Cameron's Green Conservatism Is Not That New
by Ian R Thorpe.
William Cobbett a nineteenth century radical, writer and social reformer was strongly opposed to the use of violence to achieve reformer's aims but supported the Luddites, the machine wreckers whose way of protesting involved wrecking the machines that were taking away their livelihood and burning the mills and factories which housed those machines. Cobbett took the view that damage to property should be weighed against the social damage done to the communities by the mechanising capitalists. We can be in little doubt what Cobbett would have made of the current craze for replacing humans with machines in banks, in the sales function, on production lines and in any function in which a machine can conceivably replace a human being.
Cobbett said to the militias raised to suppress the protests and protect the factories, "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."
The wording might be an anachronism but one phrase that statement in modern vernacular and it is easy to imagine Cobbett's words, spoken in 1832, to be repeated with reference to modern protests about factory closures and job losses. And Cobbett's description of the political and business leaders, civil servants and professional people of his day, "loan-mongers, tax-eaters, dead-weight people, stock jobbers, shag-bag attorneys, debt collectors and toad-eating merchants," could apply just as well to the people performing those functions in the twenty first century.
William Cobbett Cobbett is usually depicted as an observant and incisive commentator on the plight of rural England as agricultural mechanisation and enclosures of common land drove country people off the pastures and heathland their families had made a living from for generations and a stern critic of the squalor and deprivation, overcrowding and insanitary conditions that awaited those driven to the new and rapidly expanding industrial towns in search of work. He is also described as one of the founding thinkers of the Conservative movement.
In these days when the political left is associated with authoritarianism, collectivism and oligarchy we forget Cobbett was a radical, a free thinker, a revolutionary. He was the outsider, the agitator who refused to toe the line, a thorn in the side of the establishment who could not be bought off by honours, sinecures as a government adviser or offers of political patronage .
Cobbett was no malcontent or seditionist however, he was a patriot, a lover of the British peoples, English, Scots, Welsh and Irish alike, and he saw the countryside as the repository of all that was good about his nation, tradition, of beef, bread and cheese, beer and skittles, of good plain grammar, of honest chopsticks (nothing to do with Chinese food but a colloquial name for people who exercised their right to cut firewood on heath and common land), of the solidity of farmer and smallholder.
He hated the hypocrisy of politics and the greed and corruption of big business, of loan mongers (as he dubbed bankers) bankers, stock-jobbers and anyone who relied on financial sleight-of-hand to turn a profit. Cobbett also despised the smug political consensus of the day that saw power pass from Whigs to Tories (Liberals and Conservatives respectively) with barely discernable changes in social policy. The Whigs; liberals but not in the way modern, authoritarian lefties think of themselves, wrongly, as liberals; attracted more of his contempt than Tories or Conservatives because he saw their hypocrisy as all the greater. Whigs publicly embraced the social philosophies of John Wesley's Methodist movement and Gilbert Wakefield's Unitarians but in business pursued an extreme form of libertarianism which would tolerate no constraint on their ability to make a profit.Whigs would subscribe to protests against the employment of workhouse children as chimney sweeps but happily employ such children from the age of five of six in their dirty, dangerous factories.
Conservatives did the same of course but were staunchly Church of England which had no official pretensions about being a movement for social reform. He also held in contempt what we would call "the establishment" or "the system" he termed "The Thing", London her referred to as The Great Wen. Among the things he campaigned against were disenfranchisement of working people, the Master and Servant act which bound employees in virtual slavery and legally guaranteed employers rights to pay poor wages, and the notorious and much hated the Poor Laws that he believed, correctly, bred poverty rather than alleviating it.
Cobbett hated welfare and refused to employ paupers, those who wages could be reclaimed from the tax system 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.
His opposition to welfare was not an unthinking act of political prejudice; he saw the poverty around him as a natural consequence of the 18th-century wave of land privatisation which had robbed rural people of the opportunity to support themselves (The Other Slaves part 1). Cobbett complained that "it took from them their best inheritance: sweet air, health and the little liberty they had left".
When, in the a protests of anti mechanisation protests of 1830, the "chopsticks" of Kent and Sussex became Luddites and turned on the machinery that was putting them out of work as agricultural labourers at the time land privatisations were robbing them of the right to cut wood and graze animals on the ancient commons, Cobbett supported them. Though he was a critic of violence the matter of a few broken threshing machines and burnt hay ricks in proportion, set against the greater destruction of the rural economy and way of life that mechanisation wrought was trivial. He was also quick to point out 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. He would also have resisted the exportation of manufacturing industries to the low labour cost economies of the far east and would have spotted the irony of politicians efforts to curb carbon emissions while simultaneously urging consumers to spend more, and borrow to spend if necessary, in order to prop up the failed economic model of perpetual growth driven by consumption.
Where might Cobbett have sat were he with us now? Surely he would have sneered at how cosy today's Tories and Liberals are, and at a Labour party content merely to argue about how deep to cut the budgets awarded to public services. Cobbett was a firebrand reformer of a type seldom seen and quickly marginalised by the smooth faced, mealy mouthed advancers of the "New World Order" with their dreams of a global government and the dissolution of nations and the diverse cultures that differentiate them. One of Cobbett's many biographers, the socialist historian GDH Cole, described him as "conservative in everything except politics" and that just about sums him up.
In today's politics The Greens used to display a similar mix of radicalism and conservatism; championing greater democracy, the decentralisation of power, 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. Unfortunately in recent campaigns The Greens in the UK have lost the plot, blindly following the official line on wind turbines as the preferred method of generating electrical power and focusing their campaigns on gay rights and the (imaginary) embedded racism of the working classes. Thus just as they looked set to move from the political fringe to the mainstream the party, despite gaining its first elected Member of Parliament in 2010 in a constituency with a huge gay community and many votes of immigrant stock, are once more a loony fringe consigned to the political wilderness.
Many Liberal Democrat and Labour voters would also share parts 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 meaningful work with a cameraderie in the workplace rather than a mindless job on minimum wage with the constant threat of dismissal if productivity targets are not met, just as it requires a culture that respects and underpins the status of people on low wages as full citizens with the same rights and privileges as higher earners.
Cobbett's cri de coeur was; "we want great alteration, but we want nothing new". One sees that same tendency on the green 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. His successors include those of us who think computers and the internet are fine tools and can be liberators of information while recognising that for many activities, online banking and shopping, browsing for information, social activity among them the net is "not fit for purpose". Where Cobbett recognised the were far wider implications to the introduction of mechanised threshing machines and mowers or steam powered looms and spinning frames in textile mills, modern social commentators are starting to see not only the folly of making so much of our business or private lives dependent on a single technology that has many flaws and vulnerabilities, but the danger to social communities of creating an environment in which the distinction between reality and the virtual world of digital media is becoming blurred.
Like the Whigs and Tories of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century political system and the motley crew of loan-mongers, tax-eaters, dead-weight people, stock jobbers, shag-bag attorneys and the rest, our modern politicians, government officials, business leaders, academics, meeja people and senior members of the professions have lost sight of the fact that the state of the nation is not determined by money alone.
Cobbett would not fit easily into modern politics. He understood the importance of a nation's cultural integrity and so would have no more time for multiculturalism than he would for the internationalism that sees us shipping in milk from central Europe and clothes from China and shrimps from Indonesia. He would not be an icon to be quoted and cited at every opportunity to Greens, Conservatives or Nationalists as Leon Trotsky is to the humourless left or Ayn Rand to the libertarian right. Cobbett's political ideas provide more of a benchmark for those members of the awkward squad who insist on thinking for themselves, questioning the orthodoxy of the right and the "on message" politically correct left and concluding the best way ahead lies somewhere between the two. His gentle conservatism, thoughtful conservationism and scepticism about change for the sake of change would however be hard to sell to populations so long accustomed to having their votes bought by pledges of prosperity they can never redeem.
The Other Slaves part 1
The Other Slaves part 2
A Tour Of Whalley AbbeyA small taste of life in English rural communities
I am not a macine, I am a human being
The Coalition Government's Green Fight
The Coalition and Country People
The Secret People by G. K. Chesterton
Field and CountryAnd now a word from our sponsoors
CREATIVE COMMONS: Attribute, non commercial, no derivs.
KEYWORDS: conservative, conservatism, radical, liberal, left, cobbett, humans, machinines, society, social, reform capitalists, luddites, communities, rural, agricultural, machine, banks, finance, business