History gives me hope for the present—maybe even for the future. Reading Winston Churchill’s History of the English Speaking Peoples recently, I learned that after Napoleon’s defeat in 1815, Europe enjoyed a lengthy peace.
Unfortunately, England squandered this opportunity to surge ahead in trade and manufacturing—and to promote the well-being of the working class. The Tory government was controlled by landed aristocrats whose aim was to protect the status quo—land and property rights. Government officials had little knowledge of industry and technology and no understanding of the poverty and squalor in which ill-paid factory workers and their families lived.
Britain’s economy was in deep trouble. The nation carried huge debt from their years of war. This was not helped when manufacturers succeeded in getting the income tax repealed—depriving the government of a large portion of its revenue.
High food prices were caused by laws forbidding the import of foreign grains. Landowners benefitted from high food prices, but the middle class suffered and children of the working class often starved.
Whigs, the opposition party, had no plans for moving the country forward. Both parties feared uprisings driven by radicals who agitated for government reforms and better conditions for workers. Middle class voters supported a government which did not benefit them out of fear of radicals.
Except for the names and places, these problems sound familiar. The encouraging news is that Britain did not go down the tube 200 years ago. The ship of state managed to right itself politically and economically. Popular writers like Dickens and Thackeray stirred up public indignation over government corruption and the desperate squalor of the working class. Policies changed. Peaceful reforms were implemented. The country prospered and workers received a share.
With any luck, our country will overcome the current gridlock of polarization, and we will move forward for another century or two. Still, it would be comforting to have Charles Dickens around to point out the real issues.