Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Tyburn Tree England: 1724 and 2014

Tyburn Tree England

In dear old 18th century Tyburn Tree England,
So severe was the penal code, that you
‘Might as well be hanged for stealing a sheep as stealing a lamb’:
Why bother to be hanged for petty pilfering?
You might as well do a big job.

It was different for the aristos, however:
They could change the law to make their big jobs legal -
‘The Black Acts’ and enclosure criminalized walking
And privatized public spaces, slavery funded Augustan culture,
Whilst the government dined so well off the fat of the land,
That John Gay was forced to satirize them all
In ‘The Beggar’s Opera’, where the prime minister,
Sir Robert Walpole and his gang were no better
Than the most hardened of Newgate’s criminals.
It ran and ran and ran.

Now the classically English take on our island story
Is ‘The Whig View of History’, where everything gets slowly better,
In a gradualist, incremental, organic, non-revolutionary manner,
There is nothing cyclical about the narrative at all:
It is a linear line of beneficence and improvement.
But today, I read Aditya Chakrabortty’s piece:
‘Today’s Britain: where the poor are forced to steal or beg from food banks
MPs who fiddled thousands got off lightly yet they have created a system where the hungry go to jail’ and ‘people who’ve had their benefits sanctioned, stealing televisions or other items sufficiently expensive to guarantee they’re sent down.’
Is this the new Tyburn penal code for the poor?
‘You might as well be warm in prison for stealing a telly rather than cold at home after being fined for stealing food from a shop?’

Addendum (news breaking from the sea):
In the 18th century, British sailors threw Africans overboard in the Atlantic to gain on insurance. In the 21st century, Africans drowning in the Mediterranean might be ignored so as to offer reassurance. 

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