Magazine article The Spectator

Ready to Rebel? You Are Part of a Glorious Tradition

Magazine article The Spectator

Ready to Rebel? You Are Part of a Glorious Tradition

Article excerpt

Angry disenchantment with the political and financial establishment has rarely been deeper.

David Horspool says that the English rebel - culturally affronted rather than ideologically left-wing - is an honourable archetype of our nation's history

G.K. Chesterton's famous line in The Secret People, 'We are the people of England, that never have spoken yet', still seems to appeal across the political spectrum. It is quoted by BNP bloggers, by socialist thinkers agonising over a nation without an identity, and it was famously invoked by Martin Bell, the whitesuited independent. In truth, Chesterton's picture of a quiescent English population doesn't reflect today's brash, opinionated culture, where queuing is obsolete and ignorance seems the best qualification for airing your views or demanding 'respect'. But was it ever credible? If you went only by the most solid evidence of our past, you might think it was. The bits of England's heritage that footsore children will traipse round this summer are the ones left by history's winners, the castles, palaces and country houses that still survive all around us. Unlike rulers, however, rebels don't often get the chance to build things. And rebellion is part of England's heritage too.

If I were asked to take someone on a rebels' tour of London, I might start in Stoke Newington in north London, say Walford Road, where one of the Angry Brigade was picked up in 1972, and a stone's throw from the flat on Amhurst Road that four Angries turned into a bomb factory. Then we could head for Church Street, past Defoe Road, where Daniel Defoe, who fought with the rebel Duke of Monmouth in the last pitched battle on English soil, once lived. On Church Street itself once stood Wallingford House, where a clique of New Model Army officers gathered to plan the overthrow of Richard Cromwell, the unlucky heir to the reluctant revolutionary Oliver. From Stoke Newington, we could travel into central London, going past Highbury, where the medieval manor was 'consigned to destruction in the ravening flames' by Essex rebels in the Peasants' Revolt of 1381. As we reached Clerkenwell, we would pass Spa Fields, where a meeting of parliamentary reformers turned into an insurrectionary riot in 1816; and Coldbath Square, once Coldbath Fields, where a policeman was killed in a rebellious demonstration after the 'betrayal' of the Great Reform Act in 1833.

We could pause for a moment at Gray's Inn, where Thomas Percy, one of the Gunpowder Plotters, stayed in a local pub on the night before Guy Fawkes was discovered.

Actually, what I've described isn't a special tour of London designed to take in historical associations with rebellion. It's my school run and journey to work. Most journeys in London could be rebel tours. The journey to my old office used to take me past Hoxton, where Lord Mounteagle received the letter that revealed the Gunpowder Plot, and past the Tower, which rebels attacked, were imprisoned in, escaped from or were executed at, for about 800 years. If I came in from south London, I could stop at London Bridge, where (in the bridge's earlier incarnation) rebels resisted William the Conqueror, where the Kent contingent of the Peasants' Revolt crossed into the city, and where Jack Cade's rebels fought a bloody battle in 1450.

Rebels, like rulers, tended to aim for the capital, but from Cornwall to Norfolk, from Sussex to Northumbria, England is crisscrossed with the ghosts of rebels marching, meeting and fighting.

So Chesterton was wrong: the people of England have spoken repeatedly. The idea that English history is one of peaceful evolution or a 'silent' populace, dominated by solid uncomplaining yeomen or loyal public servants, is a fantasy. It is, admittedly, one with a long pedigree, visible in Edmund Burke's self-satisfied trust in the 'simplicity of our national character and . . . a sort of native plainness' as a safeguard for a conservative constitution, or Wyndham Lewis's ideal Englishman: 'straightforward, tolerant, peaceable, humane, unassuming, patient'. …

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