Geoff Shaw and liberty

There are probably no other politicians of any era as unalike as the 18th century British Parliamentarian, John Wilkes, and the Victorian MP Geoff Shaw.

One was one his era’s most famous libertines, a member of the notorious Hellfire Club, a notable wit and inveterate gambler, a pioneer of the reporting of Parliament through the North Briton  and an opponent of autocratic government. The other – well he’s Geoff Shaw MLA. But despite the differences there is a similarity – their situation and the question as to whether parliaments should expel MPs because they disapprove of them. Obviously if the Constitution provides for certain disqualifications such as bankruptcy, accepting an office of profit from the State, criminal offences and so on then breaching those can lead to expulsion. In the recent scandals about British MPs rorting their allowances some repaid them and stayed on; some were found guilty of crimes went to gaol and out of Parliament; and some were voted out at the next election. But none of them were voted out just because a majority in the Parliament thought they should go.

The Wilkes case provided important precedents: first, for the right to report on what was said and done in Parliament; and, second for the rights of voters and MPS.  Indeed on each occasion the House of Commons voted to expel Wilkes the electors of Westminster – one of the few partly democratic electorates in the corrupt, unreformed British 18th century Parliament –promptly re-elected him.

The blog first discovered Wilkes when he was a Year 12 student studying British history with the inspirational teacher, Roy Payne. Admittedly the interest was initially less to do with the democratic principles and more to do (in those more puritanical days) with Wilkes’ sheer gusto and general wickedness. Sitting up all night drinking and gambling, dallying with courtesans and generally causing trouble was very exciting back in the late 1950s and early 60s. The teenage blog read the radical historian, George Rude’s, Wilkes and Liberty, several times and realised that history was about the most exciting game in town other than watching the female students in their gym uniforms.

Wilkes was also responsible for the greatest piece of parliamentary wit yet recorded. When an opponent spluttered: “You Sir will die on the gallows or of the pox”, Wilkes replied: “That Sir, depends on whether I embrace your principles of your mistress.” Since then variations on the story have been attributed to many other people just as the various famous Menzies and Churchill quips can often be traced back to F.E.Smith or others. In British parliamentary history the only comparably delightful moment to Wilkes’s comment was when the Labour MP, Tom Driberg, was criticised for arranging to have oral s.x with parliamentary staff. Not of course because of the act itself, but because he invited the staff into the MPs’ lavatories.

But back to Wilkes and Shaw – the blog thinks the Labor Party is about to make a serious mistake in voting to expel Shaw. The political advantages seem obvious – a possible early election at which they ride in on the wave of anti-Abbott feelings and the belief that the Liberal Government in Victoria has not done much – particularly in terms of their promise to ‘fix’ things. But Shaw has not been convicted of anything. His views seem primitive and reactionary today but would not have been out of place in much of Spanish history nor in 18th, 19th and much of 20th century British history and much of 19th and 20th century Australian history and politics. There are voters out there who feel the same.

The principled thing is to put aside the distastes and the political advantages. George Rude, unlike many of Wilkes’ biographers, focussed less on his life and more on those who supported him – “merchants, craftsmen, journeymen, freeholders and others” – those who were disenfranchised throughout Britain – but not entirely in the Westminster electorate.  Their views were as strange to 18th century British ruling class opinion as Shaw’s are to a majority of Victorians.

Wilkes was dangerous because his case raised important principles which challenged the system, gave voice to the disenfranchised and pointed the way to future democratic developments. Shaw, however objectionable we find his behaviour and beliefs, ought to have the benefit of the same principles Wilkes’ and the voters and residents of Westminster protested and demonstrated about. Booting Shaw out of Parliament takes us back to the 1760s and 1770s.

If the ALP and Ken Smith do manage to get Shaw booted out they will be going back to the situation described by the great historian of 18th century British parliaments, Sir Lewis Namier, when he pioneered the study of patronage in politics and showed the way the system determined who got into parliament, who got into office, who had influence and who got thrown out of the parliament – rather like the factions of Australia’s political parties do today.