Thursday, January 14, 2010

Enquiries and the state of Brown's trousers - a historical note 

The Brown Funk on answering questions on the Iraq war to the Chilcot enquiry before the General Election is unlikely to lead to mass protests in the streets – unlike the events of 1812 when Parliament decided to hold enquiries into the fiasco of the 1810 Walcheren expedition in secret. That resulted in protest crowds thousands in the streets and a near-miss for a violent revolution.

When one radical commentator was thrown into Newgate goal without trial for putting up a poster denouncing this ‘outrage’ the radical MP Frances Burdett made a stinging statement denouncing his colleagues for arbitrary practices. A vote of the commons (189 to 152) declared this statement a breach of parliamentary privilege and Burdett was committed to the Tower of London. Burdett declared the warrant illegal and tens of thousands of people took to the streets of London in his support. Small boats blocked the river approaches to the Tower and crowds blocked the land approaches. Burdett’s Piccadilly house was surrounded by a protective cordon which spilled over into Albemarle Street and Berkeley Square. However Burdett did decline the support of another radical MP (Cochrane) who arrived with a barrel of gunpowder and a proposal to set up ‘improvised explosive devices’ to be set off if the authorities attacked. The authorities set up artillery batteries in St James’s Park and Soho Square and the Life Guards charged the demonstrators.

Burdett was eventually arrested by a police constable who climbed in to his house though a rear window, and taken to the tower. There followed two months of mass demonstrations around Parliament while the commons debated whether to expel Burdett. Burdett’s supporters were carried to the house daily on the shoulders of protesters through cheering crowds. In the end the governing cliques quietly allowed his release on the prorogation of Parliament.

So the whole thing ended in a somewhat British farcical whimper rather than a great resolution of the issues. It will be interesting to watch the state of Brown’s trousers as this 2010 Chilcot farce plays out, but we are unlikely to see such passionate public engagement in the issue. We do of course nowadays all have a ballot as an alternative to gunpowder…

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