Jeremy Clarkson petition to BBC echoes 17th century protests, says History professor

Former Top Gear star Jeremy Clarkson has been compared to a 17th century political campaigner by senior Roehampton historian Professor Ted Vallance, who identified early modern parallels in both the petition supporting the presenter and Clarkson’s own response to it.

Posted: 27 March 2015

image for news story Jeremy Clarkson petition to BBC echoes 17th century protests, says History professor
Former BBC Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson, who has been compared to a 17th century political campaigner by Professor Ted Vallance

The BBC confirmed this week (March 25) that Jeremy Clarkson has been dropped from Top Gear, a show worth £50 million a year to the corporation's commercial arm, for an alleged ‘fracas’ with a producer. A petition set up by blogger Paul Staines in support of re-instating Clarkson received over one million signatures, the largest online petition in the UK’s history.

In an article for HistoryToday published shortly before Mr Clarkson was told of the decision, Professor Vallance made historical comparisons between the pro-Clarkson petition and its early modern equivalents. 

He wrote: “The petition in support of reinstating Clarkson has been put together by the right-wing blogger Guido Fawkes, aka Paul Staines. Like Clarkson, Staines writes a column for the Sun, a tabloid newspaper that supports the Conservative Party. Clarkson himself is a friend of the Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron.

“Mass petitions in the 17th century were often the product of cabals of activists, who exploited these texts as lobbying devices, bringing pressure on MPs, ministers and the Crown. To counter the political threat of mass-petitioning, the ‘Cavalier Parliament’ passed the Tumultuous Petitioning Act in 1661, which restricted the number of individuals who could present a petition. Despite the proviso in the Bill of Rights protecting the right to petition the Crown, petitions to Parliament continued to be regulated by this legislation until the act was finally repealed in 1986.

“Clarkson then, like a good 17th-century pamphleteer, denies that popular protest is effective but, at the same time, does nothing to discourage his supporters from petitioning in his defence or staging demonstrations for his reinstatement.”

Ted Vallance is Professor of early modern British political culture at the University of Roehampton and teaches on Roehampton's BA and MA History programmes.

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