Christmas deadlines mean we’re writing this in advance; it’s about plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, as the French would say.
UKIP will probably ban foreign words — coming over here taking our language and grammar — so in proper English that means: “the more things change, the more they stay the same”. Wise old buzzards, the French.
Reading our 1914 edition (still on sale, a bargain at £1.25), it’s obvious that while some minor things have changed — electricity invented, life expectancy improved, dentistry got better, computers happened — the big thing, human nature, has
not changed at all.
This is probably why people who complain that things are going to the dogs can always be proved wrong: materially, while life has changed for the better, human nature has not changed at all.
For example, Anthony Trollope’s The Prime Minister was written in 1876.
The PM in question presides over a Lib Dem-Tory coalition government (Labour wasn’t invented back then, either), and Trollope wrote: “At the first proposition to form a coalition ministry, the newspapers had hardly known whether to assist or to oppose the scheme. There was no doubt… of a tradition that coalitions of this kind have been generally feeble, sometimes disastrous, and on occasions even disgraceful.”
So far so perspicacious.
He goes on: “When a man, perhaps through a long political life, has bound himself to a certain code of opinions, how can he change that code at a moment? And when at the same moment, together with the change, he secures power, patronage, and pay, how shall the public voice absolve him?”
Sound familiar, Mr Clegg? And a warning for Mr Farage, surely?
The same book also describes the person who, nearly 150 years ago, thought that things were going to the dogs.
Of a landed gent in Herefordshire, Trollope wrote: “He did veritably believe that his dear country was going utterly to the dogs.” (See?).
“He felt that all his happiness was to be drawn from the past. There was nothing of joy or glory to which he could look forward either on behalf of his country or his family.
“(He) read little or nothing, and thought that he knew the history of his country because he was aware that Charles I had had his head cut off, and that the Georges had come from Hanover.”
This is the same mentality that surely prompted a speaker on Radio Four’s Any Questions recently to comment that we are returning to poverty levels not seen since the Victorian age.
As for the (alleged) rising intolerance of foreigners today, sure to be an issue in the General Election, Charles Dickens nailed this in Little Dorrit, published between 1855 and 1857.
Dickens, writing about the residents of London’s Bleeding Heart Yard, noted that they held it (of a foreigner) “to be a sound constitutional national axiom” that he ought to go home to his own country, but “never thought of inquiring how many of their own countrymen would be returned upon their hands from divers parts of the world, if the principle were generally recognised”.
What a great writer Dickens was: predicting election issues nearly 150 years after he died.
The Bleeding Hearts also believed that foreigners were always badly off; “though they were as ill off themselves as they could desire to be”.
They believed that foreigners were “dragooned and bayoneted”, and though they got their own skulls promptly fractured if they showed any ill-humour, “still it was with a blunt instrument, and that didn’t count”.
They also believed that foreigners were “always immoral”, despite the fact “they had an occasional assize at home, and now and then a divorce case or so — that had nothing to do with it”.
Trollope has more on the nature of politicians, and it’s clear that some could be as self-serving and shallow as today.
With Russell Brand calling on people not to vote, it’s worth remembering that some politicians have always been useless.
But if people had not taken part in the democratic process, we would not have the liberties we have today.
We’re remembering the centenary of the Great War (our 1914 edition is still on sale, a bargain at £1.25, fascinating Christmas reading), but it’s been less well reported that it was not until 1918 that all men over 21, and wealthy women, won the right to vote. It was not until 1928 that all women over 21 won the right to vote.
In 1914, as men went off to die for their country, only 60% of them over the age of 21 had the vote. After the horrors of the trenches — had the law not been changed — millions of fighting men would not have had the vote.
Women had held the country together but even after 1918 only women over 30 who were married to a male voter or owned property could vote.
We’ve had universal suffrage for less than 100 years yet already we’re talking about voluntarily surrendering it.
That’s human nature for you.