Learning from history

Nigel Farage, John Bull gnome

2016 has certainly felt like an ‘eventful’ year. How does it compare with the past and what can we look forward to?  The Prince of Wales took the extraordinary step to use Radio 4 ‘Thought for the day’ to raise his concerns over the recent rise in ‘Populism’, echoing ‘the dark days of the 1930s‘.

As he points out, the 1930s saw a rise in populism, nationalism, extremism and people persecuted for their religion, but are the 1930s the best historical comparison? And most importantly, are we to expect an inevitable rise of fascism and World War?


Nigel Farage has deliberately modelled himself on ‘John Bull’, a fictional character from the eighteenth century.  Originally a middle-class character, full of ‘good sense’, William Hogarth and other
British writers made Bull “a heroic archetype of the freeborn Englishman.”[2] .  The ‘Freeborn Englishman’ was much admired in America, whose rights were to be aspired to in the dark days in the fight for independence, before the birth of ‘Uncle Sam’.

Perhaps the years most comparable with 2016 are those towards the end of the Eighteenth century. America had independence, Revolution in France, and in England a fear of the spread of continental Republican ideas, a distrust of any ‘Popery’ and the non-conformist ‘metropolitan elite’ of their day with their dangerous liberal ideals, personified in the likes of Joseph Priestley.

In Birmingham there were regular sizable food riots and in 1791, following a banquet in Birmingham held supposedly to celebrate the start of the French Revolution, three days of riots began in which the mob, apparently supported by local anglican church and other officials, targeted buildings and residences of dissenters.  The Government was slow to respond and there was a reluctance to prosecute the riot leaders.

Historian Alfred Cobban called the debate that erupted following the Priestley riots, “perhaps the last real discussion of the fundamentals of politics in [Britain]”.[17]

The years that followed saw initially an exodus of dissenters from Birmingham, more unrest leading to the Reform Act 1832 the start of the Chartist movement, a growth in religious tolerance leading eventually to more Parliamentary reform and repeal of legislation preventing Catholics and people of other faiths taking high office in the early nineteenth century.

What do we learn from history? History does repeat, and we may be heading for ‘dark days’, but there may also be a light at the end of the tunnel.

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