"Bovine complacency" well describes the usual reaction in England to intellectuals who spend their time chipping away at the foundations of our society. In 1790, Edmund Burke warned the French, in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, not to take seriously the revolutionary sentiments being expressed in some circles in London: "Because half a dozen grasshoppers under a fern make the field ring with their importunate chink, while thousands of great cattle, reposed beneath the shadow of the British oak, chew the cud and are silent, pray do not imagine, that those who make the noise are the only inhabitants of the field."
Burke was alarmed by the complacent attitude many in England took towards what was happening in Paris. The worst excesses of the French Revolution, including the September massacres, the execution of the king and queen, and the reign of terror, all lay in the future. But to the penetrating eye of Burke, an outsider and an Irishman, it was already clear in early 1790 that the overthrow of traditional authority had created terrible dangers. Thousands of great cattle, reposed beneath the shadow of the British oak, still saw nothing much to worry about.
We are seldom inclined to worry very much what intellectuals are doing, especially if they are of foreign origin. It is hard to imagine that such eccentric and impractical characters could ever cause trouble. At a later period, Marx and Engels were allowed to carry on their work in England pretty much undisturbed. Most of us just don't think the kind of thing they were writing about is going to happen here. In 1978, Hobsbawm delivered his Marx Memorial Lecture, in which he actually reassured us that revolution was becoming less likely: "The forward march of labour and the labour movement, which Marx predicted, appears to have come to a halt in this country about 25 to 30 years ago." In other words, the Attlee government of 1945-51 represented the high point of working-class pressure for change.
Hobsbawm provided the statistics needed to back this up. He pointed out that the proportion of non-agricultural manual workers in Britain was already almost 70 per cent in 1867, when the Second Reform Bill was passed. This was exceptionally high compared to other countries, and forced the ruling classes to find ways to gain working-class support. But this dominance did not last. In 1911 three-quarters of workers were manual, but that proportion had fallen to just over half in 1976, and Hobsbawm warned, correctly, that it was bound to fall further. In 2012 it is well under a third.
- ONLINE ONLY: Thoughts from a Hospital Bed
- ONLINE ONLY: Academic Boycotts Teach Us Nothing
- ONLINE ONLY: Send in the Clowns
- ONLINE ONLY: Thatcher, Reagan and the Dictators
- The Resolute Courage of Margaret Thatcher
- America's New Isolationists Are Endangering the West
- An Alternative To Our Reckless Energy Gamble
- The Family is the Key to the Future of Faith
- Persecuted Muslims Who Love Life in England
- They Were the Future of the Tory Party, Once
- The Parable of the Stupid Samaritan
- Pope Frank: In the Footsteps of St Francis
- The Middle Kingdom's Problem with Religion
- We Abandon Christians in the East At Our Peril
- Feminism Or Islamism: Which Side Are You On?
- At Last: Gove Goes For the Culture of Excuses
- Is There a Way Out of the Tories' Modernising Mess?
- Online Only: The Kenyatta Dilemma
- Cameron is the Euro's Best Hope for Survival
- Census That Revealed a Troubling Future