This article is from the April issue of Total Politics
Lord George Gordon, a younger son of the Duke of Gordon, led the anti-Catholic agitation that degenerated into the infamous Gordon Riots of June 1780. He was also an MP for six years of his short but turbulent life.
After a period in the navy, including a few years in America, with promotion unlikely, by the early 1770s young Gordon harboured political ambitions. He began to nurse the single-seat constituency of Inverness-shire, much to the consternation of the incumbent, General Simon Fraser.
The Gordon family had been buying their way into the seat, concluding an agreement with Fraser in 1766 that he would either stand down in the future in favour of a Gordon candidate or find another seat for him. Bowing to the inevitable, Fraser arranged to buy a seat for Gordon at the Wiltshire constituency of Ludgershall, a borough controlled by George Selwyn.
In October 1774, Gordon and Peniston Lamb (Viscount Melbourne and father of the Victorian prime minister) were duly returned unopposed at Ludgershall. Not yet 23, Gordon had become an MP without even visiting the constituency.
In the House, he began quietly, though generally voting with the Whig opposition against North’s Tory government. He is first recorded as speaking on 13 April 1778, with a vehement attack on the government’s policy on the American rebellion, pleading with the PM to “call off his butchers and ravagers from the colonies… it was not yet too late to repent”.
Oddly, in view of the coming events that would guarantee his infamy, he seems neither to have spoken nor voted against the Bill later that year, the Savile Act, which removed some of the most serious disabilities perpetrated against Catholics.
Gordon’s speeches became increasingly eccentric. He would resort to reading long extracts from newspapers and pamphlets, much to the annoyance of the other Members. In vain the Speaker would try to call him to order, and Members left the chamber in droves during his diatribes. Once, every MP left, allowing the Speaker to adjourn the House. It was said that at this time there were three parties in the House – the Ministry, the Opposition and Lord George Gordon.
His virulent anti-Catholic speeches made him popular with Scottish Protestants. On 5 May 1779 he described them as people “ripe for insurrection and rebellion”, who “would prefer death to slavery”. During the debate on the Address in November he warned that the “exasperated” Scots “were convinced in their own mind that the King is a papist” at which point his speech was stopped by the Speaker. A few months later, he announced that “he had 160,000 men in Scotland at his command, and that if the King did not keep his coronation oath… they were determined to cut off his head”.
On 2 June 1780, as the president of the Protestant Association, he presented a huge petition to Parliament on the group’s behalf, demanding repeal of the Savile Act, leading a procession of around 60,000 supporters to Westminster.
While Gordon went into the House to present the petition, the vast crowd laid siege to Parliament. Members of both Houses were barracked and manhandled, and attempts were made to storm the Palace. Gordon regularly came out to provide running commentaries to his supporters of the petition’s progress.
Despite his efforts, once the lobby had been sufficiently cleared to allow a division, the House decisively rejected the petition.
Several days of mob rioting across London ensued, with many deaths and injuries. Gordon himself was appalled at the violence, and tried in vain to stop it. When order was eventually restored, he was arrested and sent to the Tower.
Charged with high treason, he was acquitted at his trial the following February.
His imprisonment had prevented him contesting the 1780 general election. In late 1781 a vacancy arose in the City of London, when one of its members died, and he was invited to stand. His nomination was controversial and the government made every effort to derail his candidacy.
Facing the huge financial cost of fighting a strongly contested election in the City, Gordon decided to withdraw.
The remaining eventful years of Gordon’s life were, doubtless to the great relief of all MPs, spent outside Parliament.
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