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The English revolution

Nearly 180 years ago Thomas Carlyle’s Chartism asked the “condition of England question”. A pessimist and authoritarian, Carlyle also understood that when disconnected elites rule only in their own interests, radical change will follow. The vote for Brexit taught David Cameron this painful lesson.

No one reads Thomas Carlyle today, which is a pity. His reputation has never recovered from the disclosure that Goebbels read supposedly morale-boosting extracts from Carlyle’s epic Frederick the Great to Hitler in the bunker. What little is generally known about him spits upon 21st century sensibilities. He was beastly to his wife; he regarded black people as racially inferior to white ones, and the Irish as thieves and liars; he upheld authoritarianism; and he regarded democracy as “despair of finding any heroes to govern you”. His ideal society dated from what he called “the most perfect feudal times”, the medieval age when local landowners felt a Christian responsibility to feed and house the peasantry and when, as he wrote in his 1843 masterpiece Past and Present, society witnessed “the great phenomenon of belief gaining victory over unbelief”.

That last thought inspired John Ruskin in his art (and later his political) criticism, such as when he told the burghers of Bradford (having been invited in 1864 to advise on the style of the town’s proposed wool exchange) that they should ask themselves whether they wished to build “as Christians or as infidels”. He felt that the gothic style of Bradford’s churches would sit ill with a proposed edifice he saw as a temple of exploitative capitalism. With God and the godlike retreating from 19th century England, and – as Carlyle and Ruskin saw it – democracy a poor substitute for ordering affairs, it was not clear how the line would be held.

Yet Carlyle’s fanaticism was not inevitably destructive. He deplored aspects of the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act, which caused able-bodied men to be sitting idly on the steps of the workhouse in St Ives, Huntingdonshire, when he rode past it in 1842. He deplored the attempt at tyranny by Charles I and venerated Oliver Cromwell for his part in restoring order. He revered Martin Luther for liberating Europe from the superstitions and venality of Roman Catholicism. He could spot frauds, charlatans, confidence tricksters and hucksters a mile away and denounced them in his vigorous, apostrophising writings.

Dickens liked him so much he dedicated Hard Times to him when he published it in 1854. Carlyle’s house in Chelsea was a place where what we would now call freedom fighters from Europe would gather around the fireside, Garibaldi chief among them. Ruskin worshipped him. Tennyson admired him. John Stuart Mill saw him as an intellectual equal until they fell out over Carlyle’s pessimistic repudiation of liberalism. He was central not just to Victorian thought, but to the intellectual dynamic of the age.

Carlyle coined many phrases that have echoed down the decades – the “cash nexus” was his – but perhaps his finest achievement was what he called “the condition of England question”. He used it in his pamphlet Chartism, written in 1839, the year after the Chartist movement was founded. He told the editor of the Quarterly Review specifically what he meant by it as he sat down to write the essay: it was about “the condition of the lower classes in this country”. Engels adapted the phrase five years later for his German readers in The Condition of the Working Classes in England.

In writing the essay Carlyle displayed an early variance, as a pessimist and a realist, from the received wisdom of the bienpensants. Mill had dismissed the thesis of Chartism the previous year, when Carlyle discussed it with him, because Carlyle refused to reach the Whiggish conclusion that the condition of the working classes was improving. It defies belief that a man of Mill’s intellect could have thought this: the economy was contracting, food prices were high thanks to the Corn Laws, and the numbers of destitute throwing themselves on the parish were rising. The riots and other bursts of unrest that characterised urban society from 1838 onwards were proof enough that the working classes themselves did not see any improvement; and in Ireland, people were beginning to starve in the famine.

Carlyle, in a letter to a friend, defined the ideology of Chartism as “revenge begotten of ignorance and hunger”. Mill simply could not admit that the Whig administration of Lord Melbourne, which he supported, could have allowed the existence of such a society and done so little to ameliorate it. Carlyle did not want to solve the problem by conceding the Chartists’ demands because they pointed towards the very democracy he despised – a vote for every man of sound mind over 21 who was not in jail; the secret ballot; the abolition of a property qualification for and payment of MPs (to ensure working men could sit in the Commons); equal constituencies; and annual elections.

Instead, he wanted a return to a sense of aristocratic obligation towards the poor, rooted in a religious ideal. In the real world this meant the landed classes giving up the Corn Laws, which protected the high price of their agricultural produce, to make food more affordable – which is why he supported Robert Peel’s policy of repeal that bitterly divided the Tories.

“Unless gentry, clergy and all manner of washed articulate-speaking men will learn that their position towards the unwashed is contrary to the Law of God, and change it soon,” he wrote, “the Law of Man, one has reason to discern, will change it before long, and in no soft manner.”

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Of peasant stock from the Dumfriesshire village of Ecclefechan, Carlyle went to Edinburgh University from the age of 14, usually walking the 75 miles there, and back, at the beginning and end of term. He started writing for the reviews in his early twenties, having tried and thoroughly disliked schoolmastering, and managed to earn a half-decent living. At the age of 25 he underwent a crisis of faith (detailed in his first major work, the philosophical tract Sartor Resartus) and threw himself into studying German language and culture. He translated Goethe and wrote a life of Schiller, whose apophthegm ernst ist das Leben – life is earnest – became Carlyle’s motto.

At the age of 30 he married, above his station, Jane Baillie Welsh, a doctor’s daughter from genteel Haddington, to whom he had been introduced by his friend Edward Irving, a highly intellectual religious maniac. Samuel Butler, who owed more to Carlyle intellectually than he would have wished to admit, famously said that “it was very good of God to let Carlyle and Mrs Carlyle marry one another, and so make only two people miserable, not four”.

The honeymoon was a disaster; Carlyle’s official biographer, James Anthony Froude – one of the great Victorian historians – implies that the marriage was never consummated. Carlyle may or may not have been impotent; he certainly suffered from stomach ulcers all his adult life. In what he called his period of “deep gloom and bottomless dubitation” that began in the 1850s, he locked himself away in his soundproof room in Chelsea for 13 years writing Frederick the Great, and rode miles into the Surrey countryside of an evening for exercise. Jane was left on her own and became mentally and physically worn down. His regret and remorse when she died in 1866 were almost paralysing.

Carlyle had no economic interest in common with the landed class; but he did believe in authority, and saw its members as the people to exercise this – warning them there would be consequences if they did not. His mind was focused on the French Revolution in 1789, six years before he was born; and he felt such a thing could happen in Britain unless the rich changed their views.

This sense infuses the argument of Chartism, which Mill, to his credit, came round to seeing as “a glorious piece of work”, even though one of the main targets of the essay is the reformed parliament for whose further reform Mill would spend the rest of his life agitating.

Carlyle wanted a “strong man” – someone in the mould of Cromwell – to shake up the forces of authority and have them do their duty towards the poor. He imagined the lower classes crying out: “Guide me, Govern me! I am mad and miserable, and cannot guide myself!” He asked: “Surely of all ‘rights of man’, this right of the ignorant man to be guided by the wiser, to be, gently or forcibly, held in the true course by him, is the indisputablest.”

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All other rights, he felt, flowed from this. The ruling class could demand loyalty from its social inferiors only if it provided work for them, ensuring that they were housed, fed and clothed – and brought up to fear God. Such an idea was rooted in Carlyle’s belief that there was a natural order decreed by God, and that society would collapse into anarchy if that order were not made to function correctly. He pointed to Ireland as what happened when ignorant governance was allowed to prevail.

Chartism spawned a whole genre of writing – fiction and non-fiction – on what to do about the widespread social unrest throughout Great Britain and Ireland in the 1840s and 1850s. Benjamin Disraeli’s Sybil and Coningsby – execrable in style but interesting in their invention and propagation of “One Nation” Toryism – are perhaps the most famous iterations of the sentiment. But there was also Mrs Gaskell’s Mary Barton and North and South, Charles Kingsley’s Alton Locke and Yeast, and Dickens’s explorations of poverty and utilitarianism in Hard Times. Many novels of the period reflect the concerns that unrest might develop into revolution, or portray the darkness and perplexity of a society in which secularisation was taking root: it is palpable in much of George Eliot, most notably in Felix Holt, the Radical, and even in the novels of the Brontës.

The collateral problems with religion prompted James Anthony Froude to write his profoundly controversial novel questioning religion, The Nemesis of Faith. Carlyle’s ideas also infused the poetry of Matthew Arnold and Arthur Hugh Clough. The focus shifts only after the 1867 Reform Act, when some urban working men obtained the vote.

The condition of England question had several deep roots. The Great Reform Act of 1832 left most of the country unfranchised – all women and almost all men – and created demands for an increasingly literate and politically conscious middle and working class to be allowed into the counsels of the nation. It was this want of democracy that provoked the People’s Charter, and the agitations for the extension of the franchise and a properly accountable parliament.

An economic downturn in America in the late 1830s badly hit the textile industry in Britain, with lay-offs from mills in Yorkshire and Lancashire especially prevalent by the early 1840s, and civil unrest so bad that Peel ordered the militia into several industrial towns. A national fund, its first major contributors the Queen and Prince Albert, was established to provide relief for the poor, as local parish guardians could not cope with the overwhelming demands from destitute families. In Ireland, people starved due to the potato famine and the high price of alternative foodstuffs. Protectionism introduced after the Napoleonic Wars by Lord Liverpool’s government kept the price of cereals high, helping mostly Tory landowners.

The campaign to repeal the Corn Laws began in the north-west at the same time as the Chartist movement: and Peel, a Tory prime minister, overrode his party to bring in that repeal in 1846. His main adviser in doing so was William Gladstone, who made him see the logic of the exercise, and promised him not only that the lower price of food once tariffs were removed would help feed the starving Irish, but that it would improve the standard of living for British families, too. Gladstone also argued that it would encourage free trade in non-foodstuffs, thereby boosting British exports and creating employment and prosperity.

Peel’s main opponent was Disraeli, in the pay of the Bentinck family – the dukes of Portland – who argued for the self-interest of the landed class. Gladstone was proved right, and 27 years of consecutive growth followed the repeal. Disraeli, who believed in nothing, simply shrugged his shoulders and moved on up the greasy pole: the rhetoric of Sybil and Coningsby proved to be just that.

The reforming work Disraeli did later as Lord Derby’s man in the House of Commons for the 1867 Reform Act, and later as prime minister from 1874 to 1880, was motivated largely by the need for the Tory party to survive and to stave off serious social unrest, or by other more practical members of the Disraeli administration, notably his home secretary Richard Cross, an enlightened Lancashire industrialist.

The results of the repeal of the Corn Laws were almost instantaneous: the Chartist movement threatened an uprising in London in April 1848, to match those happening in much of the rest of Europe, but its mass demonstration was the most peaceful, half-hearted and poorly attended protest.

The people, in under two years, already had more money in their pockets and food on their tables, and were uninterested in revolution, precisely because the ruling class had, for a change, acted in the interests of the masses while also acting in their own. A failure to have responded to the conditions that pertained until 1846 could well have led to an upheaval in the social order, of a type unseen in Britain since the English Civil War of two centuries earlier.

However, the ruling class realised it had had a lucky escape, and the Whig/Liberal administration of Lord John Russell immediately instituted a programme of industrial and social reform to improve the conditions of the less well-off. The idea of change and modernisation was encapsulated in the Great Exhibition of 1851. Its progenitor, Prince Albert, was instrumental in driving other changes, too, seeing that the social order of which he was so prominent a beneficiary would be maintained only by attention being paid to the needs of the masses – as Carlyle had stated.

Concern about the condition of England did not go away: Seebohm Rowntree’s survey of York, highlighting the poverty in the city at the turn of the 19th century, restored the question to the political agenda. Charles Masterman, who became a cabinet minister under Herbert Henry Asquith, published his book The Condition of England in 1909 to examine the lot of the working class: it was the year of Lloyd George’s redistributive “People’s Budget”, which sought to raise taxes to fund a basic welfare state. At the end of the Great War the working class was promised “homes fit for heroes”; after the slump of 1931, the Left Book Club existed for few purposes other than to argue for the millions rendered unemployed to be properly looked after.

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Hardest times: local parishes could not cope with the demand for relief from poor Victorian families

George Orwell, in “England Your England”, the first part of the  1941 long essay “The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius”, identified the phenomenon of direct action, or the threat of direct action, by those outside the political elite that provoked reforms and the transfer of political power through successive extensions of the franchise.

Government fear of unrest led to the crucial economic reforms of the 1840s, and the franchise reforms of 1867, 1884 and 1918. Orwell sensed he also saw such a political mobilisation around him in the Britain of the first year of the war. “At any normal time the ruling class will rob, mismanage, sabotage, lead us into the muck; but let popular opinion really make itself heard, let them get a tug from below that they cannot avoid feeling, and it is difficult for them not to respond,” he wrote.

When elites would not listen, the potential of agitation forced them to listen: and once the middle and working classes were enfranchised, the ballot box served that purpose even more effectively. It happened with the defenestration of Churchill and the election of Clement Attlee in 1945, when the public made clear they wanted radical social change of a sort the Tories did not offer, and did not wish to be ruled by a group (with the exception of Churchill himself) who had tried to appease Hitler.

It happened again in 1979 with the defenestration of James Callaghan, when the public made clear they wanted radical social change of the sort Labour did not offer, and did not wish to be ruled by a group (Callaghan included) who had tried to appease militant trade unions.

The vote to leave the European Union is but the latest example of the tug from below. As between 1815 to 1846, what a majority of the population deemed to be a disconnected elite had ruled in its interests, and not in the interests of the people. And so, when David Cameron – a man wonderfully reminiscent of Orwell’s description of Stanley Baldwin as “simply a hole in the air” – in the most cynical act of a disgracefully cynical premiership, promised a referendum on continued membership of the EU to entice Ukip voters back to his party, he provided the masses with the means of administering their tug.

Given that all parties likely to return a significant number of MPs supported continued membership of the EU, a referendum was the only way in which millions of people – 17.4 million to be precise – who felt disfranchised by the system could effect change. The turnout was so much higher than that at recent general elections precisely because EU membership was an issue that, for many people, embodied the disconnect between the rulers and the ruled, and the ruled exploited the means to get what Carlyle called their “revenge”.

Only the patronising and the wilfully ignorant could call it a revenge borne of ignorance and hunger. A four-month referendum campaign meant that those who did not know the issues had made a deliberate choice not to know them. The Labour leadership has been acutely conscious of what made so many of its core supporters ignore the wishes of their more metropolitan representatives and vote to leave the EU, and the conflict this has created has most recently caused six of its frontbenchers to resign. However much some in the Labour Party might pretend to the contrary, many of their voters felt that freedom of movement within the EU was imperilling their jobs and lowering their wages.

That feeling may have been baseless, but Labour did a miserable job of convincing its supporters who held it that they were mistaken. There was also the perception of what was happening in Greece, and of high rates of youth unemployment and ultra-austerity in France, Spain, Italy, Portugal and Ireland, and fears that the policy of some Labour “Euroloyalists” (to use the terminology of Yanis Varoufakis) to lead Britain into a full economic union with Europe (of the sort aspired to by Emmanuel Macron) would mean more hardship for the vulnerable.

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Arch-Brexiteers Boris Johnson and Gisela Stuart

The condition of England question in the 2010s – and it was English and Welsh votes that caused Britain’s decision to leave the EU – was not about hunger either, but about a malfunction of the democracy that millions of economically unpowerful people regarded as their only means of exercising influence in our polity. This, too, had precedents. The upheaval of 1945 came when there had not, because of the war, been a general election for ten years; and it had been 16 years since a proper party choice had been offered, because of the coalition National Government that had won the elections of 1931 and 1935. In 1979, for the first time since 1945, voters had a choice between two distinct ideologies, and to finally break with the Butskellism or Keynesianism that had typified the postwar consensus.

The democratic malfunction that millions of voters felt between 1975 and 2016 was that however they voted they would not alter membership of the EU, and the EU had an increasing impact on their lives and economic prospects. If you school people in the notion that the establishment of their social order relies on their ability to vote and not on deference to a Carlylean aristocracy – a properly progressive argument – then denying them a choice on a fundamental issue for decades will, when the choice is finally presented, resemble the bursting of a dam. So it was two years ago.

Respect for the power of democracy has supplanted Carlyle’s desire for respect for the power of aristocratic authority. The former is rooted in our constitution, amended by parliament over centuries; the latter was rooted in a belief not just in God but in a hierarchical social order ordained by God, and which was passing out of view even when Carlyle made a last-ditch attempt to save it.

Peel took the trouble to understand the condition of England question, and was able to feel the tug from below. Therefore, he saw that failing to lower the price of food and create more job opportunities might precipitate revolution.

Cameron, and others from a political and social elite in all the main parties in 2016, had little such idea of the feelings and motivations of the masses when they led the country into a referendum campaign that it never occurred to them they would lose. The unexpectedly insolent response of the electors, the closest we can come to a revolution while remaining a democratic polity, continues to astound that disconnected elite to this day. 

Simon Heffer is a columnist for the Daily and Sunday Telegraph and a professorial research fellow in the Humanities Research Institute of the University of Buckingham

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 29 June 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Germany, alone