Some four hundred years ago, when Shakespeare had barely quit the stage, Francis Bacon wrote an essay ‘Of Seditions And Troubles’ which is worth revisiting today. Are our leaders, the ‘shepherds of the people’, wise enough to see the dangers coming, the ‘hollow blasts of wind and secret swelling of seas before a tempest’?
A leader should look, said Bacon, for these three signs of impending danger to themselves: False news, gross inequality of income, and a government turning upon itself. ‘False news, often running up and down, to the disadvantage of the state’ are, said Bacon, ‘preludes of seditions to come’. He advised leaders to ‘beware what they say; especially in these short speeches, which fly abroad like darts, and are thought to be shot out of their secret intentions’.
The grossly unfair spreading of wealth is something the leader must redress. ‘Good policy is to be used, that the treasure and moneys in a state be not gathered into few hands. For otherwise a state may have great stock, and yet starve. And money is like muck, not good except it be spread’. It’s not just a matter of fairness, for the rich contribute less to the state than do poorer people. ‘A smaller number, that spend more and earn less, do wear out an estate sooner than a greater number, that live lower and gather more’. The rich and their money both lie idle, while the great majority produce the wealth.
Trouble comes, he warned, from ‘much poverty and much discontentment’ – and are fatal when the grievances of the poor majority combine with the grumblings of the discontented nobility. The most dangerous times of all come when all classes combine and blow apart the leader’s assumption that ‘common people are of slow motion’ (can’t be bothered to rise up) and ‘the greater sort are of small strength’ and will only act when they see ‘the multitude’ rise. Nevertheless, ‘rebellions of the belly are the worst’ and, although some storms may blow over, discontentments ‘are apt to gather a preternatural heat and to inflame’.
Beware then, when the masses are discontent. Especially about the price of food.
A government, said Bacon quoting Machiavelli, ‘ought to be common parents’ to their people, whereas if it ‘lean to a side, it is as a boat that is overthrown by uneven weight’ and in danger of capsize. At such times the crew becomes unreliable. It is ‘ desperate case, if those that hold with the proceeding of the state be full of discord and faction, and those that are against it be entire and united’. (Boris Johnson and Donald Trump should read that last sentence again.) A wise government moves softly, with the majesty of planets, for when the powerful move violently ‘it is a sign the orbs are out of frame’, and when the pillars of government are shaken or weakened (especially by divisions within the party) ‘men had need to pray for fair weather’.
The main danger signals identified by Bacon include ‘innovation in religion, taxes, alteration of laws and customs, breaking of privileges, general oppression, advancement of unworthy persons, strangers…’ all of which tend to join and knit people ‘in a common cause’. To avoid these dangers he recommended the government allow ‘moderate liberty for griefs and discontentments to evaporate’ rather than let ‘the wound bleed inwards’ and encourage ‘malign ulcers and pernicious impostumations’. Always give your people a sense of hope: ‘one of the best antidotes against the poison of discontentments. And it is a certain sign of a wise government and proceeding when it can hold men’s hearts by hopes’.
Bacon lived and held high office in especially dangerous times: the end of Elizabeth’s reign, the troubled reign of James First and Sixth (including the Gunpowder Plot), the seven year suspension of Parliament, and the start of the reign of Charles the First. (You’ll remember what that led to.) Francis Bacon was no intellectual commenting from the sidelines; he knew what he was saying because he was in The Thick Of It.