A corrupt parliament; an unprincipled government; an economy sinking under a mountain of debt – and a people enraged. Not a bad description of Britain in 2009.
Also not a bad description of Britain nearly two centuries ago, in the dismal decade of distress and discontent that followed the Napoleonic Wars. Yes, we’ve been in this mess before. The question is: How did we get out of it? And can we do it again?
In his Rural Rides, which he began writing in 1822 and published in 1830, the radical journalist William Cobbett portrayed a country groaning under the twin burdens of debt and sleaze.
The 1820s were a time of acute financial crisis – of deflation, a crashing stock market and soaring unemployment – and Cobbett expressed better than anyone the bitter national mood.
Unlike the economists of his time, he dismissed the idea that the crisis was the result of a natural business cycle. For Cobbett, it was clearly a consequence of political corruption.
‘A national debt,’ he wrote, ‘and all the taxation and gambling belonging to it, have a natural tendency to draw wealth into great masses – for the gain of a few.‘ Now, Cobbett lamented, ‘the Debt, the blessed Debt’ was ‘hanging round the neck of this nation like a millstone’. Ring a bell? It should. Under Gordon Brown’s stewardship of the nation’s finances, we have witnessed both an explosion of public debt and a marked increase in inequality.
We can already feel the millstone growing as taxes rise to pay the interest on the money borrowed to bail out the greedy incompetents who blew up the big banks.
The UK Debt Management Office estimates that the Government will have to sell a record o147.9 billion of new bonds in the 2009-10 financial year. But that understates the magnitude of the debt mountain.
According to one estimate, the various guarantees, asset purchases, capital injections and stimulus measures introduced by the Government since this crisis began amount to 59 per cent of gross domestic product.
A doubling of the national debt might end up being the ironic legacy of Gordon ‘Prudence’ Brown’s premiership. Nor is the debt explosion the only thing we have in common with Cobbett’s time. The entire political system, he argued, had become a kind of ‘vortex’, sucking money from the poor to a new plutocracy – and to an ever-growing bureaucracy.
The country was in the hands of a ‘monster of a system’, declared Cobbett, that was run for the benefit of a ‘tribe of tax-eaters’. That, too, has a familiar ring. Under Gordon Brown and his more charismatic predecessor there has been a steady expansion of public sector employment. From 1998, the public payroll grew with every passing year to reach a total of 5,846,000 in June 2005. That was 680,000 higher than in June 1998. Private sector employment rose by 1,241,000 in the same period.
In other words, more than a third of new jobs created under New Labour in those seven years were in the public sector. And we can expect a further expansion of government employment relative to private sector employment as a consequence of this crisis.
Like other Radicals of the period, Cobbett saw electoral reform rather than revolution as the necessary remedy. After all, he argued, ‘the House [of Commons] made all the loans which constitute the debt’.
It was Parliament that was the heart of the system of ‘Old Corruption’, whereby the government doled out wellpaid sinecures and handouts to ‘placemen’ who could be relied on to vote the right way as and when required. Now, that really does sound familiar, doesn’t it?
Who – apart from our shameless MPs themselves – has not felt a surge of indignation at reading each day of the antics of our elected representatives, merrily fiddling their expenses while the City of London burned?
Even on the other side of the Atlantic, where political corruption is hardly unknown, there has been amazement at the bare-faced nature of the frauds perpetrated by some of those we elected to make, rather than break, our laws.
Only in dear old England, the Washingtonians joke, could you put a moat on expenses. To be a Brit abroad these days, dear reader, is to be a laughing stock. It would take a Cobbett to do full justice to my sense of indignation.
So what can we learn from Cobbett’s time? The answer is that there can be redemption through reform – and indeed, without reform we risk revolution: the popular repudiation of the parliamentary system itself.
That was certainly the risk Britain was running by 1830. When revolutions broke out in Paris and elsewhere on the European continent, there were many who feared barricades and bloodshed in the streets of London. Yet it didn’t happen. Why not?
First, because a change of government paved the way for electoral reform, culminating in the passage of the 1832 Reform Act. It was, of course, very far from a complete overhaul of the old, corrupt system, since many of the abuses of aristocratic patronage persisted into the 1860s and beyond (as any reader of Trollope can confirm). But it was a start – and a signal that the political class was in earnest about mending its ways.
Under Gordon Brown’s, we have witnessed both an explosion of public debt and an increase in inequality
Second, and more important, both the major political parties underwent a transformation both in leadership and in ideology. ‘Old Corruption’ had been an 18th-century system in which Tories and Whigs took it in turns to harvest the fruits of office. (Whigs were more sympathetic to the American and French Revolutions. Tories put King and Country first.)
The political crisis of 1829-1832 – which began with the decision to give Roman Catholics the vote and culminated in the passage of the Reform Act – dealt a deathblow to the old Toryism personified by Lord Liverpool, who had clamped down vigorously on all forms of popular protest. In its place there gradually emerged a new Liberal Toryism, under the leadership of Sir Robert Peel, which identified itself with free trade, balanced budgets and sound money.
Peel ended up splitting his party over free trade (removing tariffs on imported grain that hurt Tory landowners, but benefited urban consumers). But his legacy lived on in the person of William Ewart Gladstone, who emerged as the dominant figure of a new Liberal Party – essentially Whigs plus Radicals – in the second half of the century.
The rump Tories also received a makeover under the very unlikely leadership of Benjamin Disraeli who, despite his Jewish origins, colourful literary career and chronic money problems, somehow succeeded in casting himself as the spokesman for a new kind of compassionate Conservatism. Disraeli insisted that the pillars of the English constitution – monarchy, Church and aristocracy – were sacrosanct. Yet he also spoke out against the social division of the country into ‘two nations’ as a consequence of the unfettered free market.
And it was Disraeli who grasped that ‘jingoism’ – a potent cocktail of popular patriotism and imperial expansionism – could win new voters among newly enfranchised groups such as artisans, skilled workers and shopkeepers: the Essex Men of the Victorian era.
The big question for our time is whether the two major parties are capable of similar regeneration. The good news is that I think the Conservatives are already there. Under David Cameron’s leadership, great strides forward have been taken to reconcile the principles of the Thatcherite Right – Euroscepticism, in particular – with the need to attract new supporters from the political centre.
Cameron may be a committed opponent of European federalism, but he is also – like many younger voters – distinctly green on the issue of climate change.
I am a convinced Cameroon, not least because I see him as a conservative mailed fist in a velvet glove.
In their recent speeches, he and Shadow Chancellor George Osborne have made it clear they will not shirk the tough choices that will have to be made in the new era of austerity we are entering. The days of ‘jobs for the boys’ are coming to an end in British politics, as are the days of ‘get rich quick’ by borrowing to the hilt and speculating in property.
Yet the Tories under Cameron and Osborne understand that ‘progressive Conservatism’ cannot merely attempt to rerun the 1980s. That’s why they are laying so much emphasis on the need for greater accountability and decentralisation throughout the public sector.
‘Active citizenship’ was never much more than a slogan in the Thatcher years. Under Cameron I hope it will become a reality as state schools, in particular, become more responsive to local needs, and our health service breaks decisively with half-a-century of Soviet-style central planning.
But what of Labour? Here the picture is altogether more bleak. After a dozen years in power, the members of the parliamentary party resemble nothing more closely than the nomenklatura of the old Eastern Bloc – the communist party cronies who were handed all the plum administrative jobs.
Most are party hacks whose sole qualification for a seat in our national legislature was a tour of duty in local government. Bullied mercilessly by hard-boiled Scotsmen who learned their politics in the student unions and regional authorities of the drizzly North, these greyapparatchiks must make Lord Mandelson wince on the (mercifully few) occasions when he has to socialise with them.
In the U.S. a charismatic new President, Barack Obama was elected just as the financial crisis reached a crescendo
My worry about the next General Election is not that Labour could somehow win. The probability of such an outcome must be close to zero. My worry is that Labour will perform so badly that it will be unable to constitute an effective Opposition in future – and that a substantial proportion of traditional Labour voters in the English working class will turn elsewhere for political representation. The big political challenge we face is one that the Victorians did not have to reckon with: Populism. This was the inchoate political movement that arose on both sides of the Atlantic in the wake of the depression that followed the 1873 financial crisis – another fine mess caused by real estate speculation and badly managed banks. In the U.S., the populists were predominantly disgruntled farmers who blamed crooked politicians and cosmopolitan bankers for the falling prices of the 1870s and 1880s. In Germany and Austria they were peasants, craftsmen and small businessmen, who more often pinned the blame for their economic troubles on Jews.
To be sure, populism was neither so vicious nor so successful as fascism in the 1930s. But since the economic crisis we are living through is much more like a 19th-century crisis than the Great Depression of the Thirties, it is populism rather than fascism we should look out for. Populists reject all established political parties. They heap scorn on high finance. They are hostile to immigration and to globalisation generally. It would be hard to think of a more classically populist slogan than ‘British jobs for British workers’. When he used this phrase last year, the Prime Minister inadvertently lit the populist touchpaper. If xenophobic fringe parties such as the British National Party are going to make major gains anywhere at the next election, I suspect it will be from disillusioned Labour voters in places like Dagenham.
If that happens, it will not be unique to Britain. In America, by sheer good luck, a charismatic new President was elected just as the financial crisis reached a crescendo, allowing all the blame to be heaped on George W. Bush – though in reality much more responsibility lies with Congress, Democrats as much as Republicans.
Elsewhere, as in Britain, the financial crisis is destroying the credibility not just of incumbent governments, but entire political establishments. Four governments have fallen in Eastern Europe so far (in Latvia, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Estonia). More will surely follow. It is too early to say for sure if this current crisis will lead to a backlash against parliamentary democracy itself. That seems unlikely, considering it was only 20 years ago that these countries escaped from communist tyranny.
But it would be very surprising if we did not see a backlash of some kind against the politicians who have led Eastern Europe since the fall of the Berlin Wall. The BNP has its counterparts all over central and Eastern Europe. This is their moment.
William Cobbett, after all, was not above anti-Semitism in his broadsides against the financiers of his day. We should not be surprised to hear echoes of that kind of populism in our day, too.
The challenge for today’s mainstream politicians is to convince an angry public that our parliamentary system is capable of reforming itself, as it was in the 19th century.
The alternative, should they fail to do so, is a populist backlash that will not be pretty to behold.