It is a truth universally acknowledged that Labour front-benchers cannot avoid getting involved in car-crash interviews. Diane Abbott has had so many that a new section of the Highway Code should be dedicated to her.
Closely following her seems to be Richard Burgon. Burgon is a nonentity when it comes to his Parliamentary performance. This might be because shadowing the Justice Minister is rather bloodless. Except it is not. Recent prison disturbances are right on his patch, even if he is not shadow prisons minister. There are numerous issues with our criminal justice system where Burgon could shine. However, he is not even polished.
Burgon’s first car crash came when he was shadow City minister. Attacking the government’s record on the deficit, he was rendered speechless when asked what the deficit was predicted to be. He was further dumbfounded when he was asked why he had not visited the City at all during his time in the job. Guffaws all round. Burgon’s reputation as a bungler had been set.
He validated his reputation last Sunday when he was unable to repeat Labour’s Six Brexit Tests, coming up instead with six tests of his own that merely pointed in the direction of the tests. Credit where it is due, at least Burgon came up with six tests. This was more than his boss, Iranian State TV star and MP for Kremlin West Comrade Corbyn.
Burgon also sneaked in an attack on the Conservatives, accusing them of promoting a ‘vision of a Victorian Britain of a kind that Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson and others would like to see’.
It’s always ‘Victorian’. Never Georgian, Stuart, Cromwellian or Tudor. It is not clear why Labour continues to oppose the governments of Palmerston, Disraeli and Salisbury, to name but three, when they should be opposing the government of Mrs May. Perhaps challenging the still-living Mrs May is too difficult when compared with her long-deceased predecessors.
Using ‘Victorian’ as a pejorative demonstrates ignorance and prejudice. The truth is that the general quality of life for people across Britain was better at the end of the Victorian era than at its start. There is an illusion that there was a ‘green and pleasant land’ before the advent of the ‘dark satanic mills’ of the Industrial Revolution. This myth was reinforced by the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics, which saw clean, ruddy-faced rural folk supplanted by a grimy grey working class lorded over by top-hatted Brunellians. It was a magnificent spectacle, but rural life, certainly in England, was not uniformly a demi-paradise. Average life expectancy was longer at the end of the Victorian era than at its start.
Conditions were hard in the new cities, but during Queen Victoria’s long and glorious reign they did improve. The state became increasingly involved in previously private relationships between workers, employers, tenants and landlords. And that is the important part. The Victorian era was socially and politically progressive. Opponents of progress did fight rearguard actions, but they were overwhelmed by reason and the English tradition for moderate radicalism. The consequence was that this country did not experience the upheavals and reaction that damaged political life on the continent. Marx felt safe enough to do his misguided work only in Victorian Britain.
Some wag might point out that the Victorian era was not kind to Ireland, but the need for reform was recognised, and the British state did not have the all-encompassing pervasiveness it now has to intervene. The Victorian era marked the decline of landed power versus the industrialist and a rising middle class, and this landed power was still blocking reform. The direction of travel was set under the Victorians.
The technological marvels of our modern age are built on Victorian scientific discovery and invention. The internet is simply an automated telegraph system with a massively increased bandwidth and speed. It was in Victorian times that data could first pass over thousands of miles in a few hours by wire compared with weeks by ship. Powered aerial travel was pioneered in Victorian times. Victorian dwellings had telephones, gas pipes, plumbed water and sanitation, and electricity wires. The expanding railway network standardised time across the country. The first Tube line was Victorian.
There was wider participation in democracy with the extension of the franchise. If Keir Hardie had experienced state political repression, I am sure we would have never heard the end of it. Hardie became Labour’s first MP in the Victorian era. All the British leaders who helped defeat Imperial Germany, and most who helped defeat Hitler, were born in the reign of Queen Victoria.
If Victorians from 1875 were to look at the history of the 20th and the early 21st Centuries, it is likely they would be horrified. They would see all the progress and invention perverted to repression, massacre and mass destruction, and an encroaching state control of thought and action in democracies that was unthinkable even a few years ago. The indiscriminate violence of religious intolerance on the streets of Britain would be a major concern, as would be the government’s poor response.
Despite Burgon’s ignorant attack, the Victorian era was one of radical and enlightened progress. We should be humbled and ashamed of how we have taken and used its gifts.