By Laura Short
Society is cyclical. By the time your 3rd great grandchildren read this (assuming it is accessible and they are able), the motives and intents that spur this very brief essay will be old history, probably lost, and virtually forgotten. But the basic themes and outcomes will still be true, just as the themes and outcomes to which I will be referencing are still true, even today.
So. What do we think of when we read the following:
1. A vote for every [person] twenty-one years of age, of sound mind, and not undergoing punishment for a crime.
2. The secret ballot to protect the elector in the exercise of his vote.
3. No property qualification for Members of [insert governing body here] in order to allow the constituencies to return the [person] of their choice.
4. Payment of Members, enabling tradesmen, work[ers] or other persons of modest means to leave or interrupt their livelihood to attend to the interests of the nation.
5. Equal constituencies, securing the same amount of representation for the same number of electors, instead of allowing less populous constituencies to have as much or more weight than larger ones.
6. Annual…elections, thus presenting the most effectual check to bribery and intimidation, since no purse could buy a constituency under a system of universal …suffrage in each twelve-month period. (retrieved from Wikipedia, 3-28-2017)
Or this: “Slavery has numerous phases, but every system which tends to place the labour, life and destinies of man at the disposal of another, deserves to be classed under that odious name. Since the great betrayal, when our hopes were so utterly dashed, every interest has been represented in the legislature save the interest of the people. The Church, the Bar, the…moneyed interests, all these flourish, and the people are worse than undefended. We have arrived at a situation where the wolf legislates for the lamb. What the wolf desires is not the lamb’s welfare, but his own dinner.
“The exclusionists said that the people were incapable of choosing proper representation; the melancholy truth was, at the time, in many parts, [the common man] was receding in knowledge. If they were not fit then, they have worsened since; but to set up the people’s ignorance as a barrier to their suffrage is a great injustice. Ignorance is considered a barrier in no other part of the legislature; the rich and propertied may be as ignorant as they like and still keep their vote. No one seeks to remain ignorant; it is simply that the remedy for it remains under lock and key by the very class of men who accuse of ignorance and deny us the vote. I think we must shift for ourselves, since they are not about to stir themselves to on our behalf. We must educate ourselves, we must arm ourselves with knowledge, so when the time comes round…the justice and the intelligence of our arguments will be unassailable. (retrieved from “The Telling”, Jo Baker, 28 March 2017)
History does, in a cyclical way, repeat itself, if not in the details or circumstances, in the principles and failures to live out those principles.
In England, during the very dawn of the Industrial Revolution, there was much societal upheaval. The economy was painfully shifting from an agrarian base where kith and kin were the company and stakeholders in their own, local economy. The vagaries of weather, taxes, monarchy, and foreign policy all definitely played their part, no doubt about that. But the interconnectedness of the various classes of people, from crown to croft, demanded they play nice together on some level. It was, indeed, a very local economy…and if a village failed, the Lord of the Manor felt the pinch when winter came.
Fast forward to the 1830s. England enacted some very devastating social policies in an attempt to control commerce. A couple of these included the Act of Enclosure which served to force landowners to fence in every single inch of countryside, forcing common land to belong to landowners, thus disenfranchising local crofters and herders from what had always been available to them and their common-unity, community, to grow food and herd livestock. Those who failed to submit, such as some rabble-rousing Highlanders in Scotland, were punished by being sold into “indentured servitude” (i.e., slavery) to sugar and tobacco farmers in the Caribbean and Colonial America. Some of my forebears were such as these; I’ve since found their bills of sale. This was a common punishment, known as “transport”.
A second Act of Parliament was the Poor Law Amendment of 1834. This shifted poor relief from “outside relief”, keeping the family intact and housed in place, giving them what they needed to survive to “inside relief”, building “alms” or “poorhouses”, splitting the families up and housing, feeding, and working them (to death, most times). These poorhouses were given local control, so that money could be made by unscrupulous overseers by starving the inmates, selling children into domestic service or to mines and factories, thus pocketing not only the money from all of this, but the monies given by His/Her Majesty’s Government for the care of the inmates at these places. I have records on family members who died in these places.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, England’s engagement in the Napoleonic Wars was causing no small problems for Ireland by taking all the wheat and barley she could grow and shipping it off to British Armies. This left the poor farmers to shift for themselves, relying on potatoes for sustenance. The Great Hunger began around 1841 when the potato crop began to fail…again and again.
Hang with me here.
More and more, as agrarianism in the British Isles became more and more untenable and farm workers flooded the putrid urban centres looking for work (i.e., food and shelter); as economists such as Adam Smith and his theory of laissez faire economics found purchase in British Imperialism; as the Robber Barons (which we see, again, about 100 years later in American manufacturing, and, again, about 100 years later in American cyber-technology) rise to the top on the backs of their own workers, our cyclical model comes to the fore and we watch, in awe and horror at another round of excess and demise. This is a time of cruelty and self-aggrandizement. Haves and Have-nots. And never the twain shall meet (read Dickens). In 1832 and continuing in fits and starts until 1857, there is a movement little remembered today: The Chartists. My opening quotes are from them.
Has anything truly changed since Chartism began as a working-class movement in the 1830s? I think not. I find their six demands, defeated by Parliament in 1838, 1842, and throughout the rest of the 1840s and ‘50s, to be reasonable against their historic background. This was a time of social upheaval, economic depression, the starvation in Ireland (half a population lost), enormous Empire building, and huge industrialisation of a nation. Just a small insight: When Victoria became Queen in 1837 and moved her household from Kensington Palace to Buckingham Palace, there was an open sewage system flowing beneath Buckingham Palace. Dead animals, human waste, industrial waste, even dead bodies, often floated beneath the Queen’s new home (which was also rat-infested). Such were the conditions in and around London at this time, even for the top of the pyramid as Queen Victoria certainly was. Now add primitive manufacturing, immigrant workers from the surrounding counties looking for better pay. Indeed. We see this, up close and personal, in China today.
At the end of the day, the driving forces behind Victorian England were simple: exploit the new technology. Expand our markets. Make money. Protect our power and position. Subdue the workers, yet give them just enough democracy and so forth, because we are afraid of changing that which we have known and from which we have benefitted so very long. The entrenched idea in English society, still extent today, is this: God has given you your place. It is sinful to say to God, “I deserve better”. If God has decreed this person to be Sovereign, so, too, has God decreed, this person to be sanitation worker.
The Chartists finally got five of their six demands, a yearly Parliament still beyond grasp, by 1918 with full male suffrage. The other four items coming incrementally over the previous years. Chartism itself declined due to lack of governmental support, conflicting ideologies and methodologies amongst the Chartists themselves, and the passage of time. Yet they and their movement are not outdated. As America, and the rest of the industrialised world struggles with the New Global Economy, the tensions endured by Victorian England are felt as keenly. Elitism, globalism, robber barons, cronyism; immigration, inflation, recession, stagnant wages; drug addiction, family implosion, poverty, job loss…it’s all there, just dressed a bit differently. The advent of steam-operated looms killed the cottage industry for flax weavers. The advent of cheap labour in China gave us off-shoring. The means are different, the results are the same.
And everything old is new again.
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire