Last night I watched the second televised ‘Scotland Decides’ debate. As Alistair Darling and Alex Salmond made their rival cases for whether or not Scotland should remain part of the United Kingdom it occurred to me that the debate finely illustrated the complicated relationship between two words that are often misleadingly employed as being broadly synonymous. These words, which are each central to my research into early eighteenth-century British periodicals, are ‘political’ and ‘partisan.’
This struck me when I began to consider the strange and unenviable position that Alistair Darling has found himself in. On the one hand, he is spearheading the ‘Better Together’ campaign to protect and maintain the existing relationship between Scotland and England. However, as Salmond recurrently reminded viewers, this is ostensibly a connection not only to England as a nation, but to Westminster as a government.
Problematically, the Tory government currently residing in Westminster is not Darling’s own, and as Salmond’s insistent attempts to get him to justify Tory policies and behaviour revealed, neither is it one that Labour’s Darling is keen to defend. To make the case for the UK, Darling was repeatedly forced to make a case for a ministry he himself opposes. In taking to the stand at these debates, and in agreeing (albeit reluctantly, allegedly) to lead the ‘Better Together’ campaign, Darling’s actions apparently go beyond party.
Viewed generously, Darling is making a case for the UK because he believes, party affiliations aside, that the Union is best for both England and Scotland. More cynical commentators might highlight that in making the case for Union, and in foregrounding his opposition to the Tories, he is simultaneously winning votes for Labour. Either way, to make a political point in this context he has to bare affiliation to a ministry that is not his own. This, for me and my work on eighteenth-century periodicals, is interesting because there is a noticeable and rhetorically useful (for both Darling and Salmond) disjunction between his political intent and his partisan credentials.
Time now, then, to define some key terms. On a lexical and etymological level, what exactly is the difference between ‘political’ and ‘partisan’? The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that ‘political’ refers to ‘an organized form of government or society’ and is ‘concerned with public life and affairs as involving questions of authority and government; relating to or concerned with the theory or practice of politics.’ ‘Political’ refers to the apparatus and mechanics of government and society. It is broader and more general, encompassing notions of citizen and state and the nuances of that relationship and its management. To be ‘partisan’ is to be ‘an adherent or proponent of a party, cause, person, etc.; esp. a devoted or zealous supporter; in early use esp. such a person used as a bodyguard.’ This is more specific. It is to be an advocate and defender of a specific party within the broader government. To relate this to yesterday’s debate, when Darling refers to the general model or fiscal underpinnings of union he is making a political point. When he refers to the way in which Labour would manage this model or regulate this economy, his point is partisan.
So, to ask a question I (fortunately) never get tired of asking: what does this have to do with early eighteenth-century periodicals?
For the past four years I have been working on the periodical writings of the poet, thinker, essayist and statesman Joseph Addison. Famous (in certain circles) for the towering success of his collaborations with Richard Steele on the first periodicals of their kind, The Tatler and The Spectator, Addison makes for a curiously a-political figure in literary criticism and biographical writing of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Strikingly, in the notes to the landmark 1965 edition of The Spectator, Donald F. Bond even claimed that the paper maintains a ‘total avoidance of politics.’
The paper that I examined, Addison’s later single-author periodical, The Free-Holder (1715-1716), complicates this vision, being as it is a paper funded by the Whig ministry written in defence of the new King-in-Government. After its initial appearance as a periodical the paper was collected successfully as a book that went on to see a further eight editions over the next seventy years. This edition was re-titled The Free-Holder or Political Essays. As this renders overt, The Free-Holder not only sees Addison writing for party but also writing about politics. The paper discusses the mechanics of government, the relationship between citizen and state, the danger of rebellion, the significance of property, community and patriotism, and, topically, the advantages of the then recent union with Scotland. According to the OED definition, these are indeed ‘political’ essays.
Tellingly, The Free-Holder has suffered a discernible degree of critical neglect, finding itself alluded to only fleetingly in Addison’s entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, barely acknowledged in twentieth- and twenty-first century literary criticism and only once the subject of a dedicated critical edition, published in 1979. When the Free-Holder does come up, often in works of biography, it is as a ‘political’ counterpart to Addison’s earlier paper.
Writing in the closing years of the nineteenth century Leslie Stephen actually went as far as to describe The Free-Holder as being the ‘political Spectator.’ Stephen was far from alone in make this assertion. More recently, biographer Peter Smithers asserted a similar kinship, claiming that The Free-Holder represents a ‘political crusade parallel with the social crusade of the Spectator.’ In fact, when Smithers claims that: ‘The Free-Holder’s were essays which brought politics out of the cabinets and parliamentary committees and that all-male society of the coffee-houses, and into the circle of the family tea-table’ he is making a thinly veiled homage to the stated aspiration of Addison and Steele’s earlier periodical: ‘[to bring] philosophy out of closets and libraries, schools and colleges, to dwell in clubs and assemblies, at tea-tables and in coffee-houses.’
For me, this line from The Spectator actually highlights why such comparisons are unhelpful to scholars of both The Spectator and The Free-Holder, presupposing as it does that the former was composed without political intent. In fact, the very ‘philosophy’ that The Spectator brings to the coffee house, though often delivered with a wry twinkle of the eye, is often to do with citizenship, behaviour, discourse and dialogue. Nowadays The Spectator is generally acknowledged as a work of social reform, interested as it is in the management of society. According to the OED, these interests again fall well in the remit of the ‘political.’
So, Addison was a political writer.
The Spectator was, essentially, political. What it was not, was overly partisan.
The most compelling evidence for Bond’s claim that Addison’s maintained a ‘total avoidance of politics’ comes in the first issue of The Spectator, when it claims to observe ‘an exact Neutrality between the Whigs and Tories.’ This has also provided much of the rationale for those non-partisan readings of the paper that have characterised the last century of scholarship and have only recently being challenged and complicated by scholars such as Brian Cowan, J.A. Downie (and hopefully, also, myself).
You see, something that I find quite revealing, is that if you count overt partisan behaviour as a tendency to shout things like: ‘this is partisan propaganda, I will make you like me’, then The Free-Holder isn’t particularly partisan either.
If you didn’t know that it was funded by the Whig ministry, then you’d have to wait until the final five issues before it comes clean and tells you that what you’ve been reading isn’t just an extensive mediation on the necessity for property owning gentleman to take an interest in government, but an attractive insight into the philosophy of the new Whig government.
So, if The Free-Holder can disguise its partisan intent by placing an emphasis on it political interest, why can’t The Spectator? Surely it is from this allegedly non-combatant position that Addison can covertly strike the heaviest blows?
Political ideas and partisan intent were clearly distinct in Addison’s mind, but the close kinship and easy slippage between the two proved invaluably useful to both the strategies of The Spectator and The Free-Holder. In each, an insistent interest in political principles that transcend matters of party could disguise partisan interests.
The debate last night demonstrated how this relationship between politics and partisanship could be used in reverse. A discussion of transcendent political principles can be undermined by rival assertions of partisan intent. Every time Alistair Darling attempted to discuss the idea of Union Alex Salmond could interrupt and undermine him by reminding him of his difficult personal partisan position (the relevance of this to the future of the United Kingdom as a whole, however, remains unacknowledged.)
It was at this moment that I saw, with more clarity than ever before, that not only can political discussion masque partisan intentions, but that partisan affiliation can be used quite damagingly to undermine political beliefs.
It was also at this moment that I realised, and respected anew, the rationale for the Spectator’s anonymous claim to political neutrality.
Addison, Joseph, The Spectator, ed. by Donald F. Bond 5 vols (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965)
Addison, Joseph, The Freeholder, ed. by James Lehay (London: Clarendon Press, 1979)
Cowan, Brian, ‘Mr. Spectator and the Coffeehouse Public Sphere’, Eighteenth-Century Studies, 37.3 (2004), 342-366
Downie, J. A., ‘Periodicals and Politics in the Reign of Queen Anne’, in Serials and their Readers, 1620-1914, ed. by Robin Myers and Michael Harris (Newcastle: Oak Knoll Press, 1993), pp. 54-62
Rogers, Pat, ‘Addison, Joseph (1672–1719)’, in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/156
Smithers, Peter, The Life of Joseph Addison (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1954)
Stephen, Leslie, ‘Joseph Addison’, in The Dictionary of National Biography, ed. by Elder Smith (London: Elder Smith, 1885-1912)