Parliament and Dissent (review)
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Parliament and Dissent. Edited by Stephen Taylor and David L. Wykes. Pp. vii, 156. ISBN: 07486 2195 4. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. 2005. £17.99.

This latest special volume of Parliamentary History continues the strong backlist of multi-authored thematic editions in the series. However, based as the collection is on a conference on parliament and dissent, it has both the attractiveness of the historical lucky-dip and the disadvantages of an incomplete picture. David Wykes, in his introduction, attempts to resolve the latter fault, but introduces the chapters more than the topic of dissent. In particular, the context of dissent before the Revolution of 1688/9 is not presented adequately, in either the introduction or the eight chapters, and there is a sense in which we are parachuted into the eighteenth century with little notion of how we got there in political and religious terms. Nevertheless, this collection provides some interesting insights into the agenda of English dissent over 200 years. Wales and Scotland are mostly not considered.

The argument over tactics among dissenters is one of the common themes throughout the volume, but this affected the Anglican church as well. Wykes provides a picture of clerical intolerance over Quakers in the aftermath of the fall of James II and VII. General fears over the efficiency of the Friends had for some Anglicans echoes of the church of Rome. Extreme critics like Francis Bugg produced a parliamentary petition condemning the spread of Quakers in the counties of Norfolk and Suffolk, although some moderates in the clergy were unhappy at these attacks and accused Bugg and his associates of providing the Friends with the oxygen of publicity. It is ironic that both Quaker and Anglican used the Toleration Act of 1689 to defend themselves from attack, and also that the relief for Friends, as encapsulated in the 1696 Affirmation Act, resulted from the consciences of MPs rather than outside pressure from Quakers.

To dissenters the Toleration Act itself was the main grievance from its creation. It was, as Mark Knights suggests, an unsatisfactory compromise (p. 41). James Bradley describes how in the 1730s the Protestant Dissenting Deputies led a campaign of elite persuasion, lobbying MPs, printing pamphlets and deploying their vote in county elections, but ultimately to no avail, the votes to repeal the Test and Corporation Acts in the House of Commons failing by two to one in 1736 and by the same margin in 1739. In spite of the organisational strength and internal democracy of the Deputies, the dissenters were split again over tactics, with some wishing to side-step electoral politics. Bradley concludes that disunity of purpose weakened the dissenting argument yet encouraged greater participation in political activity. Nevertheless, those who have studied political developments in the seventeenth century will question Bradley's reliance on Habermas's public sphere theory. Meanwhile, Andrew Thomson's article also covers, if less effectively, the 1730s and again makes links with the public sphere. He draws comparisons with the campaigning in the early decades of the eigthteenth century and, in particular, he contrasts the content of two dissenting periodicals, the monthly Occasional Paper (1710s) and weekly Old Whig (1730s). In an oddly paragraphed and unnecessarily self-conscious piece, Thomson suggests or assumes some authors of anonymous tracts, and then considers the nature of the debate. For Anglicans toleration was enough but for dissent it was simply not equality under the law.

In his article on dissenting petitions to parliament in 1772–3 G. M. Ditchfield provides a more detailed analysis of changes in the character of dissent, focusing closely on the importance of the various petitions, especially the Feathers Tavern petition of 1772, and more generally on the longer term implications for [End Page 344] dissent. Although dissenters retained a strong influence among MPs, the reform bills of 1772 and 1773 failed. Meanwhile, in the country, the clash between orthodoxy and heterodoxy intensified with a battle for the ownership and rejection of such terms as 'rational dissenter' and 'liberal dissenter' (pp.101-2). Scare-mongering, a campaign to preserve the doctrine of the Trinity, and fear of extremists influenced Anglicans and moderate dissenters. Ditchfield highlights the...