Thursday 25 June 2020

Encouraging the Mob

In the light of what's been going on lately on both sides of the Atlantic, it's instructive to read, in Jenny Uglow's excellent The Lunar Men, about certain events that took place in Birmingham in 1791. Here Joseph Priestley, brilliant scientist, Dissenting preacher and outspoken radical, formed a Constitutional Society, whose first act was to hold a public dinner 'for any Friend of Freedom' on the anniversary of the storming of the Bastille. (Priestley, naively but genuinely, believed that the revolution in France was going to create Paradise on Earth.) Predictably enough, the dinner, in a Birmingham hotel, drew various hecklers, and some of the guests were pelted with mud and stones as they left. However, the real action began some hours later, when a much more threatening mob descended, only to find that they'd missed the dinner by several hours. So they vented their anger by breaking the windows of the hotel, then set about smashing up Priestley's New Meeting House, tearing out and burning the furnishings, then putting the building to the torch.
  The mob then moved on to Priestley's house, a mile away at Fair Hill, from which Priestley and his wife were persuaded to fly. After fending off the rioters for a while, those defending the house also fled in a hail of stones, and the mob moved in and set about destroying the house and its contents, smashing up everything in Priestley's laboratory, not to mention his wine cellar, before finally setting fire to the house and getting to work on destroying the gardens.
  The rampage continued, with the mob attacking various houses of supposed Dissenters, then descending on the home of John Ryland, a banker and merchant, which they burnt down. Seven men, drinking in his cellar, were killed when the blazing roof fell in on them. And so it went on, with a total of 27 houses and four meeting houses being attacked by the mob, and at least eight rioters and one special constable being killed. And yet nothing serious was done about it until the rioters started opening the prisons and freeing the inmates. Special constables were hurriedly sworn in, and eventually dragoons arrived and things quietened down.
  Why had so little effective action been taken against the rioters? Because the establishment was essentially behind them, regarding them as sturdy defenders of Church and Crown, and had no strong desire to curb their actions, so long as they stayed within certain bounds. The King and others, including even Burke, expressed themselves delighted that Priestley had suffered for his seditious preaching. However, the Home Secretary, Henry Dundas, saw the clear danger in encouraging rioting: that a mob can easily shift its alliance. The pro-Government mob could well become an anti-Government mob – as indeed happened a couple of years later, when the Birmingham mob was crying 'Tom Paine for ever!'. For this reason, among others, the violent and destructive urges that lie not far below the surface of civilised society should never be encouraged. And, by extension, it is never a good idea to stand back and allow the perceived 'good guys' to silence and 'cancel' those they don't approve of; one day, the 'bad guys' might want to do the same thing, and the 'good guys' will discover they have destroyed their own defences.

(Incidentally, it is also instructive to note the remarkably high incidence of 'extreme weather' events in the years covered by The Lunar Men, despite the fact that the industrial revolution had not yet got under way...)

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