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Response to Review no. 454

I would like to thank John Garrard for his thoughtful, and thought provoking review of my book, Scandal: The Sexual Politics of the British Constitution. I certainly agree that the emergence of the mass media – in the eighteenth-century context, newspapers – was certainly essential in making scandals so powerful during this period, but scandals had also characterised the earlier eighteenth-century media. Walpole succeeded to some extent in narrowing the reach of scandals, keeping them focused on the personal rather than allowing them to challenge the system. The genius of Wilkes was that he could effectively tie sexual scandals about the king’s mother (which he invented) to the wider question of political change. Scandals are so interesting because they force us to question the rather austere image of the public sphere put forth by Habermas and his followers. Public opinion did not just respond to rational, disinterested debate, but to lively, often sexual images and metaphors. However, I found that people were not just taken in by titillating material; rather, they assessed evidence and made up their own minds about scandals. I am also fascinated to learn of John Garrard’s own work on political scandals in the nineteenth century. I also very much like his suggestion that scandals concern ‘behaviour located near the often-hazy borderlines between allowable and illegitimate behaviour, and to occur when public values are shifting, normally in the direction of greater probity’.

Much more needs to be done on how nineteenth-century scandals differed from their eighteenth-century counterparts, but also how sex scandals differ from other kinds of political scandals. First, sex gets people’s attention, and lends itself to a compelling narrative, but second, sexual images serve as metaphors for wider political issues. I would argue that the shift in sexual morality is not the main reason for the impact of sex scandals in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth-centuries. In fact, the book is not intended to focus on sexual morality, but on sex as a political metaphor. This was a time in which radicals and reformers were challenging the system of political influence based on the personal power of the monarch and the aristocracy. If radicals could portray personal influence as based on illegitimate sexual sway, rather than on legitimate patronage, then they could begin to undermine the whole system. My current work on the history of sexuality is now focused on ideas about sexual desire and sexual practices, so I will be able to illuminate the politics of sexuality, rather than the sexuality of politics, which was the focus of Scandal.