Electing our Masters: The Hustings in British Politics from Hogarth to Blair

Sarah Richardson enjoys a thorough account of the ritual and function of politics as performance

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Reviewed by: Sarah Richardson
Author: Jon Lawrence
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Price (RRP): £30

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“Now, do not let them lure you to the hustings, my dear Mr Brooke. A man always makes a fool of himself, speechifying: there’s no excuse but being on the right side, so that you can ask a blessing on your humming and hawing. You will lose yourself, I forewarn you. You will make a Saturday pie of all parties’ opinions, and be pelted by everybody.”

This warning from Mrs Cadwallader to Mr Brooke in George Eliot’s Middlemarch clearly demonstrates the attraction of the hustings to politicians, and also their inherent danger. The hustings represent a moment of inversion in politics: the rich and powerful have to appeal to the masses (some of whom may not even possess the franchise) for their support. But on the other hand, a successful appearance on the stump may transform a politician’s fortunes and create a popular momentum that sweeps him (or latterly her) into power.

Brooke ignored Mrs Cadwallader’s wise advice and suffered the ignominious consequences. But the allure of the open air election meeting, with the opportunity not merely to attract votes but also to engage in politics as a performative act, has tempted many a more experienced politician than Brooke.

Jon Lawrence, in his expert study of hustings from the 18th century to the present day, charts the fascination of the hustings to the politician and the role of the populace at the sharp end of electoral politics. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the ritual of the hustings, as satirised so evocatively by Hogarth in his series of paintings on the election of 1754, was an essential part of the political process.

Lawrence carefully tracks the elements of continuity and change, considering aspects such as the rise of the platform, the role of women in electioneering, the culture of masculinity, and the function of the hustings in an age of mass democracy.

But what becomes of these rituals in a televisual age? While the rise of radio and television has meant that face-to-face politics is increasingly mediated through broadcasters, an election’s turning-point may still hinge on an unscripted personal encounter between a politician and the public.

Thus John Prescott’s pugilistic encounter with Craig Evans and the ambush of Tony Blair by Sharron Storer remain highlights of the 2001 General Election campaign. In a provocative concluding chapter, Lawrence speculates about the future of public participation in electioneering, arguing that the future of this aspect of democracy now lies in the hands of the media.

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However, perhaps with the rise of the Web 2.0 generation, the hustings is entering a new phase. In recent months students have used the social networking site Twitter to rally opposition via flash mob tactics in Moldova. Attempts by political parties to control the political blogosphere went seriously awry when Labour’s Damian McBride was revealed to be discussing a smear campaign against leading Conservatives. Will these virtual substitutes for hustings revolutionise politics, or is the interaction only a façade where the public will be managed out of the political process?