A radical history of Britain

by Nick

Vallance RadicalismEdward Vallance, A Radical History of Britain: Visionaries, Rebels and Revolutionaries – The Men and Women Who Fought for Our Freedoms (Little, Brown, 2009).*

In March earlier this year, Jack Straw and Michael Wills published a green paper on a potential Bill of Rights and Responsibilities in the UK. The foreword sought to put the proposals into historical context:

From the Magna Carta in 1215 and the Declaration of Arbroath in 1320, the later Bill of Rights and Scottish Claim of Right in 1689, the great Reform Acts of the 19th and early 20th centuries, through to more recent landmarks, such as the foundation of the National Health Service as part of the welfare state, our history illustrates the proud traditions of liberty on which our current framework of democratic rights and responsibilities is built.

The green paper went on to stress that this British – not English or Scottish – tradition of freedom is continually and progressively improving:

We believe historians will bracket this Government’s reforms with the constitutional transformations of the 17th and 19th centuries as times of profound and invigorating change, when power was redistributed. These last ten years have been years of progress.

British rights and freedoms are here presented as part of a Whiggish narrative, which traces an unbroken thread from Magna Carta to the Human Rights Act and beyond. Many accounts of British radicalism share this Whiggish tendency. Where this narrative differs from many is in its confidence. The history of British radicalism is often written as a series of what ifs: what if the Levellers had been able to convince parliamentary grandees of their cause? What if the Chartists had been more successful in winning round the Victorian establishment? By contrast, the narrative presented by the green paper is far smoother, seeing an uninterrupted progression from one constitutional staging post to the next. In doing so, however, it manages to eliminate the personal from key constitutional developments. Freedoms are presented in the third person, not the first – enshrined in legal instruments, rather than achieved by actual people.

Ted Vallance’s new book on British radicals methodically dismantles this idea of a stately progress from one legal milestone to the next. The book starts by unpicking the myths that have grown up around the Magna Carta. Significant amendments were made to it in the fourteenth century, even before Sir Edward Coke set the Charter at the centre of an invented common law constitutionalism during the seventeenth century. Since then it has been invoked by everyone from the Chartists to Tony Benn. But despite its totemic role as a guarantor of inherent liberties, Vallance makes a strong case that the Charter actually guarantees very little. He uses this as a starting to point to suggest that it is actually the struggle of British people – not pieces of paper or legislation – which has resulted in the creation and extension of rights and liberty.

What follows is an attempt to sketch out an alternative narrative of British radicalism, showing the important of popular protest and rebellion in winning political and religious freedoms. Chapters on the Peasants’ Revolt and Jack Cade’s rebellion argue that politicised popular protest developed much earlier than is often thought. Such rebellions were not just about bread and butter issue, but also about the legal and political status of working people in post-feudal England. While Vallance stresses that radical ideas were not handed on, relay style, from one protest to the next, he does trace significant continuities between different protests. Medieval rebellions are demonstrated to have established a ritual and vocabulary which were adopted and reshaped by successive revolts against the crown. The ways in which each generation has reshaped and deployed the experience of past radicals goes on to be one of Vallance’s key themes.

Vallance also argues that such rebellions were less of a failure than has often been argued. A chapter on Kett’s rebellion, for example, pulls together research by Diarmaid MacCullough, Andy Wood and Amanda Jones to argue that it was far more than a doomed but heroic resistance by Robert Kett. The ‘commotion time’ actually saw most of southern and eastern England rise against the monarchy. Vallance argues that had it succeeded, it would have held out the prospect of a new ‘Common weal’ that would have given the commons far more of a role in the government of England.

These twin themes are picked up and expanded in the book’s chapters on seventeenth-century radicalism. Vallance pulls together findings from post-revisionist studies to argue that English society was deeply fractured during the early seventeenth century, and follows David Cressy, John Adamson and others in arguing that it was events spiralling out of control in the early 1640s that blew apart these fault lines. The book then sets the arguments of Levellers like John Lilburne, Richard Overton and William Walwyn in this context. The ‘reserved’ rights in the Agreement of the People are singled out in particular as an extremely significant step: the first time in British history that inherent liberties that did not derive their power from the monarch had been codified. Vallance’s arguments here are convincing: the Agreement itself, let alone its radicalism and innovation, is largely forgotten today outside academic circles, and yet many of the Charters and Codes that govern public services in the UK today derive their form, ultimately, from John Wildman’s inspiration. Where I was less convinced was in Vallance’s argument that Levellers ‘came within a whisker’ of having their aims implemented. While the Independent and army grandees did make common cause with the Levellers on significant issuesat certain points during the 1640s, there is room for debate on whether such changes could have been implemented, or whether the county gentry at large would have worn them.

Vallance concludes this section with an excellent overview of some of the other radical movements that blossomed during the later 1640s: Gerrard Winstanley and the Diggers, and the Ranters. He is sceptical of the arguments of Colin Davis and others which underplay the significant of the latter. I was particularly struck by his account of the Muggletonians: a sect who believed that God was a man who lived in a heaven six miles above the earth, whose death had resulted in Elijah and Abraham having to fill in for him until the resurrection. I hadn’t realised that Muggletonian beliefs lived on into the twentieth century, their last known adherent being an apple farmer from Kent who died in 1979.

As the narrativereaches the eighteenth century, Vallance starts with an account of Thomas Paine. He outlines how Paine’s difficult early life in England – with its financial and personal disasters – played an important part in moulding his political radicalism. He also stresses the significance of the fact that Paine abandoned the traditional appeal to history that had marked many previous English radical movements. For Paine, the myth of the ‘ancient constitution’ was just that, and rights instead were to be deduced from first principles. Importantly, too, Vallance puts Paine in a popular context by examining the role of corresponding societies in spreading and adapting his ideas., arguing that this saw the beginnings of a working-class activism. And he contrasts Paine’s work well with Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women. While Vallance agrees that the political gains of late eighteenth-century radicalism were relatively slim, he argues that it nevertheless laid the foundations for successes to come.

The book then turns to the ninetheenth century, again stressing that heroes of traditional narratives like John Cartwright still owed their importance to leading a wider, more popular agitation. The role of the Luddites in giving a sense of national unity to industrial unrest is drawn out particularly clearly, particularly their impact in uniting gentlemen and middling sort radicals. Vallance’s narrative of the events at St Peter’s Fields in Manchester particularly stands out. The chaos and bloodshed of what became known as Peterloo is told in sparse and unemotive language to allow contemporary voices to speak for themselves of the terror and tragedy that unfolded on 16 August 1816 – particularly the treatment that was handed out to women. For me this was one of the standout parts of the book.  Similarly impressive is Vallance’s account of the Chartist demonstration on Kennington Common in 1848, which wades through competing contemporary accounts to get to a more nuanced account of those who attended.

In the concluding section of the book, Vallance deconstructs the ‘personality cult’ surrounding Emmeline Pankhurst to argue that the suffrage movement actually owed a great deal to nineteenth-century radicalism. But he also seeks to overturn the argument that militant suffragettes played little part in the eventual decision to secure the vote for women. Militancy is seen as an end in itself, distilling ‘the essence of that revolutionary spirit’. In contrast, the post-war welfare state erected by the Labour government from 1945 onwards is seen as less radical, for all that it tried to cloak itself in a tradition of British radicalism.

Where the book left me wanting more was in the distinction between British and English. The book’s dustjacket talks in terms of British radicalism and British people, whereas Vallance actually argues that a truly ‘British’ radicalism only emerges after the Napoleonic period, but that radical movements before that period owed lots to non-English figures. He is up front in saying that as a result, he only offers an ‘enriched’ English account. This is a partial but reasonable solution to the ‘British problem’ that faces most historians of early modern Britain. To go further and produce a fully British account would result in a different, and probably unreadable book. But I was still intrigued by the links many English radical movements had beyond England, and ended up exploring the footnotes for more.

This review began with a summary of the UK Government’s most recent narrative on the British constitution. Despite its Whiggishness, the green paper did admit that:

This is contested territory. Constitutional reform always is.

The great strength of Vallance’s book is in how it stresses the extent to which our traditional narrative of ‘British rights’ is actually not contested – even when perhaps it ought to be. What I enjoyed most about it was how it restored the role of popular agitation and protest in securing rights. As Vallance concludes, ‘our freedom lies in our power’.

* Full disclosure – I was sent a review copy of this book by Ted. I hope I have treated it exactly as I would any other book I review on this blog.