William Cobbett - a common man for all seasons
From Brother Ivo:
For much of this week His Grace has been offering sound advice to our brothers and sisters of the Roman Catholic Church to assist them out of some of their current difficulties, but we must not neglect the temporal. There is still a pressing need, and significant work to be done in challenging and reforming the United Kingdom’s political elites.
Brother Ivo loves his paradox, and has long noted that the post-modern search for cultural 'individualism' appears to render folk ever more homogenised. Nevertheless, our political leaders are presently puzzling that at the same time as they are struggling to identify and capture the fabled 'middle ground' of British society, the political climate is drifting away from them towards a degree of independent thinking for which the English once used to once pride themselves. Ukip surges, Carswell analyses, Galloway confounds.
Even so, our cussedness has still not quite reached the point where we routinely ‘spit on the poop deck and call the Pope our father’, as was done in former days.
In celebration of that rugged individualism, Brother Ivo would like to invite His Grace's communicants to mark the 250th anniversary of the birth of William Cobbett today, 9th March, by raising a glass of beer to the memory of a fine example of a prototype individual Englishman.
We might have hoped that our national broadcaster would be planning a suitable marking of this occasion, but this weekend sees the 50th anniversary of Cliff Richard's 'Summer Holiday' topping the charts, so.. you know.. priorities., etc.
The beer is appropriate, because Cobbett was a plain man born in a public house in Farnham, Surrey, to a family of modest means. Without the assistance or protection of the NUT, a private education, or Ofsted, he was nevertheless taught to read over the kitchen table before he began to demonstrate a quintessential story of social advance by a man of patience, hard work and talent.
His CV includes working as a farm labourer, gardener at Kew, legal clerk, soldier, farmer, agrarian innovator, pamphleteer, journalist, author and Member of Parliament for Oldham. His early publishing of parliamentary debate began the enterprise which became the Hansard reports of today.
Plainly, our political class might feel discomforted by such a rich life before politics, so perhaps that is why they may be content that he be left in the shadows lest they be placed in his. Mary Seacole is so much less threatening.
He was a man of his times, defending bull-baiting and slavery, but he also confounded those who suggest that, once on the wrong side of history, those of traditional values must be incapable of compassion. His early brush with notoriety began when he championed soldiers of the Ely militia who were were flogged unjustly by the Hanovarians, and he was imprisoned for treasonous libel as a consequence. Men of principle do not simply posture; they take risks and suffer the consequences. On other occasions his outspoken free thinking had him exiled in France and America.
He was at times both Conservative and Radical. He spoke up for under-paid and abused soldiers, campaigned against the Corn Laws, championed the common labourer, and argued the British case whilst resident in the United States in revolutionary times.
On return, he opposed the Peterloo massacre, supported the Reform Act of 1832, issued some of the earliest warnings against the national debt, refused to bribe voters at a time when this was commonplace, and denounced sinecures and Rotten Boroughs. While imprisoned, he wrote the pamphlet 'Paper into Gold', which was one of the earliest to warn of the dangers of granting government the power to issue paper money.
Notwithstanding being largely self-taught, he was an educator, writing a book on grammar which would greatly improve our public culture of spin if they paid heed to his words: 'Grammar, perfectly understood, enables us not only to express our meaning fully and clearly, but so to express it as to enable us to defy the ingenuity of man to give to our words any other meaning than that which we ourselves intend them to express.'
The problem is, of course, that unlike the admirably plain speaking Cobbett, the modern politician chooses to obfuscate. Cobbett sought to teach challenge and honour his listener with clarity; the knavish politician of today seeks to deceive, conceal and distort language by careful nuance and re-definition.
As a plain speaking man, Cobbett would have excoriated the modern day political culture of 'What I say is..'; 'Let me be clear..'; 'political correctness' and 'talking points'. As a vigorous thinking journalist, he would have viewed contemptuously his modern-day, pale equivalents for letting such weasel words receive the oxygen of publicity.
As a true man of the people, he spoke from their viewpoint; never to it. And this is half the problem which we have with a cadre of ruling politicians and commentators who know of little save the political game to which they have devoted their lives and sold their souls.
He would have loved the liberating possibilities of the social media and eviscerated the Hugh Grants of this world and the gutter journalists alike. He is unlikely to have been a friend of the Leveson Report.
A proud Briton and contented monarchist, he was unafraid to denounce Tory corruption while never being tempted into internationalism or the radicalism he had experienced abroad. There can be few political polemicists who have won praise from such a wide spectrum of admirers as GK Chesterton, Karl Marx. Michael Foot and AJP Taylor.
With such admiration, perhaps we are looking at an example of the Common Man for all Seasons; the kind of polymath wide thinker who embodies English ideas with true intellectual honesty and leadership within a historic cultural mindset. Dave, Ed or Nick he ain't, though, to be fair, there is a smidgen of the Nigel about him, which might be telling us something.
We can be sure that Cobbett would have been right behind 'Better Off Out', and would never have sat on the fence as many have. 'Men of integrity are generally pretty obstinate, in adhering to an opinion once adopted.'
He would have been a reformer of welfare and utterly against long-term welfare dependency: 'The tendency of taxation is to create a class of persons who do not labour, to take from those who do labour the produce of that labour, and to give it to those who do not labour.' Like Iain Duncan Smith and Frank Field, he knew and liked those he sought to champion and recognised that 'To be poor and independent is very nearly impossibility'.
He knew that promoting the good of all was the surest way to create a peaceful society at ease with itself: 'I defy you to agitate any fellow with a full stomach.' He would, however, have had scant time for the priorities and fashions of today: 'It is not the greatness of a man's means that makes him independent, so much as the smallness of his wants.'
His attitude towards the casino banking culture of recent years may safely be inferred from his observation that 'Another great evil arising from this desire to be thought rich; or rather, from the desire not to be thought poor, is the destructive thing which has been honoured by the name of "speculation"; but which ought to be called Gambling.'
Incontinent spending and borrowing by government would have equally caught his ire: 'Nothing is so well calculated to produce a death-like torpor in the country as an extended system of taxation and a great national debt.'
He was an Anglican of plain gospel practical priority: 'The Christian religion, then, is not an affair of preaching, or prating, or ranting, but of taking care of the bodies as well as the souls of people; not an affair of belief and of faith and of professions, but an affair of doing good, and especially to those who are in want; not an affair of fire and brimstone, but an affair of bacon and bread, beer and a bed.'
There are many more illustrations of his home-spun common sense (eg here and here). So it is that Brother Ivo invites all English folk of good character, and all who wish us well, to celebrate the anniversary of this fine compatriot, with a bacon sandwich and a raised pint of beer, toasting him in the words of another fully paid-up member of the English awkward squad, Charles Dickens: "God bless us every one."
(Posted by Brother Ivo)