Prof. Christopher Roberts delivered a faculty seminar “Experiments with Suppression: The Evolution of Repressive Legality in Britain in the Revolutionary Period” on 8 January 2020

On 8 January 2020, Prof. Christopher Roberts delivered a Faculty Seminar entitled Experiments with Suppression: The Evolution of Repressive Legality in Britain in the Revolutionary Period. The seminar was concerned with the structure of repressive governance, and the manner in which it has evolved historically. It examined this theme through an exploration of the manner in which repressive laws and institutions evolved in Britain over the course of the late eighteenth century. In particular, it explored the various measures the authorities in Britain at the time utilized and relied upon in order to confront a growing wave of calls for social and political reforms. These included a policy of aggressive prosecutions of dissidents; the creation of new institutions, such as the Home Office, designed to enhance the powers of the central authorities; extra-legal measures, such as the creation of loyalist associations which attempted to intimidate and attack revolutionaries; and the passage of a series of new laws, aimed at closing off the space for freedom of association, assembly and expression. These measures were not implemented unopposed; amongst other things, the period was marked by the evolution of a powerful tradition of defense lawyering, thanks to the efforts of the gifted Thomas Erskine in particular. Ultimately, however, when these four different sets of repressive measures were woven together, they proved too much for progressives to handle, choking off and driving the reform movement underground, at least for a time. The discussion reflected upon the nature of trials and debates at the time, the extent to which the measures taken truly were experimental or were perhaps more deliberate, and contemporary resonances.