A rake's progress

John Wilkes: the scandalous father of civil liberty

Arthur H Cash <em>Yale University Press, 482pp

Toothless, cross-eyed and sporting a badly prognathous jaw, John Wilkes, the 18th-century parliamentarian, journalist, agitator, freedom fighter, wit and pornographer, was told not to expose his face to pregnant women. His startling appearance was "an indication of a very bad soul within". Wilkes's general badness, however, being of the radical, rakish, outlaw variety, proved not unattractive to the ladies, and it took him, so he claimed, only "20 minutes to talk away" his distorted features - indeed, sometimes only ten, despite the chronic lisp caused by his lack of teeth. There- after he was mewing and purring like the cat who got the cream. George Galloway, Wilkes's equal in capacity for reckless self-promotion, would be keen on the analogy. Before long, the twisted face of John Wilkes had become a symbol of freedom, and was reproduced in print many hundreds of times, while statuettes of his sturdy form adorned mantelpieces across the land. He was that rare thing: a popular politician. "Wilkes and Liberty!" was the slogan of the day.

Arthur Cash's biography of Wilkes has nothing new to add to his already well-documented life (apart from the suggestion that, as a boy, he may well have looked "cute") but its publication is timely. Wilkes was a champion of civil liberties and father of the free press; it would have been something to have had him on the Today programme over the past few weeks. His politics spilled over into more general lifestyle commitments, and he was a libertine when such men's behaviour was considered the height of good breeding. In answer to his friend James Boswell's question, "What shall I do to get life over?", Wilkes replied: "Dissipation and profligacy . . . renew the mind." But what he will be most remembered for is the number 45.

Wilkes launched the North Briton as a response to the first minister Lord Bute's establishment journal, the Briton, edited by Tobias Smollett. He stuffed his paper with gossip, insults and rumour, mostly about Lord Bute himself, whom Wilkes loathed for a variety of reasons, most of which he didn't explain. His scandal-mongering sold to the tune of 2,000 copies a week, knocking the Briton off the map and Bute out of office. In 1763, two weeks after Bute was forced to resign, Wilkes launched the notorious North Briton number 45, in which he dared to suggest that the King's Speech was writ-ten not by His Highness but by one of his ministers, which of course it was. The claim was deemed seditious libel and Wilkes was arrested by the government on the authority of a general warrant that named the crime - the writing and print-ing of the North Briton 45 - but not the criminal. Along with Wilkes, 49 other men were arrested, most of them innocent.

By the time of Wilkes's arrival at the Tower, 45 had become a symbol of radical politics from Newcastle to North America, where he had helped to inspire the Bill of Rights. When he was released, claiming exemption on the grounds of being an MP, members of Club 45 in Charleston drank 45 toasts between 7.45pm and 12.45am. Citizens of Virginia and Maryland resolved to send him 45 hogsheads of tobacco.

Wilkes's next move was to print his obscene poem "An Essay on Woman", which, when it was read to the House of Lords by the Earl of Sandwich - a fellow member of the Hellfire Club - was said to be like hearing the devil preach a ser-mon against sin. Wilkes was duly expelled from the Commons, after which he was re-elected and then expelled again, in a seemingly endless cycle.

It is an action-packed life which, in Arthur Cash's hands, is packed further still. We learn, for example, how many times Wilkes's coach changed horses on a trip to Paris (every ten to 12 miles) and how members of the Lords might have arrived at the Palace of Westminster: "The great nobles . . . were brought in sedan chairs carried by husky chairmen by means of poles fixed to the bottom of the sedan, a tall box with a door and windows that contained the seat." There is rather too much information and quite a bit of repetition, but there are many fine sentences, too, and Cash's racy commentary has about it a journalistic flare of which his subject would approve. Of Wilkes's friend Thomas Potter, with whom he co-wrote "An Essay on Woman", Cash observes: "despite his good breeding, [Potter] was the more rakish of the two. When writing to Wilkes about how he might be remembered after he was gone, he speculated that it would be for the time when he was seen copulating with a cow on Wingrove Common. He was right. Potter died in 1759 and we are still talking about the cow."

Frances Wilson's The Courtesan's Revenge is published by Faber & Faber