In England, in the 18th century and earlier, someone who stole goods valued at more than a shilling could be hanged or transported for life. A person who brought an indentured servant to England was entitled to pay them badly and feed them cheaply, to set strict restrictions on where they could go outside working hours, and indeed to ensure that they worked every hour they reasonably could; and of course, to beat them, providing they used a stick no thicker than their thumb. Actually killing your indentured servant was a crime, but treating your servant with hideous inhumanity was perfectly legal, even if they then died of it.
Times have of course changed. Now a person who steals goods worth less than £2000 can only be sentenced to a maximum of 6 months imprisonment. And a person who brings an indentured servant from Tanzania to work for her, will also be sentenced to 6 months in prison and will have to pay her former servant, abused for six months, a lump sum equivalent to the amount she would have had to pay someone to work for her for three and a half months, assuming a 40-hour week and minimum wage. We are a much more civilised society now than we once were.
Via Avedon Carol’s Sideshow, I find that in at least one part of London, the police were simply corralling off rioters to let them loot in peace – and for months afterwards, police personnel will be searching for individuals who are identifiable on CCTV images who took part in the looting. This will provide work for police who might otherwise have been cut (the Tories still plan a 20% cut in UK police funding) or god forbid spending time investigating the corruption at News International.
David Cameron declared publicly that Andy Coulson, whom he knew to be involved in the illegal phonehacking at News of the World, deserved a second chance. If Andy Coulson deserved a second chance, why don’t people like Nicholas Robinson, who walked into a Lidls while it was being looted, took no part in any violence, had no previous convictions – he was an electrical engineering student on his way home – and stole six bottles of water priced at £3.50 because he was thirsty? He’s guilty of burglary of goods worth under £2000 right enough – but I’m thinking of the property owners in the 18th century who, when they charged people with theft, would charge them with theft of “goods to the value of 11d” because they did not want to be responsible for having someone hanged or transported. Is the magistrate who decided that an exemplary, life-wrecking sentence should be passed on a young man because of London’s riots, really more civilised than an 18th-century shopkeeper declaring that the goods that were stolen were valued at less than a shilling?
(Granted the shopkeeper could look forward to seeing the thief in the stocks or getting a public whipping, which judging from the way many people in London and elsewhere are talking, is something that would give many of them unspeakable joy if we were to do it to rioters today.)
At Question Time on Thursday night, a man pointed out to the largely-white panel that he, a well-educated middle-class man with a good job, is regularly, routinely, stopped by the police. Because he is black. (The only black person on the panel, the Archbishop of York, was – when he was the Right Reverend of Stepney – challenged by a white copper of the Metropolitan Police while he was unlocking his bicycle outside the House of Commons during the Lawrence enquiry. John Sentamu, being far too much of a Christian, took no vengeance on the copper – he’s never named him – beyond letting the man squirm for five minutes or so after Sentamu explained who he was and that he would quite happily go with the copper to the nearest police station and let the copper explain to the desk sergeant why he’d thought a respectable middle-aged man unchaining his own bicycle in Whitehall one evening, was a suspicious character who needed to be questioned by the police. Then the bishop let the racist copper go, and over ten years later that white cop probably still sees nothing much wrong with the practice of stopping black men and treating them as suspicious characters.
We can talk about race. We can talk about poverty. Ignorant right-wingers can talk about the welfare state. We can talk about the failure of the education system. We can talk about the profound gulf of inequality that exists – how even ambition and brains are not a way out, because who can afford the tuition fees? – but what we need is a revolution.
Not, I hope profoundly, a riotous revolution. A revolution as peaceful and as profoundly changing as the Labour government after World War One. The NHS was a revolutionary concept: don’t struggle to provide the poor with minimal healthcare, make everyone pay up with taxes and provide everyone with the best healthcare the country can afford whenever they need it. Don’t struggle to help the poor in their slums, build good council housing and let people pay rent to their local government for as long as they need it. Don’t struggle to pay alms to the elderly and the disabled, provide a solid pension to live on and solid benefits to help people with a disability live as normal a life as they can. Don’t struggle to provide the poor with minimal education, follow the example of 17th century Scotland and tax the rich to provide every child with the best education the country can afford to the utmost of their abilities. The universal education system in Scotland was revolutionary – and it brought about profound and permanent changes.
In the 18th century, Scotland had four universities in a country a tenth the population of England, at a time when England had two. In the 21st century, when a Labour government was voting to make students pay tuition fees, the Scottish parliament collectively stood together and said no.
That is the revolution I want. Not violence. Don’t struggle. We know the nation we want to live in – most of us. We’re willing to pay for it. We should get it.