‘We want great alteration, but we want nothing new’

“If your swaggering about with hairy caps on your heads could possibly tend to put out the fires, even then I should despise you; but … it has the directly contrary tendency…the very existence of a corps of yeomanry in a neighbourhood, in time of peace, has a direct and natural tendency to produce these fires.

Put aside the archaic turn of phrase and one could imagine William Cobbett’s words from 1832 on the lips of those criticising the police’s recent handling of protest.

Yet not even the Met have had to wear being branded; “loan-mongers, tax-gatherers, dead-weight people, stock jobbers, shag-bag attorneys, bailiffs (most Scotch), toad-eating shopkeepers, who are prepared to perform military duty towards the “lower orders,” as Cobbett denounced the yeomanry.

We tend to think of William Cobbett as a sharp-eyed chronicler of rural England with Tory leanings.  We forget too easily Cobbett the radical, the eternal outsider, the scourge who could not be bought off.

Cobbett was a patriot, a lover of the English (and Scots, Welsh and Irish) countryside, of tradition, of bacon and beer, of good plain grammar, of honest chopsticks (the country labourers he saw as the backbone of English prosperity), of the pleasures of the farmer and smallholder; growing fruit trees, raising cabbages, of rising early and listening to church bells ring out as the mists dissolved over the fields.

He was also the enemy of humbug and corruption, of bankers, stock-jobbers and financial sleight-of-hand, of the smug political consensus (he detested Whigs even more than Tories because he saw their hypocrisy as all the greater), of what we call ‘the system’ and he termed ‘The Thing,’ of the disenfranchisement of working people, of poor wages and poor diet, of the Poor Laws that he believed bred poverty.

Cobbett hated welfare and refused to employ paupers (those who received relief under the Poor Laws), but insisted on paying a wage that allowed his workers and their families, however large those families were, to live in dignity.  Nor was his opposition to welfare unthinking; rather he saw it as a natural consequence of that 18th Century wave of privatisation, known as the Enclosures, which robbed working people of the opportunity to support themselves.  That, he believed, had allowed the working population to be enslaved by employers who drove wages down ever further and denied country people their self respect.  In turn that wrecked the culture of endeavour and self sufficiency that had enabled the less well off to maintain themselves and their independence.

“They drove them from the skirts of commons, downs and forests,” wrote Cobbett. “They took away their cows, pigs, geese, fowls, bees and gardens.  They crowded them into miserable outskirts of towns and villages, for their children to become ricketty and diseased, confined amongst filth and vermin.  They took from them their best inheritance: sweet air, health and the little liberty they had left.”  Again one hears echoes from modern critics of welfare reform.

When, in the Captain Swing protests of 1830, the ‘chopsticks’ of Kent and Sussex turned on the machinery that was putting them out of work, Cobbett supported them.

Though he was a critic of violence he kept the matter of a few broken threshing machines and burnt hay ricks in proportion, measured against the greater destruction of the rural economy and way of life that mechanisation wrought.  He was also mindful of the fact that while property was damaged no one was hurt.

Surely he would have looked upon the G20 protests in the City in 2009 in much the same way; balancing the hundreds of thousands of pounds of damage done to buildings by protesters against the billions upon billions of pounds of damage done to the nation by the fools and the knaves in the banks.  Doubtless he would also have taken a side of bacon to Fortnum’s to cheer those taking part in last month’s sit in (though he would probably have appalled to encounter such monstrous queer notions as vegetarianism and veganism).

It begs the question of where Cobbett might have sat were he with us now.  Surely he would have sneered at how cosy today’s Tories and Whigs are, and at a Labour Party content merely to argue about how deep to cut.

At the end of his excellent biography of this firebrand reformer, Richard Ingrams remarks that the description of another of Cobbett’s biographers, the socialist historian G.D.H. Cole, as; ‘Conservative in everything except politics’ might as well be applied to the man himself.

The Greens often display that same mix of radicalism and conservatism; championing greater democracy and civil liberties, social justice, the preservation of countryside and community life, small enterprise and self sufficiency, finance that serves the people and not vice versa.

Many would also share some of Cobbett’s analysis of welfare; that you can’t merely curse ‘the feckless poor’ if you don’t give citizens the means to sustain themselves with dignity; and dignity requires more than a mindless job and a subsistence wage, just as it requires a culture that respects and underpins their efforts.

Cobbett’s cri de Coeur was; ‘we want great alteration, but we want nothing new.’  He saw the rights of Englishmen as an heirloom, as something that was being frayed at the edges, something that had been in better condition in olden times.  In this he is a part of that stream of radicalism that railed against the Norman Yoke – a tradition that included the likes of John Lilburne, Gerrard Winstanley and that hero of Cobbett’s later years, Thomas Paine.

One sees that same tendency on the eco end of politics too; a desire to keep the best of the old and to see the new tried and tested before embracing it wholeheartedly.

It’s not to say that Cobbett is a perfect fit for modern Greens.  His unthinking anti-Semitism may have reflected sentiment at the time but it is abhorrent now.  He castigated Wilberforce as a hypocrite for caring more about slaves of African descent than the poor of England.  Cobbett cared about what he knew and he knew rural poverty, not slavery.  He wasn’t a Tom Paine.  He had his prejudices.

But in claiming him for themselves they do not have to excuse Cobbett’s shortcomings.   He need not be to Greens as Trotsky is to the humourless left or Ayn Rand to the raving right; ideologues to be deified and parroted.  He is more a marker; a sign that there have been those of the same stripe, championing many of the things in which Greens believe, through history, and that, far from being a mutation or aberration, Greens can stake their own claim to be successors of the radicals of England’s past.

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