Categories: History of PR / Political spin

5 September 2013


Pitt’s reign of terror and today’s Lobby Bill

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BIll to be redrafted partly because it fails to cover most of the lobbying industry (Flawed’ lobbying bill should be withdrawn, says committee of MPs).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]

He added:

 …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.

5 responses to “Pitt’s reign of terror and today’s Lobby Bill”

  1. peter walker says:

    There are a few examples of lobbying changing legislation perhaps more that we as a profession have influenced legislation and regulation. So there is some eveidence that lobbying, by community, consumer, charitable and commercial interests can be effective up to a point.

    The only evidence on corrupting parliamentarians and the political process comes from where… journalists mascerading as lobbyistsdemonstrating that some MPs and members of the House of Lords will take money to do what they should be doing as appointed and/or elected members of Parliament. So that provides the rationale for regulating lobbyists. Strange the only eveidence here is that some parliamentarians are happy to be corrupted. Am I niaive or shouldn’t any regulations or legislation be adressing itself to those who willing to corrupt the public policy and democratic process rather than those of us who involve ourselves in the process by lobbying for a cause or special interest.

    If there is to be some form of lobbying regulation then shouldn’t there exist some mechanism where a lobbyist can complain to Parliament in confidence when confronted by a select committee chairman seeking to make a special arrangement (£10,000) with the CEO of a client. Or when members of the House of Lords provide a client with heavy hints at their value as a special advisor and send a tarrif schedule for asking questions, initiating debates or setting up and APG.

    Fining the punter is never going to eliminate prostitution. Unless the bill is balanced as between the those who might lobby improperly and those who have demonstrated a propensity for taking money from anyone prepared to offer it to advance their interests it must be thrown out.

    Surely the answer is something based on the European Parliament system or the US system but let’s not kid ourselves that this proposed bill is in the interests of an effective democracy. It is designed to stiffle alternative views and encourage yet more bad legislation based on emotional reaction to a few hundred tweeters and well organised and funded groups protecting their private interests.


  2. Phil Morgan says:

    I think you somewhat misrepresent our position in your otherwise thoughtful piece. Where the government want to introduce legislation with the stated aim of increasing transparency, we want to help them get it right. Their own efforts have failed completely to understand the nature of modern professional public affairs practice and our suggestions have been aimed at correcting that while attempting to insert fairness around the idea that lobbyists, whether in house or agency, are providing more or less the same service in a different context. Taking the Government’s intentions at face value, their aim of increasing transparency in the democratic process is consistent with our own aim of normalising lobbying, removing the opportunity for its critics to cast it as sinister or malignant. William Pitt had a different intention.

    Anyway, we didn’t even get to that starting point. The Government refused to engage with the industry until after the Bill was published and it was wrapped up with a range of other questionable political measures. the result is the mess we have before us now.

  3. Paul Seaman says:


    Thanks for responding to a critical piece constructively. I agree, of course, that the government doesn’t have clue about how the public affairs business is organised today. And I acknowledge that your intent is to help the government get the legislation right.

    The point you don’t engage in your comment is our difference of opinion over the need for a government-imposed register of approved lobbyists (approved to lobby, that is, the very people who approve and then control them and their access to politicians aka themselves). The government proposes a narrow register of lobbyists from a few professional lobby firms; and you propose creating a universal “catch-all” register of lobbyists of all guises. In that respect your position is more threatening than the government’s.

    I’m against a register in principle and for the right of people to lobby freely for whomever they want on any matter they choose.

  4. Don Radoli says:


    As with most political arguments the optimal position is seldom to be found at the extremes, but somewhere in the middle. I haven’t read the draft bill but rely here on your interpretation of its content and intent.

    While historical record is relevant for perspective, the historical and political times are so different that a meaningful analogy is at best dificult to justify.

    There is a current discussion here in Norway about such a “Lobbying register” with suggestions ranging from voluntary to compulsory registration.

    From a democratic perspective there is a compelling case for some transparency as to who is potentially influencing elected representatives. The case is further accentuated by the fact that most lobbysts are “guns for hire” who are willing to represent Lucifer himself . On the opposite side it could be argued that Lucifer has a legitimate right to be heard.

    Seen in a wider democratic perpective, it should be possible to craft legislation that covers society’s need for transparency while dropping the “control-freak” aspects of the bill.

  5. Paul Seaman says:


    I agree times are different. Cameron is also not William Pitt. However the definition of what constitutes lobbying as defined by Pitt and now by our modern PR trade bodies and the cross-party Political and Constitutional Reform Committee converge. That has illiberal implications. The PR trade bodies try to get round the consequences of their position by resorting to weak arguments – such as making parliamentary constituents and the fourth estate exceptions beyond a lobby register’s reach. By doing so they make a mockery of their own definition and open themselves – at some point – to a reality check when Pitt’s more consistent reasoning becomes attractive in a post-Cameron era. It is the slippery slope problem I’m highlighting…