The social and economic maladies decried in the 19th-century writings of William Cobbett deliver a true Groundhog Day moment, says Clive Aslet
Until recently, I couldn’t have told you very much about William Cobbett, beyond the fact that he had ridden around southern England to investigate the condition of turnips in the 1820s. I had tried reading him and given up. Well, it’s amazing what an invitation to address the William Cobbett Society can do for you.
I was asked to do this so long ago that the date did not seem very frightening at the time; but you know how it is with ‘time’s wingéd chariot’. It is now hurrying by to such an extent that the only way of avoiding a Holly Martins moment (the agonising scene in The Third Man when an American thriller writer finds himself on the rostrum of an Anglo-Viennese literary society, without anything to say) has been to delve into the author’s works.
My delving has, of necessity, had to be done with a hand trowel, rather than a spade: Cobbett is supposed to have ‘composed for publication’, according to the introduction to the Penguin Classics edition, an astonishing 30 million words, what with his political journalism, parliamentary reporting and books. But the modest sod I have turned is, as he might have said, loamy — and unexpectedly germane to our times.
I don’t mean that every word of the 30 million, or that portion of them that I’ve so far read, is golden. Cobbett was the equivalent of a blogger. He doesn’t always fascinate.
Like the blogosphere — and having a house in Ramsgate I have discovered something about it: there are 30 blogs for the Isle of Thanet alone — he tends to bang on, and, being self-published, there was nobody to stop him.
The bees in his straw-plaited bonnet (he recommended straw plaiting to supplement the income of the rural poor) are many and varied. Semaphore towers, education (in general, he doesn’t approve of it), gentrified farmers, church tithes, ‘English country gentlemen’, Methodists, Malthus, mill owners, mechanisation, coastal defences, London (invariably called the Wen), bankers, stock jobbers, yeoman cavalry, potatoes… these are all wrapped up in what, in exasperation, he called the THING, meaning the whole putrid system of government, with its sinecure holders and rotten boroughs.
He yearns for a golden age, when the farmer shared his board with his workers, eating and drinking as they did (except possibly for the rather stronger beer in his glass). Perhaps this was the smock-wearing world in which Cobbett had grown up as a farm labourer near Farnham, in Surrey: incredibly, he only learnt to write when he joined the army.
True, Cobbett championed parliamentary reform. But otherwise, given that Britain would spend the rest of the 19th century growing rich from trade and manufacturing, happy, by the end of it, to allow agriculture to collapse beneath the weight of cheap imported food from overseas, he seems to have identified with the losers of history: a wonderfully British point of view, but irrelevant.
But hang on. There was something else to Cobbett’s theory. The engine that drove the whole government machine was debt. National debt, leading to personal debt and destruction. It was the great evil, a legacy of the Napoleonic Wars that had, in Cobbett’s view, been waged to quash the ‘Jacobin French’ and keep Britain’s own workers in order.
Already debt had worked a social revolution. While the great landowners had been able to hang on, the ‘little gentry’ had ‘melted away like butter before the sun’.
In Cobbett’s view that was only the beginning. He foresaw that ‘the DEBT, the blessed debt’ would bring about a general Götterdämmerung-like ruin of the establishment. Created to keep the ruling class in power, the debt was ‘fast sweeping the Aristocracy out of their estates, as a clown, with his foot, kicks field-mice out of their nests’.
Their departure did not cause Cobbett much grief. But he was sorry to see, as part of the same social change, ‘bull-frog’ farmers gobble up smaller ones, and the small gentry swallowed by bankers or ‘loan dealers’, such as the Barings.
Of course, it’s happening again. 2009 will go down in history as the year that the Great Debt was born. People whom we had come to regard as part of the unassailable order of things will shuffle off. Only this time it won’t be aristocrats who go, but the bullfrogs of financial services, their immaculate but surprisingly empty homes exposed to public view on Primelocation.com.
Oh what a lot was spent to achieve the Spartan-de-luxe style of bare floorboards and sophisticated gadgetry which was the hallmark of the boom years. And what a lot is being flushed down the plughole of our ‘blessed debt’. Cobbett knew only the half of it.
Who was at the back of it in the 1820s? In Cobbett’s words, ‘Scotch feelosophers’ and ‘feenanceers’. Watching the Royal Bank of Scotland post a loss of £28 billion, under a government run by a Scottish Prime Minister and Scottish Chancellor of the Exchequer, I can’t help thinking that these are words for our times. Yes, indeed: words for our times.