Last week I gave the annual lecture to the William Cobbett Society. It seemed too much of an honour to decline when Sir Richard Body, the former Conservative MP, asked me 18 months ago, although as the day approached I became uneasily aware of never having actually read any Cobbett.
That has now changed; Cobbett is my hero. I am in awe of him: a plough boy who grew up with disadvantages of the kind one can barely imagine in the 21st Century, he learnt to write in the army and subsequently became a journalist on the epic scale. If, in an attempt to achieve solvency Cobbett, had not sold his interest in his reporting of parliamentary debates to his printer, what we know today as Hansard would have been called Cobbett.
A stream of opinions poured from Cobbett’s self-published pen, some practical, some utopian, some dotty, all entertaining – and quite a few that are eerily relevant today. Hear him go on about the "Scotch feelosophers and Scotch feenanciers" who seem to run everything. Nothing much seems to have changed. He has a horror of the national debt, which stood at eye-popping levels following the Napoleonic Wars. He loathes bankers and lambasts politicians. Heavens, we need him now.
Imagine what he would have made of the Single Farm Payment fiasco, Defra’s management of which, under the less-than-inspired leadership of Margaret Beckett, was slammed by the National Audit Office last week. After mismanaging the system so badly that Britain was fined hundreds of millions of pounds by the European Union for incompetence, Beckett was appointed Foreign Secretary. How Cobbett would have got his teeth into that.
It might be difficult to return to the kind of small government advocated by Cobbett; in his day, Whitehall departments were run with just a handful of clerks, and he thought that even they were too many. But it would be nice to try. It would appall him that, of all the over-regulated industries in Britain, agriculture is the most beset with red tape.