It was said of the Bourbons that they learnt nothing and forgot nothing. The 18th century French monarchs paid the price for their intellectual inflexibility when they were overthrown following the French revolution in 1789. Their policy before then was simple: enrich yourself, refuse any change and shut out the cries of the poor and hungry.
It was fairly similar in Britain at that time. The country was becoming ever richer on the profits of empire, including slavery, but the wealth remained firmly in the hands of the tiny minority who already owned it. They dealt with opposition in a brutal but effective way _by making it a crime. Between the years 1715 and 1723 the Riot Act, the Transportation Act, the Combination Act, the Workhouse Act, and the Black Act. This latter increased to more than 200 the crimes which were punishable by death, most of them crimes against property.
London was full of prisons and many were locked up or even hanged for stealing food or other basic goods. It was also a crime to think differently from the government. Those who subscribed to what were called 'dissenting' religions had to live five miles from the City.
We live in a much more civilized age today. People are legally entitled to join a union, are not transported to Australia for crimes, and are not forced to work for benefits. There is no death penalty in Britain, and for 100 years before it was abolished it applied only to murder or treason.
Yet there are too many uncomfortable echoes of that time in our own. A few years ago the now discredited newspaper tycoon Conrad Black and his wife dressed up as figures from the pre revolutionary French court for a fancy dress party. They seemed to epitomize a new layer of super rich who didn't just like being rich but wanted everyone to know how wealthy they were and how little they cared for anyone else or for anything outside their narrow concerns.
With record levels of inequality in Britain today _ and the gap between rich and poor wider than at any time since the slave-owners flaunted their ill gotten wealth _ there are increasing attempts to criminalise and suppress the poor. This has been evident especially in the sentencing following the riots. Many people charged with the most petty crimes have been remanded in custody without any serious justification. Others who have pleaded guilty have received jail terms for minor offences. Two young men who talked about riots on facebook but did not actually riot have been given four years each in prison. There are serious attempts to evict families whose children have been caught rioting, and to cut benefits of those convicted.
These are double or treble punishments inflicted on whole families. The whole response to the riots last week is doctrinaire and authoritarian. But it is about something more than that.
It represents a willful refusal to face up to any of the problems which led to the riots: racism, poverty, inequality, unemployment. To even raise these questions is in some quarters enough for the red mist to come down before the eyes of politicians and commentators. Lock them up, deal out exemplary sentences, and impose policies of 'zero tolerance'.
The problem is that locking up the individuals and ignoring the reasons why such things happen won't solve any of the issues. The figures out this week tell a story: unemployment up, youth unemployment up, underemployment growing, women's jobs hit hard. Among the areas with the highest rates of unemployment Haringey (which contains Tottenham), Hackney and Lewisham.
But the government is sticking to its line: the unemployment figures have nothing to do with the cuts, and the cuts have nothing to do with the riots. As long as this mentality continues we'll hear more echoes from the 18th century.