Spontaneity is not a word easily associated with modern political campaigning. When the next general election is held in Britain, the parties’ efforts will be a carefully choreographed combination of photo opportunities, targeted TV ads and meetings with loyal supporters. There seems little echo here of older ideas about elections as a time of ‘hustings’ and public meetings, when politicians supposedly came face to face with the people and their views.
But is talk of a ‘spirit of the hustings’ just nostalgic nonsense? Dr Jon Lawrence is the author of Electing Our Masters: the Hustings in British Politics from Hogarth to Blair. He suggests we must be careful not to romanticise the 18th‑century hustings pictured by Hogarth and others.
These meetings of potential MPs with the people saw much rowdiness and drinking but were “tightly scripted” in their own way, and followed a traditional ritual. In that pre-democratic age, when only a small minority had the vote, they were an important part of legitimising the status quo, linking gentlemen politicians with the mob while confirming their power and superiority.
It may have had a limited effect on who held political power, but the fact that politicians were obliged to appear before the public did establish an important tradition. In the 19th century, argues Jon Lawrence, the belief developed “that the public possessed the right, not only to see their political masters in the flesh, but also to interrogate them on matters of policy”.
The political meeting, sometimes held outdoors, became a fixture of electoral campaigning. While some politicians – famously Gladstone – relished this idea, others were not so sure. Even Winston Churchill wrote wearily of politics “with its disorderly gatherings, its organised oppositions, its hostile little meetings, its jeering throng, its stream of disagreeable and often silly questions”. At one election, a suffragette with a bell repeatedly disrupted his meetings, demanding votes for women.
Churchill did acknowledge the educational value of such meetings. But there have always been plenty of politicians, like Neville Chamberlain, who dreaded election campaigns as an “ordeal of humiliation”. By the time he said this in the 1920s, the context for meetings had changed, with the advent of mass democracy. Women could participate as voters, rather than having to ring bells of protest.
Numbers attending might have been in steady decline, but Jon Lawrence points out that public meetings remained a central part of political life at least until the 1950s: “if you did not do it, you might be seen as cowardly, or thinking yourself superior”. And some politicians persisted for long afterwards. Edward Heath felt dealing with hecklers made him seem less boring, so arranged for undercover Young Conservatives to interrupt his ticket-only rallies in 1970.
Pre-arranged heckling was a hint of the way in which politics was becoming more stage-managed. And the arrival of the television age reinforced that trend. However Jon Lawrence cautions against all-too-easy assumptions about TV superseding older political instincts.
In some ways, the broadcast media tried to adapt existing traditions, with the radio phone-in as a public interrogation of politicians and the aggressive interviewer acting like a persistent heckler. But some of the spontaneity of the traditional hustings has clearly been lost. The broadcasters themselves are mediators in these modern encounters between politicians and people, influencing how they take place and who is involved.
As today’s politicians fret about public apathy, the traditional ‘spirit of the hustings’ is still invoked. Political leaders talk earnestly of meeting and learning from ‘ordinary people’. And the people themselves, believes Jon Lawrence, can still respond in more traditional fashion if roused. “It was notable”, he says, “how the public anger caused by revelations about MPs’ expenses earlier this year produced scenes as tumultuous as anything in the days of the hustings.”
Politicians remain wary of spontaneous contact with the public; the media retain their influence over how it happens. But the historic essence of the hustings – that voters like, in Jon Lawrence’s words, “to make judgements about the whole person, not just the policy” – remains well-rooted.
Chris Bowlby is a presenter on BBC radio, specialising in history
This feature was first published in the January 2010 issue of BBC History Magazine.
This series is produced with History & Policy. You can find out more about them and read their papers at www.historyandpolicy.org.