The UK is currently debating the Transparency of Lobbying, non-Party Campaigning, and Trade Union Administration Bill. So it is worth revisiting the great battle out of which came today’s liberty to influence political debate, politicians and policy outcomes that some claim is now being put in jeopardy.
In 1795, in response to public support for the “friends of peace” campaign, which opposed Britain’s wars against French and Irish republicans, prime minister William Pitt launched what became known at the time as a reign of terror.
At the heart of it was the Seditious Meetings and Assemblies Act and the Treason Act (known as the “gagging acts”), which were passed after the stoning of King George III‘s carriage by anti-war protesters as he made his way to open Parliament.
The two acts were designed to crush lobbying and all public debate and sentiment that smacked of Jacobin and anti-war influence. Their enactment marked a new era in modern public relations in the nascent age of newspapers and public meetings (the latter being an 18th century innovation).
The English Whig historian Henry Thomas Buckle explained in his History of Civilization in England that:
What distinguishes this sanguinary contest from all preceding ones, and what gives it its worst feature, is, that it was eminently a war of opinions – a war which we carried on, not with a view to territorial acquisitions, but with the object of repressing that desire for reforms of every kind, which had now become the marked characteristic of the leading countries of Europe. [History of Civilization in England Vol 1, London, Longmans Green, and co, 1873, page 486]
I don’t think we face the same assault on independent opinion today. However, in my recent piece on this issue (UK PR trade bodies all at sea over lobby Bill), I discussed how our PR industry trade bodies had criticised the Bill’s “incredibly narrow focus”. Worryingly, the cross-party Political and Constitutional Reform Committee now seems to concur with their view.
It has called for the BIll to be redrafted partly because it fails to cover most of the lobbying industry (Flawed’ lobbying bill should be withdrawn, says committee of MPs). They seem to be calling for a similar definition of lobbying and lobbyists to the one propounded by William Pitt in 1795.
Pitt’s Seditious Meetings and Assemblies Act labelled lobbying as being anything:
…for the purpose or on the pretext of considering of or preparing any petition, complaint, remonstrance, or declaration or other address to either the king, or to both houses, or either house, of parliament, for alteration of matters established in church or state. [ibid, footnote, page 489]
That strikes me as being remarkably like the catch-everybody definition our modern PR industry advocates. Their position is that people should be put on a government-controlled register if they seek to (a) influence government, or (b) advise others how to influence government. This includes people working pro bono for charities and causes or for money for a business. Though I hope modern politicians won’t go the full hog and start seeing public transparency and accountability Pitt’s way.
Pitt’s law demanded that notice of all public meetings be published by signed householders in newspapers five days in advance. The only exceptions were meetings called by magistrates, officials, and the majority grand jury. Buckle writes:
The power of dissolving [and banning] a public meeting, was thus conferred upon a common magistrate, and conferred too without the slightest provision against its abuse. In other words, the right of putting an end to all public discussions on the most important subjects, was lodged in the hands of a man appointed by the crown, and removable by the crown at its own pleasure. [ibid page 489/490]
In 1799, another law was passed that restricted lobbying in “any open field, or place of any kind, to be used for lecturing, or for debating, unless a specific license for such place had been obtained from magistrates”.
The law didn’t stop there. The legislation ruled that: “circulating libraries, and all reading-rooms, should be subject to the same provision [as public meetings]; no person without leave from the constituted authorities, being permitted to lend or hire in his own house, newspapers, pamphlets, or even books of any kind.” Buckle added:
Before shops of this sort could be opened, a license must first be obtained from two justices of the peace; which, however, was to be renewed at least once a year, and might be revoked at any intermediate period. [Ibid: page 490]
If somebody lent out books (any book or pamphlet or newspaper or flyer) without permission of the magistrate, or allowed lectures or debates “on any subject whatever” to be held under their roof, Buckle says:
…then for such grievous crime, he was to be find 100 shillings a-day; and every person who aided him, either by presiding over the discussion, or by supplying a book, was for such offence to be fined 20 shillings. [Ibid: page 490]
The proprietors of these subversive establishments faced not only massive fines, but “further punishment as the keeper of a disorderly house”. Moreover, the death penalty could be applied to groups of 12 or more people meeting unlawfully who failed to disperse when ordered to do so by any magistrate. Buckle summed it up thus:
Strange, however, as this appears, it was, at all events, consistent, since it formed part of a regular plan for bringing, not only the actions of men, but even their opinions under the direct control of the executive government. [Ibid: page 491]
…for the first time [laws] passed, against newspapers [and lobbying], were so stringent, that there was an evident intention to ruin every public writer [and lobbyist] who expressed independent sentiments. [Ibid: page 491]
In case none of the above was effective, Pitt’s Treason Act stipulated that: “anyone found to have brought either the King, the Constitution or the government into contempt could be transported for a period of 7 years.”
The battle against Pitt’s “reign of terror” was won because his “gagging laws” swam against the tide of liberal opinion. Contemporary juries, newspapers and public opinion often defied the authorities, sometimes at great personal risk and financial cost (I’ll come back to that struggle another day).
As I said above, I don’t think David Cameron is about to launch a reign of terror. It is even overstating it, as Angela Eagle, Shadow Minister of House of Commons, does, to say the Bill’s intention is to impose a “sinister gage” on the ability of charities and others to run campaigns.
But even if Eagle over-eggs her critique of the Bill, potential interpretations of it do indeed pose some real threats to overt political activists (see: David Allen Green: The Lobbying Bill threatens new, illiberal regulation for blogs like ConservativeHome).
In conclusion, I contend that the Lobby Bill needs opposing for three main reasons.
First, it would surely hamper the business and practice of lobbying. That is because the constraints imposed by a statutory register of lobbyists would prevent ministers of state from receiving good advice from where ever it is offered. This would effectively insulate them still more from the public and reality.
Secondly, PR pros should resist Cameron’s neurotic control-freakery. In defence of corporate clients, never mind freedom and democracy, PR pros should oppose society’s (ok the media and some politicians) unattractive and lazy populist anti-political and anti-business witch-hunt against lobbyists. This Bill is an illiberal measure, which defends us from nothing threatening: lobbying is a perfectly respectable business.
Thirdly, if, as I suggest, such a Bill, as it stands, or in the amended form some want, merely theoretically could end up where Pitt did, in part or, God forbid, in full. That should provide enough grounds for PR pros – and anybody else who cares about liberty – to want to see the Lobby Bill killed at birth.