Political Promise

Is asking ‘was Hobbes British?’ similar to asking ‘is the pope Catholic?’?

In Peter Storey on November 1, 2010 at 7:00 am
Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679)

Image via Wikipedia

“Thomas Hobbes, who argued against undermining the power structure, in many ways, is like a typical modern day Brit” says Peter Storey.

Thomas Hobbes, the notable Civil War scholar who argued against undermining the power structure, in many ways, is like a typical modern day Brit. He just wanted to keep the status quo, didn’t want to raise much of a fuss about the government and probably wouldn’t have liked the idea of the EU. Is Hobbes simply a forerunner of today’s Brit, or is his fear based philosophy totally different from Britain’s culture of political apathy?

With the announcements of President Sarkozy wanting to raise the retirement age in France from 60 to 62, millions took to the streets of Paris to protest & strikes disrupted the whole country. In recent weeks and months there have been protests, riots and demonstrations in Europe from Greece to Iceland, yet Britain, facing some of the harshest cuts, seems to have a wait and see attitude about them.

Although the unions threatened to take Britain back to the Winter of Discontent of the 1970s, these warnings have failed to surface (so far). The sweeping support for Nick Clegg as the ‘change’ candidate for the general election faded away. And aspirations of a high voter turnout in the general election were a flop (65.1%). Although I could go into great detail over why over a 1/3 of the eligible population didn’t vote, the simple answer is that it comes down to this significant minority failing to believe that a great deal separates the three main political parties and so there’s no point voting, especially seeing as though it’s too hard to get another parties’ candidate elected in most parts of the country. The reason why people don’t protest is because, unfortunately, they don’t think it’ll achieve anything.

The last sizeable protest in the UK was the G20 protest in 2009, where the worst damage done was a computer being thrown through the window of an RBS. Compare that to the G20 protests in Toronto the following year where police cars were being set on fire, and the protests led to the largest mass arrest in Canadian history. Just a slight difference.

Could it be that the great British traditions of fair play, apologising for no particular reason and queuing are expanded into the realms of politics? Are we afraid that civilisation will crumble if we protest against the government, as Hobbes predicted? If people don’t protest over an issue, but will vote on the issue at the general election, why is turnout so low?

There are no easy answers to these questions, but a better question to ask is why we need to protest? There is something about us British that makes us want to read the newspaper about recent developments in politics or the economy and then complain about it to whoever will listen. This is Britain’s silent protest. Sure, it may not look as impressive as a million outraged men and women marching through the capital with their banners, but it is just as effective. These word of mouth protests that occur all over the country strike fear into any politician, and there doesn’t need to be a large scale protest to inform a politician that the electorate are not amused. Think about the expenses scandal.

However, we are yet to feel the scale of Cameron’s cuts. Perhaps they will be unforgiving enough to get people out on the streets, and will bring the unions to strike en masse. Somehow I doubt the former, yet the latter could still occur. The 21st century has witnessed Britain turn into a politically apathetic state, whose population may complain, and this will register with politicians, yet nothing will spawn from the complaining that takes place.

Although I’m aware that my and many other universities are planning to ‘protest Cameron’s cuts’ in the near future, beyond this, Britain fails to follow her continental cousins in their spirit of protest.

To go back to the initial question, yes, ‘was Hobbes British?’ is as apt as ‘is the pope Catholic?’ or ‘do bears shit in the woods?’, or ‘does the pope shit in the woods?’. Although the reasoning behind a 17th century scholar’s critique of protest may be very different from modern man at his local pub’s reasoning, they seem to arrive at the same conclusion. If Hobbes went to the Red Lion, dressed in modern attire and started complaining about the EU undermining our sovereignty, he’d be indistinguishable from the rest of us.


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