“But his [Peel’s] chosen remedy for widespread poverty was already apparent. It did not lie in changing the Poor Law, or reducing factory hours through a Ten Hour Bill, or in accepting the irrelevant political demands of the Chartists. Still less did it consist in commissioning that engine of public welfare and State guidance of the economy to which we became accustomed in the twentieth century. Peel and most of his contemporaries would have regarded our giant complex of State machinery as a destructive restraint on individual freedom.”
Robert Peel, page 243, by Douglas Hurd.
Indeed they would have so regarded the modern state of the late 20th and 21st centuries. And with good reason. Somehow, I doubt that even the founder of the Metropolitan Police would have liked the idea of the modern Surveillance State. I am not too sure that he’d have been all that keen on top tax rates of 50 per cent and more, compulsory schooling to the age of 18, or the hideously regulated labour market of today.
And this historical shift, I think, can explain to a certain extent why, to a British audience dulled by decades of socialism, the sight of Americans protesting against Big Government and the like is so odd. Last night, on the BBC, the broadcaster and one-time Sunday Times (of London) editor, Andrew Neil, was looking at the Tea Party movement. It was not all bad as a documentary – he had a great short interview with the son of Barry Goldwater – but in the main, the general idea that the viewer was meant to draw was that the Tea Party movement was comprised mainly of cranks, bigots and fools. The problem, I think, is that Britain has not really had a genuine, tax-cutting protest movement since the anti-Corn Law League of the 1830s and early 1840s, which is why I was so struck by that passage about the Peel administration. We have to go back to the early years of the Industrial Revolution to find anything remotely like such a protest for government retrenchment and tax cuts. No doubt Mr Neil would regard Cobden, Bright, or indeed Peel himself, as a bunch of nutters.
And that, of course, is why the accurate teaching of history, such as around such episodes as the Industrial Revolution, is so important.