Saturday, 4 December 2010

With Apologies to Percy Shelley

An old, mad, blind, despised, new government,--
Leaders, the dregs of their dull race, who flow
Through public scorn,--mud from a muddy spring,--
Rulers who neither see, nor feel, nor know,
But leech-like to their fainting country cling,
Till they drop, blind in blood, without a blow,--
A people starved and stabbed in the untilled field,--
An army, which liberticide and prey
Makes as a two-edged sword to all who wield,--
Golden and sanguine laws which tempt and slay;
Religion Christless, Godless--a book sealed;
A Senate,--Time's worst statute unrepealed,--
Are graves, from which a glorious Phantom may
Burst, to illumine our tempestous day.

It is said that those who do not know their history are condemned to repeat it.
I wonder, just how many of the current cabinet are History graduates? Because history is most certainly repeating itself.
Labour campaigns warned us that Cameron would be taking us back to the 1980's... and that backfired horribly, thanks to the success of Gene Hunt and the BBC's Life on Mars/Ashes to Ashes series.* But on the surface of it, labour do seem to have been uncharacteristically prescient. A conservative government, police brutality, awful fashion, worse music, recession, unemployment, "greed is good" fat-cat city-types... Where oh where have I seen that before?

Actually, do you know where I've seen this before? Way back at the beginning of the 19th Century, when the above poem was written**. It's called England in 1819. And in a lot of ways, things aren't that different now from what they were then.
England had just been engaged in an expensive war. Unemployment was massively high, and poverty among vulnerable sections of society was being exacerbated by governmental policy, which at the same time benefited the already rich. Parliament was rotten to the core and in desperate need of electoral reform. The poor stayed poor and the rich just got richer, and the system was in place to keep it that way.

Today we see the predominantly peaceful student protests, where the police have been "kettling" protesters (God, we have a word for it now? We're dressing up torture - because that's what it would be called if these people were in custody, not out on the streets - in fancy words again, so people don't realise what it is...) Well that just makes me think of Peterloo.

But let's not forget what came next back in the 1800s
Reform acts.
Reform of parliament, of working conditions in factories and mines, social reform.
And how did that all happen?
Because some people worked bloody hard to change things, and didn't give up. Politicians like William Wilberforce, and Earl Grey, social reformers like Josephine Butler, writers like Dickens, and just good old public pressure, finally forced change through. It wasn't easy - far from it*** - but there were enough people pushing bills through parliament, campaigning for a cause, pushing back the boundaries in their own specialised areas (such as Florence Nightingale's contributions in the medical field) or just raising awareness and writing about it all, that change happened.

It's easy to look at the 19th century as a whole and see just how much was accomplished in that period... it's less easy to stand at the beginning of a century, looking at the state of things and how much there is still left to do, and stay optimistic. In an age where we've got used to instant gratification, it's hard to remember that change on this scale can take years to manifest, and you've got to be determined and keep at it.

The cynical part of me which enjoys conspiracy theories might wonder if this is why Arts and Humanities funding is being so drastically slashed right about now. So no-one will wonder, or point out, that this has all happened before, that we don't have to roll over and take it, and that if we work hard enough at it there is still hope of a change.
Because there is another lesson to be learned from history on this point - totalitarian governments always attack the intelligentsia first, so there is no-one to speak out against further injustices when they come.

Cheer on those students, support them however you can, because if history is right, and if we're persistent, we may see some change come of it. Or if not... you could well be next.

*In itself a bloody good example of how BBC TV is quite patently not going down hill, and should continue to be funded. Imagine spoiling that with adverts. Or the American version.... (shudders)...
** I've changed 3 words, and missed out one. That's how little I've altered it.
*** I'd recommend reading some of the links if you want to see just how hard people campaigned for things back then. Puts our current politicians to shame, it really does.


  1. The cynical part of me which enjoys conspiracy theories might wonder if this is why Arts and Humanities funding is being so drastically slashed right about now.

    My sister keeps saying the same thing. TBH I'm not sure whether the Tories have thought that far ahead; they may simply be thinking, "I know! Let's slash arts funding so we don't have to cut our own salaries instead!" Then again, this is how that sort of thing begins...

  2. You're probably right.
    It is probably just that Arts and Humanities are easy targets because they're constantly de-valued in the public consciousness as not being "useful" (but that's a rant for another day)...
    Still it makes a nice conceit for the piece, and, well... who knows?

  3. The devaluation of arts is something that disturbs me quite a lot--I think a society that can make the study of humanities an 'easy target' is in some ways more worrying than a society which deliberately represses it. I'd quite like to read that rant when you get around to writing it :)

  4. Well, when I get around to writing it, it'll get posted up here, so stay tuned!