When English customs and traditions are dying out and fading from the memory it is heartening to hear of one ancient pastime that may soon be due for a revival. According to Sir Ronald Cohen, the little-known multi-millionaire, the widening gap between rich and poor could cause rioting to break out on the streets.
If he is correct, it would mark a stimulating return to the period from 1688 to 1820, which was marked throughout by riots, rebellions, sedition and strikes. Lively events included the Luddites smashing industrial machinery, the Spa Field riots, when a mob planned to seize the Tower of London, an attack on the Prince Regent’s carriage, the Peterloo massacre and the Cato Street conspiracy. Historians put these events down to the aftermath of the French wars and the social and economic effects of industrialisation.
But whatever the causes, it was an eventful period when the English expressed themselves in a way normally associated with the tumultuous and hot-blooded French. When Napoleon widened and straightened the streets of Paris, he achieved two ends: he made it easier for the mob to riot and easier for the army to shoot them down. Our narrow streets, and some would say our narrower natures, led to a decline in the British riot. Now it may be revived, which in an age when everything from cheese rolling to ice skating is banned on grounds of health and safety, would mark a return to an exhilarating form of self-expression.
It is not clear, however, why Sir Ronald Cohen feels the way he does. As the founder of an international venture capital firm Apax, he is said to be worth some £260m, making him one of the country’s richest men. As such, he perhaps has cause to be fearful. One pictures him lying abed in silken sheets, haunted by dreadful dreams. He hears the rumble of the tumbril on cobbled streets, the catcalls of the cabbage-hurling mob, the clicking of knitting needles at the foot of the scaffold and the cackling of the crones as they excitedly wait for the entertainment to begin.
He opens his eyes but he cannot see! He is blindfolded! He is prodded and pushed up the wooden steps. He clears his dry throat and speaks: “It is a far, far better thing that I do than I have ever done…” His head is thrust down by coarse hands. Swoosh! The guillotine descends, and up sits Sir Ronald in a trembling cold sweat.
Speaking for myself, as one barely this side of penury, I take a more sanguine view. I do not think the poor will riot because City traders and private equity bosses are making eye-watering millions and paying little in tax. The fat cats and their wild self-indulgences are too removed from the really poor to spark the kind of envy that leads to riot. However, that is not to say that I am entirely against rioting.
There is nothing quite like a popular uprising to remind our leaders who, ultimately, is boss. It is still pleasurable to recall the stricken expression on the face of the Rumanian monster Ceausescu as he stood on the balcony of his palace for the last time and heard not the familiar orchestrated cheers but the awful sound of the mob baying for blood. Sickeningly, it dawned on him that the blood was his.
If Sir Ronald dreams, then so do I. I see the blood draining from the faces of our dear leaders as the massed thousands in the streets turn nasty. The fevered crowd, men, women, young, old, brought together by a single cause, anger, and unified in a single purpose, revenge. Because when you think about it, we are not short of reasons to riot. We English, who have long breathed the air of freedom and taken pride in each lungful, have become browbeaten, hectored and infantilised.
We are taxed as never before, we are banned from smoking, we are lectured about our drinking, we cannot hunt foxes, we cannot walk the streets without being watched, we cannot improve our homes without paying more tax, even a “nice view” is to be subject to impost.
Though we pay more, our public services get worse. Our local authorities are stuffed with jobsworths and politically correct busybodies with silly titles. There are spies in our dustbins. Health and safety bureaucrats suck the fun from life. Our streets are filthy, our towns and cities dull and uniform and scarred by brutish development. Crime is rising and the police busy themselves with paperwork. Our pensions are shot to pieces, those of our leaders are gold-plated. And real power drains from Westminster to Brussels. Rioting, anyone?