The Awkward Squad

By Brendon, Piers | The Independent (London, England), August 14, 2009 | Go to article overview
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The Awkward Squad


Brendon, Piers, The Independent (London, England)


BOOKS OF THE WEEK A Radical History of Britain By Edward Vallance LITTLE, BROWN Pounds 25 (639pp) Pounds 22.50 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030 The English Rebel By David Horspool VIKING Pounds 25 (453pp) Pounds 22.50 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop

Can it be just a coincidence that two admirable histories of radicalism and rebellion have emerged during the dying months of the most durable Labour government ever seen? Or do they reflect a common disillusionment with the Blair project, a feeling that New Labour was old Toryism writ large and a recognition that the Third Way existed (as Francis Wheen said) somewhere between the Second Coming and the Fourth Dimension?

Certainly, both authors show that our island story was never a steady ascent to broad sunlit uplands. It has been punctuated by frequent and sometimes violent attempts to transform politics and society. While Lollards, Levellers, Chartists and Suffragettes may have failed in the short term, they have ultimately helped to bring about fundamental change.

Although these books overlap in many ways, they are very different. Edward Vallance's is the more scholarly and analytical, David Horspool's the more popular and impressionistic. Vallance deals in depth with key episodes such as Magna Carta, the Putney Debates, the Cato Street conspiracy, the Tolpuddle Martyrs and female suffrage. Horspool provides a more continuous narrative stretching from William the Conqueror's Norman yoke to the Iron Lady's poll tax. Vallance covers Britain, which he confesses to be "enriched" England, whereas Horspool frankly excludes the Celtic extremities. They both write well though Vallance sometimes resorts to academic claptrap and Horspool has a weakness for journalese.

Both, too, are sharp observers. Vallance cites Southey's nasty comment on William Godwin's mind, which was "like a close-stool pan, most often empty, and better empty than when full". Horspool notes that Hitler advised Sir Oswald Mosley to call his black-shirted force Ironsides, after Oliver Cromwell's troops. Both describe how in 1549 Robert Kett's rebels dismayed the archers defending Norwich by turning "theyr bare tayles" against them.

But Vallance's account is the more graphic and Horspool makes the dubious suggestion that in this universal gesture of contempt we might discern the origins of the modern streaker. He also slips up in describing Charles Kingsley as regius professor of history at Oxford - instead of Cambridge.

Kingsley dramatised Hereward the Wake's struggle against the Normans and what emerges from both books is the power of myth to inspire and sanction resistance to authority. Sometimes, rebels harked back to the Garden of Eden: during the Peasants' Revolt of 1381 John Ball famously asked, "When Adam delv'd and Eve span/Who was then the gentleman?" The Levellers invoked a state of nature to justify Colonel Rainsborough's celebrated pronouncement that "the poorest he that is in England has a life to live as the greatest he".

Often there were appeals to legendary freedoms enjoyed in an Anglo-Saxon Arcadia. Robin Hood was, as Horspool says, enlisted in many causes. Moreover, as Vallance demonstrates, Magna Carta became all things to all men: a guarantee against arbitrary taxation and arrest, an endorsement of universal suffrage, a defence of parliament, a mandate for the welfare state.

Such conjuring with an idealised past indicates that English rebels were seldom revolutionaries. The followers of Wat Tyler and Jack Cade expressed loyalty to the crown and attributed injustices to evil counsellors, churchmen and lawyers. The execution of Charles I evidently shocked the population at large. Few Chartists were republicans and, despite the Newport Rising of 1839, fewer still were insurrectionists.

Mrs Pankhurst was in many ways a conservative and would have been content, her left-wing feminist critics sneered, with "Votes for Ladies".

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