Bring on a British revolution – it’s long overdue
The Guardian, by Kevin McKenna
The name of my incomparable and sclerotic history teacher was simply McGuire, though later on we discovered that he also had a first name.
I always had the impression that his favourite periods of history were those marked by popular upheaval, because he seemed to take an almost lascivious pleasure in describing the casual brutalities that preceded and followed events such as the Russian and French revolutions.
When he eventually reached the point where the ancien regimes in these countries fell, McGuire was at his disdainful best. Thus, beheadings and eviscerations were always delivered with an insouciant irony that made the great moments he described all the more chilling.
At least the Russians and the French got there in the end. In Britain, as we learned from McGuire’s sulphurous sarcasm, all we managed were a few unco-ordinated riots and querulous behaviour at places such as Spa Fields, Bristol and Manchester. And, as the historian John E Archer has pointed out, many of these disturbances were carried out by people who wanted to maintain the status quo, not to overthrow it.
The social evils prevalent in Britain in the 80 years or so before the Great Reform Act in 1832 were universal: no right to vote, seemingly endless overseas adventures purely for the enrichment of the aristocracy, cruel and unusual punishments for minor offences, poor wages, widespread disease and low mortality rates. All of this during a period when Britain was the pre-eminent geopolitical force in the world and the Industrial Revolution was making lots of factory owners obscenely rich.
Historians in Russia and France, and later in Spain, Portugal and Italy, can all fill their boots as they analyse and interpret the momentous revolutions and civil wars that changed the course of history in their countries. Britain’s historians, meanwhile, can only quarrel among themselves, in their brandy-soaked scrofulousness, about the level of danger posed by various types of village disturbances.
The real questions that need to be answered are these: why has there never been a proper revolution in Britain? Why, effectively, did Britain’s poor simply hold up Father Ted placards saying: "Down with this sort of thing"?
I have my theory about this. Britain, the world’s most belligerent country, was in a state of almost constant warfare in the 18th and 19th centuries. If we didn’t have our own wars to fight, we would soon find someone else’s war in which to get stuck in. Thus, there was simply no time for the working class to get properly organised. To fight a war, you need money and poor people. Britain always had an abundance of both. The money came from increased taxation of the poor who saw a war as an opportunity for a few years of guaranteed bed, board and wages, which was more than they could count on in Britain.
Some of us are asking the same questions of ourselves in 2013: why, in the face of so much inequality, corporate dishonesty, police brutality and political corruption, do we simply grumble and stage good-natured and orderly marches, with multigrain sandwiches and infants in prams? Why do we continue to be bought off with endless royal jubilees, worthless Olympiads and the creeping militarisation of a country whose soldiers are treated like heroes for fighting wars against developing world nations?
More events last week – some big and national, some small and local – have illustrated how deep the roots of social inequality go in this country. Stephen Hester, the chief executive of RBS, was the latest banker to walk away with a financial package massively in excess of what he achieved. In effect, this chap was given a £6m bonus simply for collecting those insidious and corrupt bank charges the government allows them to impose.
While this was being announced, the Institute for Fiscal Studies told us that British workers have endured pay cuts of around 6% in the last five years. This is a bigger salary reduction than in any previous five-year period and shows that as the strength of trade unionism has declined, management militancy has increased.
While Vodafone, Google, Rangers FC and hundreds of other major companies have been allowed to deprive the exchequer of billions in tax revenues, the Westminster government remains focused on doing what the Conservatives have been doing for hundreds of years: penalising the poor.
In 21st-century Scotland, increasing numbers of food banks are being established. That’s right; there are still thousands of people who cannot afford to feed both themselves and their children and the Scottish government last week revealed that 150,000 Scots children are living in poverty.
Many of those who are seeking their battered tins of spaghetti hoops or bashed packets of pasta are not the feckless drug- and alcohol-addicted workshy of popular rightwing myth. According to one charity organiser in Glasgow’s East End I talked to last week, these are people who often have to accept scandalously low-paid work simply because they don’t want to take benefits. In the winter, they will be penalised again when the cartelism of the energy companies kicks in and they can only afford to heat one room in their home.
Not long ago, these people would have been able to turn to the Labour party and the trade unions to fight their corner, but those days are long gone. These days, strike action is confined to boutique one-day stoppages. If people begin to make rude messages with their fingers or snarl at the police who will outnumber them two to one, then they will be kettled and jostled by our state-licensed knuckle-draggers.
The Labour party, meanwhile, has been kidnapped by a shower of unprincipled Oxbridge careerists and their utterly useless Scottish concubines.
The real wonder of the 2011 riots in England and Wales isn’t that they happened at all but that there weren’t more of them, that they didn’t last longer and that there was so little violence. A British revolution is long, long overdue … but perhaps we simply don’t deserve one.