wilkes fans will know that Uncle Jack was tremendously popular in America, where his battles against arbitrary authority and unconstitutional government in the 1760s and ‘70s struck a chord at a time when the colonies were beginning to do the same, as they faced a series of measures by the same ministry which would ultimately lead to the Revolution and the Declaration of Independence.

Until the Revolution, however, the dispute was not seen as Britain vs America, since those were not yet separate ideas – rather, Patriots on both sides of the water saw themselves as citizens of an Empire who objected to the political direction which they perceived the Empire to be taking. Wilkes’ various victories over the establishment – in the courtroom, in parliament and on the streets – were celebrated by Patriot societies throughout Britain and the colonies, particularly after his release from prison in 1770, which marked his victory over the notion that parliament could vote down the electors’ choice of representative – a principle that was later encoded in the American constitution. Read more

2016 – A Review

Somewhere or other (you don’t get proper footnotes at this time of year) Karl Popper urged anyone masochistic enough to be reading his stuff to guard against the fashionable disease of our time, viz.- the assumption that things can not be taken at their face value, that an apparent syllogism must be the rationale of an irrational motive, that our choices necessarily conceal some self-seeking ghastliness. It’s a reasonable guess that this warning was part of his well-known criticism of Freudian psychology as bad pseudo-science, and in the year of Brexit and Trump it assumes a particular relevance, as the usual carnival of commentators, analysts, pundits, think-tankers and other ‘experts’ queue up to add their own fluid ounce of pseudo-science to the already deep and sulphurous ocean of jejune rationalisations which, we suppose, keeps them and their kind in lucrative employment.

The British voters wanted to leave the European Union, and their American cousins wanted Donald Trump to be president. Just that. They were not expressing a complicated series of half-understood emotional responses to globalisation or economic change or multiculturalism or anything else – emotions which, lest they fall easy prey to something called ‘populism’, call for urgent analysis by credentialed social psychiatrists who have brought themselves to believe that observing and analysing their fellow citizens like specimens in a vivarium is somehow a legitimate form of intellectual inquiry, as opposed to (a) a bloody impertinence and (b) a manifestation of precisely the kind of social order which is being emphatically rejected. Read more

Quote of the Day

This week’s coup d’état in the High Court – in which some oleaginous tort-wallopers revealed to a fascinated electorate that the best way to implement voters’ instructions is to put them in the hands of a bunch of chancers who have publicly declared that they intend to ignore their instructions entirely – is hardly a new development in the long, grubby annals of English law. As John Wilkes wrote 253 years ago:

“The most eminent lawyers have been fee’d, to find mistakes and flaws in patents, granted for the security of the liberties of the subject, and which for ages have been esteemed not only valid but even sacred.”

The North Briton, No. 37, February 12 1763.

The courts are only a branch of the state after all: why should they be more likely than any other branch to respect the people whom they ‘serve’? Read more

Club Outing: the Hellfire Caves of West Wycombe

There are few ways to spend a Bank Holiday Monday more worthwhile than in the footsteps of some eighteenth century hellraisers. Quite apart from anything else, it reminds us that the unlamented Bullingdon cabal so recently dragged from public office and sent back to the Cotswolds were in reality mere parvenus – smashing pianos and throwing wine bottles at scholarship swots or whatever it is that the Bullingdon gets up to, not to mention that thing with the pig, would have struck the well-born and well-connected of earlier and nobler times as rather meek ways of letting one’s hair down.

We are talking, of course, about the notorious Hellfire Club of Sir Francis Dashwood, or more accurately the Order of the Friars of St Francis of Wycombe: ‘Hellfire Club’ was, in fact, a generic name given to an exclusive private society got up by a clique of sporting fellows for the purposes of drinking like pirates, dining like ogres, entertaining young women of negotiable virtue and generally giving the local vicar cause to suspect that he may not be getting his message across. Read more

Where’s Herod when you need him?

 

Oscar Wilde’s line about the rage of Caliban not seeing himself in the mirror has been taken to heart in the last week or so by young people claiming to be suffering from profound emotional responses to the EU referendum result. We defy readers to read this thread at The Student Room without feeling like Eric Cartman rejoicing in the tears of Scot Tenorman. In person – overheard on public transport, for instance – they are even funnier, wearing expressions of virtuous sincerity and stoicism in the face of disaster, taking it in turns to say the same thing in ever so slightly different ways, shuddering deliciously at the dread name Farage like Harry Potter and his pals contemplating the word Voldemort, remorselessly reinforcing each other in their invincible certainty in their own goodness.

Amusing though they may be – and the ones claiming that they may fail their exams because of Brexit have surely attained to a comic genius on par with Charles Chaplin and Stan Laurel – it is when they begin to expatiate on the prospects and desirability of overturning the result through protests and phony petitions and political sleight-of-hand that it becomes clear just how dangerous is the prevalent world view amongst young people today. They would quite explicitly prefer to live in a kind of banana republic where plebiscites are overturned by an alliance between a self-righteous mob on the one hand, and the rich and powerful on the other (of whom more below), rather than accept what they see as the unpalatable outcome of a free election. Read more

Et tu, toupee…

We take no side in the seething debate within the Republican establishment as to whether Donald Trump is a fascist or a fraud or some unedifying combination of the two, but we are certain that their truly visceral hatred of The Donald has an entirely different source – one which is not so much Republican as republican in the classical meaning of word, being derived from the cold fear which grips the hearts of powerful élite groups when one of its members attempts to win power over the group as a whole by allying himself with the powerless millions outside it.

The Roman republic in its final years is, of course, the famous prototype, with the transition to empire largely brought about by the breakdown of the Roman oligarchy’s collective solidarity. As the expansion of Roman wealth and power made the potential prize of domination commensurately greater, some oligarchs became tempted to reach out to the lower classes for support in their competition with each other. The murder of Caesar in the Senate was merely the last of a series of tyrannicides where ‘tyrant’ was defined not as one who enslaved the people, but as a popular man who undermined the aristocracy by appealing directly to the people. Livy, for example, once described how one Maelius wickedly distributed food to the people from his own, rather than the Senate’s, account, and was in consequence bumped off by Servilius in order to rid the Republic of an incipient tyrant. Read more