The times, they are a changing…

4 03 2008

Whilst trawling through one of the oh-so-enjoyable books that I have to read for one of my courses I was interested to find the following quotation. The book is about British Radicalism in the 1790s.

“the press free, the laws simplified, judges unbiassed[sic], juries independent, needless places and pensions retrenched, immoderate salaries reduced, the public better served, taxes diminished and the necessaries of life more within reach of the poor, youth better educated, prisons less crowded, old age better provided for, and sumptous Feasts, at the expense of the starving poor, less frequent” (Cited in H.T. Dickinson British Radicalism and the French Revolution 1789- 1815)

The quote itself was written in 1792. It lists what the so-called radicals aimed to achieve. There is two very interesting things to note about it.

Firstly, that the issues highlighted here are still the same issues with which we are dealing today. Prison overcrowding, taxes, education, poor people and the poverty line, care for old people. All sound like watchwords from either Labour or the Conservatives spring conferences. Which leads me to wonder

a) If politics has gone round in a circle (ie changing things and then changing them back) over the course of 200 years.

or b) If in reality, nothing much has changed since the 1790s. With the exception of modernisation of course. At heart, the problems of the 1790s are the same problems of today, just dressed differently.

I’m inclined to think that the latter view is the more accurate one, and as politicians have for 200 years strived to solve these issues, it seems that people still have the same basic wants and needs as they used to. Politicians have not sorted out some of the basic issues facing many people. I would maintain that politics is still an elitist conception (although nowhere near as bad as back in the 1790s), and consequently, politicians are still failing to adequately bring politics to the people. Because this hasn’t been done, it can therefore be worked out that those basic issues people have will not have been adequately sorted.

Onto my second point, and this is rather briefer. As the books title suggests, these ideas were very much “radical” at the time. I would though, challenge anyone to suggest that either Brown’s Labour or Cameron’s Tories are “radical”. Both are jostling for the occupied middle ground, and are about as far away from “radical” as you can get.

Which therefore leads me to conclude that the goalposts have shifted somewhat. That the things which were radical are no longer considered radical implies to me that standards have changed. Those things which were radical are not any more. Free speech, unbiased judges, universal suffrage. These are all things we sort of take for granted now. Back in the 1790s these were radical. I’m thankful they aren’t any more.




2 responses

8 03 2008

Maybe the point is that we have most of the things that quote asks for? Free press, independent judiciary, a national health service, universal education to 18 and massive expansion of HE, a government focuassed on eradicating child poverty – all things that quote refers to. So has anything changed since 1790? I would tend to think so.

“Immoderate salaries reduced” and “taxes diminished” are political viepoints. However in 1790 the notions of left and right were only in their infancy. Surely ‘radicals’ today would call for increased taxation?

But what is radical about any of the above? Is it radical to want to ensure all young people have decent life chances and equal opportunties? Is it radical to prepare the country for a globalised future making sure our young people are adequaltely trainined/educated? Is it radical to deliver low inflation, low interest rates and economic growth? Is it radical to encourage aspirations, so people can buy their own home for example, and give them the life chances to make a better life for themselves?

I think I agree, the British people don’t want ‘radicalism’, whatever that is.

Why would you want to be radical?

8 03 2008

Obviously things have changed, modernisation has seen to that, but there are some things which seem to be constants in the political life, I’ll be honest it was the prison overcrowding bit of the whole quote which leapt out at me. Although, looking at it, whilst old age may be better provided for, it doesn’t mean that it’s great (frequent stories about care homes and poor treatment of older people litter the press). And just this week we had the story of how people in rural areas are living below the poverty line. Issues, it seems, still very much of the right here right now.
People’s basic needs are the same as they were then, humanity hasn’t really changed that much.
I thought it was interesting the shift the meaning of the label. And that’s sort of the point, nothing about the quote seems particularly radical nowadays.
However, I also think a few (just a few!) radical people in society nowadays is a good thing. It was a good thing in the 1790s and I maintain it is a good thing now. If nothing else they raise the extremes of any given issue for the more liberal-minded people to act upon. It also makes things more interesting, and ensures society doesn’t all toe the mainstream politics line. Variety, as they say, is the spice of life. From my point of view, if nothing else, they make politics (which people are rapidly growing bored of) more interesting again (that does not mean people should listen to what they say though and start acting upon it!)

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