Brexit? A crisis? We’ve had much worse – Bill Jamieson

Chartists protest in a church by wearing their hats and smoking ' but there was also deadly violence (Picture: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Chartists protest in a church by wearing their hats and smoking ' but there was also deadly violence (Picture: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
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‘Sensual banditti’ vs ‘brutes, bullfrogs and clodpoles’ beats Leavers vs Remainers any day, writes Bill Jamieson.

Brexit may seem like an unprecedented crisis to some, but British history suggests otherwise with ‘sensual banditti’ vs ‘brutes, bullfrogs and clodpoles’ beating Leavers vs Remainers in Bill Jamieson’s book.

Few comforts have sustained us more during the Great Brexit Chaos than the idea that an end must be in sight. But every resolution has so far proved a mirage: the Chequers ‘deal’; the withdrawal agreement; the Cabinet support for the Prime Minister.

Looking ahead, the ‘historic vote’ in the Commons next week portends not a conclusion but a new and more turbulent stage in the crisis. An ending by 29 March next year? But, like a mirage, as we seem to draw near, the further away a final settlement looks.

“A situation without precedent” is how it is now described. “No parallel in modern history”, we are told. “A unique constitutional stand-off.”

Really? It may be all of these things. But it is neither unprecedented nor unique. Britain’s political history is not one of occasional crisis and deadlock. These have been the norm for long periods. And the final comfort – that we are unlikely to see an upsurge of rioting yellow jackets, burning cars and mobs hurling cobbles; that we have no tradition of Paris-style mob violence here – could also prove an illusion.

A serious look at our political history is sobering. The post-war period of calm – notwithstanding the Suez crisis, the 1960s industrial disputes, the three-day week, the minority Callaghan government and the banking crash – is the exception rather than the rule.

A history of stability? For long stretches of the 19th century, British parliamentary politics was beset by crises, splits, political instability – and numerous large and threatening demonstrations across the country.

Between 1800 and the arrival of the Salisbury administration in 1895, there were no fewer than 32 changes of prime minister. The average length of tenure was three years. The 16-year period 1852 to 1868 saw eight changes of prime minister, three of these lasting a year or less.

READ MORE: Brexit: Second referendum only way to break gridlock in parliament, MPs hear

Were Tories and Whigs great monoliths of stability? None of the ministries that fell apart in the 15 years from 1852 to 1867 was ever despatched by a popular vote. They had all foundered on the rock of internal disagreement and division: “pressure from without”, noted the historian Peter Akroyd, “was less deadly than pressure from within”.

Ah yes, but was this not a more civil period, of polite decorum and high-minded speeches? Yet the fiery pamphlets exchanged during the campaign for the repeal of the Corn Laws more than outdid any abusive rhetoric of Brexit Leavers and Remainers have exchanged.

The anti-Corn Law leaflets denounced “a bread-taxing oligarchy, a handful of swindlers, rapacious harpies, labour-plunderers, monsters of impiety, putrid and sensual banditti”. Pro-Corn Law farmers called the campaigners “brutes, drudges, clodpates, bullfrogs, chawbacons and clodpoles”. Imagine Laura Kuenssberg getting her mouth around those.

In 1839, a “General Convention of the Industrial Classes” met in London to agree a charter of reform. A march on London was three miles long with a document containing 1.3 million signatures. Parliament vetoed it. Amid fears of a general uprising, November 1839 saw a mass armed gathering with a Chartist march in Newport when shots were fired and 20 people were killed. The leaders were arrested and sentenced to death (later commuted to transportation).

READ MORE: Book review: A Radical History of Britain: Visionaries, Rebels and Revolutionaries

Political leadership at the time was not of the highest quality. Worn down by the clamour of reform, Prime Minister Lord Melbourne declared: “I am listless and ill and cannot do anything or think.” At the end of one Cabinet meeting, he called out to the departing ministers with words Theresa May could well have echoed: “Stop a bit! What did we decide? Is it to lower the price of bread or isn’t it? It doesn’t matter which, but we usually all say the same thing.”

May 1841 saw a Chartist national convention and another huge crowd of protesters, described as “a gaunt, famished-looking, desperate multitude armed with huge bludgeons, flails, pitchforks and pikes”. A further petition was rejected by the casting vote of the Speaker and the resulting fury saw police stations destroyed and magistrates’ houses put to the torch. John Bright said the suffering caused by the Corn Laws “has made the whole population a mass of combustible matter”.

During the same year, the Melbourne administration lost a no-confidence motion by one vote. Robert Peel became prime minister – the proceedings accompanied by mobs hurling bricks and stones outside. When Parliament voted to support Peel in 1846 and scrap the Corn Laws, 222 Tories votes against it.

Pressure for further reform was widespread and angry, with a mass demonstration in Hyde Park in 1865 that the police struggled to control. But there were parliamentarians like Viscount Cranborne who were great believers in doing nothing. Such was the clamour, both within the Commons and outside, that Walter Bagehot, author of The English Constitution, offered this advice: “Dullness in matters of government is a good sign and not a bad one ... Do not investigate too much. Do not aspire too much. That is the way to preserve liberty.”

Fast forward to the early 1900s and domestic politics brought waves of strikes and industrial action. The period 1911 to the early 1930s saw the rise of ‘Red Clydeside’ marked by strikes, anti-war activism, rent strikes and mass demonstrations. January 1919 saw tanks made ready for deployment around Glasgow and troops sent in to control a mass gathering in George Square.

In 1926, there was the General Strike and the 1930s, ushered in by the Great Depression, saw waves of strikes and the rise of the British Union of fascists led by ex-Labour MP Oswald Mosley.

Set in this broader context, the idea of Britain being a becalmed, pacific parliamentary democracy does not stand up to scrutiny. Recent becalmed decades have been the exception rather than the rule. As for the assertion that violent riots such as those in Paris in recent weeks are alien to our political settlement, this is not borne out by our history.

We may earnestly wish for an early and amicable end to parliament’s Brexit crisis. But looking at historical experience, such crises can last for longer than we are wont to allow for, and wider unrest too frequent for comfort.