It was found in a small box during one of our attempts at clearing accumulated clutter: an 1873 farthing. We still use the expression for valueless, 'not worth a farthing', but who remembers using that coin? The name came from the Vikings, a fourth of a penny. Now even the Old English word penny is falling from use, and it is common to hear people speak of one pence. Coincidentally, 1873 was also the date of a diary kept by my Glaswegian great grandfather in which he recorded his voyage in an unreliable steamship to India through the newly built Suez Canal. I wondered what else was going on in the world that year and consulted Wikipedia.
In 1873, the Prime Minister, Gladstone, resigned but as Disraeli failed to form an alternative government, he regained power in days. The Vienna stock market crashed, soon to be followed by New York's, and a long period of world economic depression and trade disruption commenced. Two other significant events caught my eye: the death of Justus von Liebig and the publication of James Clerk Maxwell's Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism
. Liebig had shown how plants used carbon dioxide and nitrogen, and had paved the way to understanding of fertilisers, while the Scottish genius, Maxwell, had shown the connection between light and electricity, leading to his being ranked with Newton and Einstein. These discoveries have now become central to our understanding of the management of climate change.
The year of that farthing was the height of the Victorian era and the British Empire, but it was also the start of the emancipation of the female half of our population, with the foundation of a college for women in Cambridge and the first few women qualifying as doctors and pharmacists. It was a period when the awful conditions of the poor were being recognised and Acts of Parliament were beginning to allow that workers should have some rights – they too were to face a long struggle. It was a time of sharp contrasts, as commented on by the recently deceased Dickens and by Gladstone's great rival, the reformer Disraeli, who was shortly to become Prime Minister again.
Since then, we have endured two World Wars, separated by a Great Depression, and one Cold War but then a remarkable period of relative peace and growing prosperity, so that few will remember the last time Britain was in the dire straits we are now approaching. We have all been through financial depressions, have seen warfare involve our armed services, have approached influenza epidemics with some complacency, and have noticed the effects, usually elsewhere, of floods and hurricanes, and of crop failures and famine. But these have all come one by one and been widely dispersed geographically, and few have made the connection.
Not since 1939-45 has Britain faced the combination of threatened world warfare, with blockade, widespread destruction, food and energy shortages, and economic meltdown on the scale now looming.
Few, save perhaps the occasional student of the New Testament, would have anticipated that St John the Divine's metaphor of the apocalypse of Babylon the Great, or Rome in his time, would become so apt during our lifetimes. The original metaphor has the four horsemen galloping together: death, injustice, pestilence and warfare. Together, because they had the habit of occurring simultaneously; injustice led to war which led to spread of diseases by the armies, all of which led to a cycle of death, and ultimately the downfall of whole cities/states such as Babylon and Rome. Now, they might be London or Washington, Moscow or Beijing, all accessible to nuclear attack.
You do not need to be a scholar of the Bible to understand the metaphor, that humanity's thoughtless or even wilful misdoings can and do lead to disaster. No avenging God is needed; we can do it all by ourselves. How have we got here?
My own life has encompassed the fall of the European empires, the rise of the economic and military power of USA, the collapse of Communism in USSR and its replacement (despite attempts at reform) by absolute dictatorship, an inexorable economic rise of China under Communist oligarchies, the literal rise from ashes of Japan and much of western Europe, the unresolved conflict of Korea, the perpetual warfare in the Middle East, and a stumbling economic rise among many poorer nations.
Real democracy, which undoubtedly has its weaknesses (vide Brexit and Trump), clings on in Europe, North America, India, Japan, and their scattered allies, often imposed by earlier empires. And these democracies have another weakness: poorly regulated capitalism.
Here in Britain, the government is confronting Covid-19, climate change, migration from less fortunate countries, the economic consequences of the Ukraine war and of voluntary rejection of the European Union, and increasing poverty associated with rising fertiliser, food and energy prices. This is enough to make many despair but is compounded fatally by governmental incompetence and lack of moral leadership. Again, how have we got here? Thinking of the four horsemen, consider injustice.
I can suggest one reason, based on observations over the last eight decades. There have been two fundamental changes in society over that period, the first starting in 1945 and the second in 1979. These were widespread changes to attitudes, led by government. From 1945, government encouraged us to think in terms of equality of opportunity, of cooperation to bring this about, and of consideration of the plight of the less fortunate. After the stress of war, this seemed natural and was generally accepted by political parties of both left and right. Although it did not prevent vigorous conflict between employees and employers, at least the workers had strong representation and their health, longevity and prosperity increased. This worthy attitude might be called communitarianism and was to become a hallmark of the European Union.
In 1979, there was a complete change, and an ideology based largely on assertion of individual rights took hold of political minds in the West, individualism, incorporating unworthy attitudes of competition rather than contribution. We were encouraged to think in terms of self-improvement, to accumulate wealth and property and hand it to our children, and not to rely on the State. It was apparently a nostalgic look back to 1873 but was curiously justified by the belief that personal enrichment led to a more general spread of wealth. The Victorian poor and workhouses were forgotten. The reminder was there but ignored.
Those grand houses and estates, built on the backs of exploited workers and even slaves, were now being bought and new ones built by the newly enriched, the rentier generation. Wealthy migrants from Asia and Russia found a welcome and their beneficiaries in the City of London and Westminster prospered; poor refugees in contrast had every possible obstacle put in their way and if they got here were exploited. Britain had once again become politically a nasty country, one difficult to feel proud of. Even a prolonged period of Labour government failed to arrest this decline, as too many people enjoyed the personal benefits and ignored the collective downsides.
The nadir was reached in 2019 when we elected a party of Brexiteers led by a corrupt ex-journalist who chose a cabinet of multi-millionaires (including seven who were of migrant stock themselves). Britain's place in the eyes of our allies was epitomised by a photograph of Johnson, dishevelled and ignored, at a meeting of world leaders as Russia invaded Ukraine. By then, successive governments, under the mantra of cutting taxes, had failed adequately to maintain public services, schools, hospitals and public health. This was highlighted by our delayed response to Covid-19, our waste of public money, possibly corruptly, on PPE and by the failure of those in power to obey the laws they had reasonably imposed on everyone else. With autocratic governments, scapegoats are useful and keeping out immigrants had become a rallying cry to attract the support of the selfish.
When society begins to fail, the poorest are always the first and hardest hit. The poor in Russia have risen against their rulers in bloody revolution before – nevertheless, they are still there, and Putin knows it and needs to invent an enemy. This is the moment patriotism turns into nationalism, and Ukraine appeared an easy victim. He sees weakness in USA in Trumpism, European disunity and hints of fascism, and British governmental chaos. He knows the potential Russia has in agriculture and energy supplies, so he starts a war funded largely by oil and gas revenues. European costs of living rise and the poorest are threatened as not since WW2 by choices between food and fuel.
Two generations seem to grasp these connections, those who lived through that war and its aftermath (those who used farthings) and those who have grown up recently knowing the implications of climate change. Of Western rulers, only Joe Biden has this perspective and most in Europe are on a steep learning curve. In the UK, the government comprises entirely the wealthy, entitled 1980's generation with little regard for the threat climate change and poverty pose for national stability at a time of crisis – their obsession is with retaining power at all costs. They must wake up.
Supplies of food and energy are the big issues. Their costs are affecting the poorest most severely, the poor whose numbers will undoubtedly be increased by inflation and by increasing immigration from Ukraine and elsewhere owing to war and climate change. They can only be protected through the benefits system, not by gimmicks, and the comfortable and well-off must be prepared for increases in taxes and falls in our standards of living until our use of fossil fuel ceases. We must all adapt our lifestyles to accommodate this.
To return to 1873, my great grandfather recorded little of politics in his diary of that year, but he noted the unreliability of the steamship's coal-fired boiler. He recorded his conversation with the stoker who had, as a cavalryman in the Light Brigade, galloped into the valley of death at Balaclava in Crimea. To quote Wikipedia: 'The Crimean War marked a turning point for the Russian Empire. The war weakened the Imperial Russian Army, drained the treasury and undermined Russia's influence in Europe. The empire would take decades to recover. Russia's humiliation forced its educated elites to identify its problems and to recognise the need for fundamental reforms'.
Will history be repeated or reversed? Russia's main problem, then as now, was national injustice. It was and is also a problem in Britain and worldwide. I wonder if this occurred to the naïve, post-farthing Foreign Secretary when she made her recent statement about us expelling Russia from all of Ukraine, implying her intention to take us to war. I understand her emotion, but this issue is also in Putin's mind and his memory is longer than hers. We live in dangerous times and need cool heads and moral leadership to face these dangers. At present, we lack both.
Anthony Seaton is Emeritus Professor of Environmental and Occupational Medicine at Aberdeen University and Senior Consultant to the Edinburgh Institute of Occupational Medicine. The views expressed are his own