Dark times and better times

Treason is never far from us. It may come with an explosive blast – we have seen too many of those in latter years – or it may come with a whisper in dark corners. It may be in the actions of a murderous man intent of terrifying and tyrannising, or in the words of a useful idiot. Ambition, arrogance, malice, or a naïve hope to make things better out of the destruction and weeping – all these are with us.

How many politicians and activists agree that a “desperate disease requires a dangerous remedy”, and justifies thereby what is really an exercise in personal power for a personal thrill? Guy Fawkes and Catesby are not history but a tragedy of humanity.

Remember, remember, the 5th of November
The Gunpowder Treason and Plot;
I know of no reason why the Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.

Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes,
‘Twas his intent.
To blow up the King and the Parliament.
Three score barrels of powder below.
Poor old England to overthrow.

The cynics have called Guy Fawkes the only man to enter the Houses of Parliament with honest intent, but there are many men and women of selfless service there and long have been, and I trust that after the election there will be some there again, amongst the bulk of timer-servers and egotists.

Even now there are plots and plotters, and traitors. Times have been worse though, and the fact that we celebrate our national deliverance on the Fifth of November every year still after all the wars and calamities of the age tells us something. It was not wiped out even by the wars.

During the Second World War and the blackout, P L Travers, the authoress of Mary Poppins wrote:

From 1605 till 1939 every village green in the shires had a bonfire on Guy Fawkes’ Day. … Since 1939, however, there have been no bonfires on the village greens. No fireworks gleam in the blackened parks and the streets are dark and silent. But this darkness will not last forever. There will some day come a Fifth of November — or another date, it doesn’t matter — when fires will burn in a chain of brightness from Land’s End to John O’ Groats. The children will dance and leap about them as they did in the times before. They will take each other by the hand and watch the rockets breaking, and afterwards they will go home singing to the houses full of light…

So we do, and long may we do so.


Honest, Georgian elections

The vigorous elections of the Georgian Age are a matter of legend and literature: the riotous county elections, the backroom nod in the pocket boroughs (and the evictions of those who voted the wrong way), the language of public debate that caused lynch mobs to surge through the street, and – first and foremost – the bribery.

The Georgian Age brought Britain untold wealth, some of it generated in the hell-hole slave plantations, but most not; most was honestly earned through industry and trade. It brought us a flowering of culture, celebrated today in endless Jane Austen adaptations, and these give some glimpse of how the British world was growing. All this was in a time when political turmoil was the norm.

It was more honest though.

As I read the literature, there were three ways to get elected to the House of Commons in the Golden Age before the Reform Acts: an open election in a county or a populous borough; appointment to a pocket or rotten borough owned by a patron; or bribery – heavy bribery. A pocket borough was effectively what we call a ‘safe seat’ these days, one of those ones where they votes for the usual party even if its candidate tortures puppies for fun.

Bribery now, that is familiar to us today. We pretend to look askance at dishonesty but millions change hands to buy votes – the voters insist on it.

In the Eighteenth Century the candidates were more honest that ours: the candidate paid heavy bribes from his own pocket. In our day he pays from the voters’ pockets.


Treaties bedevil a wayward parliament, 1644

In this same year the Parliament put to death Sir John Hotham and his son, for tampering with – the Earl of Newcastle about the rendition of Hull; and Sir Alexander Carew, for endeavouring to deliver up Plymouth, where he was governor for the Parliament; and the Archbishop of Canterbury, for nothing but to please the Scots; for the general article of going about to subvert the fundamental laws of the land, was no accusation, but only foul words.

They then also voted down the Book of Common-prayer, and ordered the use of a Directory, which had been newly composed by an Assembly of Presbyterian ministers.

They were also then, with much ado, prevailed with for a treaty with the King at Uxbridge; where they remitted nothing of their former demands.

The King had also at this time a Parliament at Oxford, consisting of such discontented members as had left the Houses at Westminster; but few of them had changed their old principles, and therefore that Parliament was not much worth. Nay rather, because they endeavoured nothing but messages and treaties, that is to say, defeating of the soldiers’ hope of benefit by the war, they were thought by most men to do the King more hurt than good.



Pitt triumphant

Pitt and Johnson; two Prime Ministers whose personal characters are so opposite in every respect that a comparison seems ludicrous. However they are beginning to draw together.

William Pitt the Younger became Prime Minister in the political turmoil which followed the loss of the American colonies.  His involvement with high Tory political circles had begun from the cradle, as he was a younger son of ‘the Great Commoner’, William Pitt the Elder, His extraordinary abilities were recognised from the beginning but he was very young when he entered the Commons, elected for a convenient pocket borough, Appleby.

In 1783, the government was an extraordinary coalition ministry of Lord North and Charles James Fox; there is no real equivalent these days, but if you can imagine a voluntary co-operative ministry of Ken Clarke and John McDonnell, you may begin to approach the idea. Lord North was the aristocratic PM whose inflexibility and lack of imagination caused the loss of the colonies (albeit that the colonists may have had a hand in it too) while Fox was an untameable radical. Individually they were hopeless; together they were worse than that, but they could command the votes of the Commons.

In 1783, the King appointed William Pitt as Prime Minister. He was just 24 years old which was astounding.  Members made baby noises as he stepped up the dispatch box. It was as was written at the time:

A sight to make surrounding nations stare;
A kingdom trusted to a school-boy’s care

Pitt had no majority nor mandate in the House of Commons; only the King’s support.  In January 1784 he was defeated on a motion of no confidence. However in defiance of convention Pitt did not resign, and the King still supported him.

In the meantime, even without a majority in the House, Pitt worked hard. He reformed the administration and drove out the corrupt ministers and their placemen.  He worked to balance the budget. His popularity grew in the nation as a whole. Electors sent petitions in support, and the Lords were with him (something our current Prime Minister cannot boast). As the public mood swelled in favour of Pitt, so support in the House of Commons grew, until he was close to a majority.  At that point he called a General Election.

Many candidates stood as ‘Pittites’ and the government North-Fox members were driven out: Pitt was triumphant, with the House of Commons filled with his supporters.  His ministry lasted 23 years.

He was an ideal Prime Minster for peacetime. He read Adam Smith and reformed the state’s taxation and subsidies and trade accordingly, resulting in increasing prosperity.

Then in 1793 Pitt became unwillingly a Prime Minister in wartime. In the twenty-two year struggle against revolutionary France and then Napoleon, Britain’s success was largely built on Pitt’s peacetime reforms and prosperity it brought.  He excelled here too, until his untimely death in 1806. (In 1945, the Evening Standard ran a David Low cartoon showing Winston Churchill climbing onto a plinth engraved with ‘Greatest War Prime Minister’, helped up by its previous occupants, Lloyd George and William Pitt the Younger.)

It started though inauspiciously with a fresh young man full of hope but with no majority in the House, losing vote after vote and even a vote of no confidence, winning the nation over and triumphing at the polls.


Every man to do his duty

An inspiring Trafalgar Day to all. Consider Nelson’s words:

First gain the victory and then make the best use of it you can.

If a man consults whether he is to fight, when he has the power in his own hands, it is certain that his opinion is against fighting.

Desperate affairs require desperate measures

It is warm work; and this day may be the last to any of us at a moment. But mark you! I would not be elsewhere for thousands.

Success, I trust — indeed have little doubt — will crown our zealous and well-meant endeavours: if not, our Country will, I believe, sooner forgive an Officer for attacking his Enemy than for letting it alone.

May the Great God, whom I worship, grant to my Country and for the benefit of Europe in general a great and glorious victory; and may no misconduct in anyone tarnish it; and may humanity after Victory be the predominant feature of the British fleet. For myself, individually, I commit my life to Him who made me, and may His blessing light upon my endeavours for serving my Country faithfully. To Him I resign myself and the just cause which is entrusted to me to defend. Amen. Amen. Amen.

Leaders can call to the best in us. I thought often of the inspiring flag signal Horatio Nelson sent on the eve of Trafalgar. “England expects every man will do his duty.” The flags above the Victory didn’t ask or demand obedience in the upcoming fight; they expressed Nelson’s unshakable admiration for and faith in the sailors and patriots he knew them to be.

Stanley A. McChrystal, My Share of the Task (2013)