The political crises of the early years of George III’s reign, from the ‘Wilkes and Liberty’ campaigns to the loss of the American colonies, are generally considered as a watershed in politics and radicalism. Cumulative in impact, the issues raised by Wilkes — general warrants, the rights of electors, publication of parliamentary debates — comprised a frontal assault on the politics of oligarchy and its legitimizing notion of virtual representation (also under critical attack in the American colonies). The self-proclaimed champion of ‘the middling and inferior class of people’, Wilkes appears a crucial figure in extending the programme, constituency and organizational basis of reform. ‘Wilkes and Liberty’ shifted reform debate from ‘country party’ concern for the purity and independence of parliament to consider reform of representation and the extension of the suffrage. However, the extent of innovation should not be exaggerated.
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