Posted by: CS | March 9, 2013

William Cobbett – a common man for all seasons

By Archbishop Cranmer

From Brother Ivo:

For much of this week His Grace has been offering sound advice to our brothers and sisters of the Roman Catholic Church to assist them out of some of their current difficulties, but we must not neglect the temporal. There is still a pressing need, and significant work to be done in challenging and reforming the United Kingdom’s political elites.

Brother Ivo loves his paradox, and has long noted that the post-modern search for cultural ‘individualism’ appears to render folk ever more homogenised. Nevertheless, our political leaders are presently puzzling that at the same time as they are struggling to identify and capture the fabled ‘middle ground’ of British society, the political climate is drifting away from them towards a degree of independent thinking for which the English once used to once pride themselves. Ukip surges, Carswell analyses, Galloway confounds.

Even so, our cussedness has still not quite reached the point where we routinely ‘spit on the poop deck and call the Pope our father’, as was done in former days.

In celebration of that rugged individualism, Brother Ivo would like to invite His Grace’s communicants to mark the 250th anniversary of the birth of William Cobbett today, 9th March, by raising a glass of beer to the memory of a fine example of a prototype individual Englishman.

We might have hoped that our national broadcaster would be planning a suitable marking of this occasion, but this weekend sees the 50th anniversary of Cliff Richard’s ‘Summer Holiday’ topping the charts, so.. you know.. priorities., etc.

The beer is appropriate, because Cobbett was a plain man born in a public house in Farnham, Surrey, to a family of modest means. Without the assistance or protection of the NUT, a private education, or Ofsted, he was nevertheless taught to read over the kitchen table before he began to demonstrate a quintessential story of social advance by a man of patience, hard work and talent.

His CV includes working as a farm labourer, gardener at Kew, legal clerk, soldier, farmer, agrarian innovator, pamphleteer, journalist, author and Member of Parliament for Oldham. His early publishing of parliamentary debate began the enterprise which became the Hansard reports of today.

Plainly, our political class might feel discomforted by such a rich life before politics, so perhaps that is why they may be content that he be left in the shadows lest they be placed in his. Mary Seacole is so much less threatening.

He was a man of his times, defending bull-baiting and slavery, but he also confounded those who suggest that, once on the wrong side of history, those of traditional values must be incapable of compassion. His early brush with notoriety began when he championed soldiers of the Ely militia who were were flogged unjustly by the Hanovarians, and he was imprisoned for treasonous libel as a consequence. Men of principle do not simply posture; they take risks and suffer the consequences. On other occasions his outspoken free thinking had him exiled in France and America.

He was at times both Conservative and Radical. He spoke up for under-paid and abused soldiers, campaigned against the Corn Laws, championed the common labourer, and argued the British case whilst resident in the United States in revolutionary times.

On return, he opposed the Peterloo massacre, supported the Reform Act of 1832, issued some of the earliest warnings against the national debt, refused to bribe voters at a time when this was commonplace, and denounced sinecures and Rotten Boroughs. While imprisoned, he wrote the pamphlet ‘Paper into Gold’, which was one of the earliest to warn of the dangers of granting government the power to issue paper money.

Notwithstanding being largely self-taught, he was an educator, writing a book on grammar which would greatly improve our public culture of spin if they paid heed to his words: ‘Grammar, perfectly understood, enables us not only to express our meaning fully and clearly, but so to express it as to enable us to defy the ingenuity of man to give to our words any other meaning than that which we ourselves intend them to express.’

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