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The Rural War, 1830

William Cobbett wrote an article about the Swing Riots in which he blamed those in society who lived off unearned income at the expense of hard-working agricultural labourers. As usual, Cobbett's solution was parliamentary reform.

'With regard to this war,' Lord Grey said ... 'I can only promise that the state of the country shall be made the object of our immediate, our diligent and unceasing attention. ... To relieve the distress which now so unhappily exists in different parts will be the first and most anxious end of our deliberations; but I here declare ... that it is my determined resolution, wherever outrages are perpetrated, or excesses committed, to suppress them with severity and vigour (cheers). Severity is, in the first instance, the only remedy which can be applied to such disorders with success; and therefore, although we are most anxious to relieve the distress of the people who are suffering, let them be well assured they shall find no want of firm resolution upon our part. (hear, hear) ... Their first object would be to examine into the nature of the existing distress, and then into the disturbances consequent upon that distress, and, as there was every reason to believe, upon the instigation of person whom that distress did not affect ... The danger with which the country was threatened was to be the first subject of consideration, and must be met with a prompt and determined hand.' (Hear, hear, hear)

* * * * *

This must certainly be an assembly of the bravest men in the whole world! Observe how they cheered every time the word resolution, determination, severity or vigour, occurred! And, the 'prompt and determined hand' seems to have fairly entranced their Lordships. But, now, let us inquire cooly into this matter. Let us fairly state the case of those who are carrying on this war. Lord Grey proposes to inquire into the nature of the existing distress'. These words are enough to make one despair of him and his measures. Just as if the distress was temporary, and had now arisen from some special cause! ... One would as soon expect them to propose and inquiry into the cause of the dirt in London streets. The one is just as notorious and as obvious as the other...

Forty-five years ago, the labourers brewed their own beer, and that now none of them do it; that formerly they ate meat, cheese and bread, and they now live almost wholly on potatoes; that formerly it was a rare thing for a girl to be with child before she was married, and that now it is as rare that she is not, the parties being so poor that they are compelled to throw the expense of the wedding on the parish; that the felons in the jails and hulks live better than the honest labouring people, and that these latter commit thefts and robbery, in order to get into the jails and hulks, or to be transported; that men are set to draw waggons and carts like beasts of burden; that they are shut up like Negroes in Jamaica; that married men are forcibly separated from their wives to prevent them from breeding... It is no temporary cause, it is no new feeling of discontent that is at work; it is a deep sense of grievous wrongs; it is long harboured resentment; it is an accumulation of revenge for unmerited punishment... it is a natural effect of a cause which is as obvious as that ricks are consumed by fire, when fire is put to them....

But if this excite our astonishment, what are we to say of that part of Lord Grey's speech in which he speaks of 'instigators'? ... What! can these men look at the facts before their eyes; can they see the millions of labourers everywhere rising up, and hear them saying that they will 'no longer starve on potatoes'; can they see them breaking threshing-machines; can they see them gathering together and demanding an increase of wages; can they see all this, and can they believe that the fires do not proceed from the same persons; but that these are the work of some invisible and almost incorporeal agency! ...

The motive of it is, however, evident enough to men who reflect that every tax-eater and tithe-eater, no matter of what sort or size he or she is, is afraid to believe, and wishes the nation not to believe, that the fires are the work of the labourers. And why are they so reluctant to believe this, and so anxious that it should be believed by nobody? Because the labourers are the millions (for mind, smiths, wheelwrights, collar-makers, carpenters, bricklayers, are all of one mind); and because, if the millions be bent upon this work, who is to stop it? Then to believe that the labourers are the burners, is to believe that they must have been urged to the deeds by desperation, proceeding from some grievous wrong, real or imaginary; and to believe this is to believe that the burnings will continue, until the wrong by redressed. To believe this is to believe that there must be such a change of system as will take from the tax and tithe-eaters a large portion of what they receive, and give it back to the labourers, and believe this the tax and tithe-eaters never will, until the political Noah shall enter into the ark! ... [The labourers] look upon themselves as engaged in a war with a just object... Is this destructive war to go on till all law and all personal safety are at an end? ... The truth is, that, for many years past, about forty-five millions a year have been withheld from the working-people of England; about five or six millions have been doled back to them in poor rates; and the forty millions have gone to keep up military academies, dead-weight standing-army, military asylums, pensions, sinecures, and to give to parsons, and to build new palaces and pull down others, and to pay loan-mongers and all that enormous tribe; and to be expended in various other ways not at all necessary to the well-being of the nation.

These forty millions a year must now remain with the working people... And what is to be the result of all this? Why, a violent destruction of the whole fabric of the Government, or a timely, that is, an immediate and effectual remedy; and there is no remedy but a radical reform of the Parliament...

Cobbett's Political Register, 27 November, 1830.

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