Sunday 10 March 2013

Happy birthday, William Cobbett - we need you now

I'm very grateful to the King of the Lib Dem bloggers, Jonathan Calder, for reminding me that it is William Cobbett's 250th birthday - actually yesterday.  But perhaps after a quarter of a millennium, being a day late doesn't matter.

Cobbett returned to England as a Tory, but the critical moment in his conversion to what I believe was a ferocious proto-Liberalism, came in 1805, a few months before Nelson’s historic destruction of Napoleon’s naval ambitions.  He bought a farm outside the Hampshire village of Botley and immediately found himself campaigning against proposals to enclose nearby Horton Heath right from the start, despite the massive profits he would have made if he had fallen into line.
Having been offered, and refused, a share of the national debt as one of the placement he derided, he also took a second look at the writings of Thomas Paine, the great British libertarian he had condemned so roundly before.  Once he had done so, he was particularly struck by what Paine had to say about the financial system and, from there, he slowly became aware of the scale of the bribery, money-lending and sinecures on offer around him.  Pitt’s friend Henry Dundas, the First Lord of the Admiralty, was charged with using public money for private speculation.  The army commander-in-chief, the Grand old Duke of York, was letting his mistress sell army commissions on his behalf.  

This was what Cobbett came to know and condemn as The Thing – the great mountain of placemen and pensioners paid for by the struggling farmers and labourers of the nation.

The superstructure of The Thing, as he saw it, was the burgeoning financial services in London, the stockjobbers and speculators, making money out of money and leaching it out of productive agriculture.  Still financed by the high Tories under Windham, Cobbett found himself slipping into the kind of campaigns launched in the previous century by Defoe and Swift, and echoed across the Atlantic by the anti-banking rhetoric of Jefferson himself.  

Inspired by Paine, Cobbett suddenly regarded the nation he became famous by defending differently.  It was ruled, not so much by a government – and certainly not by a king of doubtful sanity – but by a financial system, and one which had “drawn the real property of the nation into fewer hands … made land and agriculture objects of speculation ... in every part of the kingdom, moulded many farms into one … almost entirely extinguished the race of small farmers … we are daily advancing to the state in which there are but two classes of men, masters and abject dependents.” 

Almost unwittingly, Cobbett was following the long agrarian tradition of deep scepticism about money, suspicion of banking and finance, and an implicit appeal to what was genuinely important.  It was the ‘real property of the nation’, that Cobbett was defending.  Not the stuff of fashion and instant wealth.  Being in Hampshire also raised his awareness of the plight of ordinary labourers once the commons had been enclosed.  

When he was campaigning to protect his own heath from enclosure, he ran across a Parliamentary report which estimated that there were a million paupers in England and Wales, a tenth of the population.  He sent this investigation to Windham, the leader of the Country Tories, but it raised little interest.  For the Tories, the problem of paupers was primarily that they were a threat to national security.

For Cobbett, it was the greed of middlemen and bourgeois speculators that was driving ordinary people from the land, which was their only guarantee of independence and subsistence.  Those who remained were being squeezed by London financiers and establishment minions, between them sucking the available money in sinecures, pensions and taxes.  This was The Thing.

What is extraordinary is how relevant this critique is today.  The Thing, the corrosive hoovering up of the wealth of the nation by speculators, is at least as important as it was in Cobbett's day.  Probably even more.


Aiden said...

Happy birthday dear William Cobbett!!!

bEST WISHES said...

Happy birthday dear William

alien said...

happy birthday to you corbett.

David said...

I wish you a very very Happy Birthday to William Cobbett and Birthday Wishes fill the life with joy and blessings.