THE trouble in Manchester all kicked off when bogus rumours spread that a mob was besieging parts of inner London. A section of the lower orders, clearly fuelled by drink, set out on a wrecking spree, expressing their solidarity by smashing windows.
I refer, of course, to the situation in 1816, in a Britain so different from the one in which we live today that it is impossible to imagine what things must have been like for the dispossessed.
The country was led by a reactionary Tory government which, faced with economic ruin brought on by the huge of expense of foreign wars, was determined to introduce policies that directly benefited the wealthy few.
Among the measures that it enacted were the Corn Laws, which enriched the landed interest from which they drew their support, at the expense of making food dearer for everybody else.
The urban working class – derided at the time as immoral, uneducated, brutalised, feckless, and completely bereft of all prevailing norms of morality and decency – lashed out with undisguised fury.
First riots rocked the capital. Then they spread to other parts of Britain. In Bridport, there were protests against higher bread prices, in Bideford they focused on the export of grain while families starved at home. Merthyr Tydfil erupted against the imposition of wage cuts. In Newcastle-upon-Tyne, hungry miners went on the rampage, while in Glasgow, deaths resulted from a ruckus over poor quality soup kitchens.
Nor was there any respect for the property of the employers. Only years before, the mindless thugs known to history as the Luddites had wrecked machinery in factories, oblivious to warnings of political economists at the shocking short sightedness of such behaviour.
With the benefit of hindsight, historians can see that the warning signs were obvious. For much of the population ,life chances were limited to unemployment, the workhouse or begging. No question of education for them.
The disconnect between the political system and the broad public was complete. Many seats in Westminster were in the control of small cliques or even individuals, and even elsewhere, only the affluent were represented in parliament.
There were huge disparities in wealth. Factory workers earned just 25p a week, while government sinecurists such as Lord Arden took £39,000 a year from the public purse. The entire annual budget for the relief of the poor at the time was just £42,000.
Yet instead of tackling these questions, incompetent home secretary Lord Sidmouth decided instead on a regime of growing repression. Any criticism of the system was criminalised as ‘sedition’, laws were introduced against trade unionism, and the freedom of the press was severely curtailed.
Some even blamed the unrest on recent developments in communications. Postal services were intercepted and letters to and from radicals or suspected agitators were routinely copied to the Home Office.
It is to just this period that the origins of today’s labour movement can be traced, as awareness grew of the need for a movement that stood up for ordinary people against a corrupt plutocracy.
Of course, Conservatism has evolved massively over the last two centuries. It is surely unthinkable that Theresa May would even contemplate making the same mistakes as her predecessor of nearly 200 years ago. Isn’t it?
Sunday, August 14, 2011
Publicada por Miguel Madeira em 15:52