Saturday, July 6, 2024

Quote of the Day (Charles Dickens, on a ‘Riotously Excited’ Parliamentary Election)

“Party feeling runs so high, and the contest is likely to be so sharp a one that I look forward to the probability of a scuffle before it is over…. Such a ruthless set of bloody-minded villains, I never set eyes on, in my life. In their convivial moments yesterday after the business of the day was over, they were perfect savages. If a foreigner were brought here on his first visit to an English town, to form his estimate of the national character, I am quite satisfied he would return forthwith to France, and never set foot in England again….The polling begins on Friday and then we shall have an incessant repetition of the sounds and sights of yesterday 'till the Election is over—bells ringing, candidates speaking, drums sounding, a band of eight trombones (would you believe it?) blowing —men fighting, swearing, drinking, and squabbling—all riotously excited, and all disgracing themselves.”—English journalist-turned-novelist Charles Dickens (1812-1870), Dec. 16, 1835 letter to fiancée Catherine Hogarth about a Northampton by-election he was reporting on for the Morning Chronicle, in The Selected Letters of Charles Dickens, edited by Jenny Hartley (2012)

I’m indebted to British historian Simon Schama’s historical overview of Parliamentary elections, in last weekend’s Financial Times, for bringing to my attention Dickens’ typically colorful account of what elections were like in the early 19th century.

Much has changed since then, but the unbridled nature of the proceedings remains the same.

Was it only five years ago that Boris Johnson achieved what looked like significant party realignment by winning an 80-seat majority, making inroads even in former Labour strongholds?

Now, with Thursday’s landslide election, Labour has ended 14 years of Conservative (mis)rule, with current Prime Minister Rishi Sunak so hapless in warding off the electorate’s rebuke that he may well be called Poison Sunak by sour members of his party’s rank and file from now on.

Even so, elections have consequences, and the wreckage the Conservatives have left behind—most of all, through Brexit and former PM Boris Johnson's rampant constitutional violations—will not easily be reversed.

Voters have less patience and shorter attention spans than formerly, and Keir Starmer will have to continue moderating the toxic stands of former Labour chieftain Jeremy Corbyn even as he shows tangible progress on the issues on which the electorate found the Conservatives wanting.

Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan’s sharp warning from three years ago to American politicians applies equally well abroad: “Politicians are never so dangerous as after a triumph.”

One element of modern political life that also seems to have carried across the Atlantic is the specter of far-right extremism. At this point, the so-called “Reform UK” party has won five seats in the House of Commons and a 14.3% share of Thursday’s vote, making inroads at the expense of the Conservatives.

Reform leader Nigel Farage has vowed to “change politics forever" through the party’s stances on taking immigrants in small boats back to France, a public inquiry into vaccine harm, protecting defense forces from human-rights inquiries, and adding 10,000 detention places.

Despite Reform’s current small representation in Parliament, he ought to be taken seriously, as history is replete with fringe political parties wreaking damage, whether in combination with others or by seizing power themselves. 

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