Conclusion: Public Political Culture and the Political Class

In the light of the intensive as well as extensive interrelationship between public political culture and politics one is struck by the strange contrast between the sophistication of the public debate on the one hand and the well-nigh unanimity with which the political class distanced itself from the very process of the developing debate on the other. Under Queen Anne there was still a wide gap between theory and practice, between a fairly advanced and forward-moving culture of contention and a conservative and defensive school of political thought. This gives the period its Janus-faced character: it was a time when the public debate was taking root, but still lacked any theoretical foundation and acceptance in the collective consciousness of the political class.

     The emerging opinion-forming process was widely ignored by Parliament, which still regarded itself as near-autonomous and in fact only took note of journalistic writings - to put it crudely - to the extent that they played a role in libel suits and similar measures of prosecution. Similarly, those who made the political decisions often kept aloof from the already fully developed public political culture, at least outwardly. If they were still deeply entrenched in more traditional ways of thinking, they did not quite know what to make of the new phenomenon, and even the more open-minded among the political Establishment adopted an attitude of cautiously distancing themselves morally as well as theoretically. Not even off the record did prominent politicians express their satisfaction at the new propaganda weapon that was now at their disposal; the few exceptions were insignificant and never addressed matters of principle. Very few as yet were prepared to express their support for the institution of the press, something that was to become a matter of course in the Victorian age even for Conservative politicians. A negative attitude prevailed towards everything connected with the press and with journalism, and the alleged licentiousness of the press frequently served as a justification for lashing out against it. Ironically, those politicians complained the most who had no scruples about using the press as an instrument in vigorously attacking their opponents. And even Maynwaring, who kept Whig propaganda on a tight rein, demanded in his correspondence with the Duchess of Marlborough, his benefactress, that the licentiousness of the press be curbed! And while in the face of looming repression leading writers - as illustrated in the introduction - argued in favour of a free press and described it as a necessary concomitant of the existence of political parties, those politicians who actually availed themselves of the press for their own ends failed to come out in its defence. This is all the more surprising as it was probably the politicians' support for the emerging culture of contention which encouraged writers in their own attitude. But frequent contacts between the two sides notwithstanding, the politicians retained their old-fashioned image of the press. Even Harley was no exception. Not only did he conspicuously keep his distance from Defoe, whom he regarded as socially inferior, but he did not publicly own up to his professional acquaintance with Swift, either, with whom he was on intimate terms socially. Whereas under Queen Anne politicians still assumed a defensive posture vis-à-vis the press, it was comparatively soon afterwards - during the Seven Years' War - that a representative of the political class like Lord Royston elevated freedom of the press to the rank of a constitutional freedom. The outward distance between high politics and journalism was also demonstrated in the attitude of political authors towards Parliament. When Parliament was in session, this invariably led to a flood of political publications, something members regarded as interference and would have liked to stop by simply declaring both chambers out of bounds; writers, on the other hand, in spite of their relentless insistence on certain topics, were mostly quite respectful towards the political proceedings in Parliament in their comments, objective and matter-of-fact rather than critical and judgmental. Quite significantly the absence of any constructive and programmatic comment on the culture of contention by the Establishment was complemented by the reluctance of political writers to pass value judgments on politics as such. Thus Defoe, in his pamphlet Eleven Opinions about Mr. H-y (1711), dealt in great detail with the new phenomenon of a battle of opinions but abstained from voicing an abstract view on the business of politics.

     Given the multiple and far-reaching links between high politics and journalism, it is not surprising that not all comments on the emergence of public political opinion were negative. For reasons of party-political expediency consecutive governments gave lucrative posts to journalists who in turn offered their services to politicians, like, for example, Boyer, Manley and Toland to Harley, thus demonstrating that those in power needed a good relationship with the media. Furthermore, both political parties distributed propaganda literature free, and the sheer number of responses produced at the instigation of high-ranking politicians to political writings is a measure of the readiness among the political class to engage in the process of public debate. Not least the intensification of Tory propaganda at the beginning of 1712 indicated that decisions taken within doors against Marlborough were held to be in need of public support without doors. Such journalistic activity unmistakably demonstrated that what was still publicly denied and played down had in fact been silently accepted: the need to seek approval of political decisions beyond the traditional confines of Court and Parliament. The peculiar dichotomy, typical of Queen Anne's reign, between theoretical rejection and opportunistic acceptance of the public debate is epitomized by the two leading Tory politicians, who actually maintained particularly close links to the press. On the one hand Harley and Bolingbroke availed themselves of the services of writers to propagate their political views, and on the other they did not hesitate to use the state apparatus to suppress journalists who had incurred their displeasure. In the case of Harley, who was a very cautious man, there is ample documentary evidence of this ambivalence, although no personal statements exist, whereas in the case of Bolingbroke there is even corroborating evidence in his personal correspondence. An especially revealing remark, for example, occurs in the postscript to his letter of 21 September 1711 to Mr. Harrison; referring to Whig journalists Bolingbroke writes: "They had best for their patron's sake, as well as their own, be quiet. I know how to set them in the pillory, and how to revive fellows that will write them to death"! The ambivalence is obvious. Bolingbroke did not shy away from threatening journalists with repression and at the same time was prepared to use them for his own ends. It is a striking example of the Janus-faced attitude of the Establishment towards public political culture. Politicians distanced themselves from, and at the same time took advantage of, the propaganda media. Bolingbroke's words in the above-mentioned letter show his - apparent - aversion but also his sensitivity to the potential usefulness of the printed word in the political process. A similar confidence in the power of the printed word prevailed among the Whigs, as a remark by Maynwaring shows, who, of course, was also an active politician. In the final analysis, politicians under Queen Anne had not yet reconciled themselves unequivocally to the public debate, but they were fascinated by it and for pragmatic reasons actively supported it.

     A public political culture had established itself even though the necessary theoretical foundation was still in its infancy. There was an impressive array of genres - with only the political print still to come later - that contributed, each in its own characteristic way, to the culture of contention, thus setting a pattern for future debates of great national issues. The gradually improving conditions for the press and the publishing trade, first during the Walpole era and subsequently during the Seven Years' War - manifest in the availability of reprints, for example, - led to ever more intensive propaganda activities. There was, however, little of essence the later eighteenth century could add to the opinion-forming process that had so forcefully been ushered in during the early years, one notable exception being perhaps the heated constitutional dispute over the freedom of the press during the Wilkes era. The culture of contention under Queen Anne truly marks the beginning of the modern age as regards the participation of the public in the opinion-forming and policy-shaping processes. The interaction of print and politics characteristic of modern public life right up to our times was inaugurated in the reign of Queen Anne, more particularly during the Utrecht controversy. In many respects it was a brilliant beginning - all the more so because it took place in a constitutional void, in the twilight of uncertain and often disputed legitimacy.