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What can history teach those seeking change today?

Book Review: A Radical History of Britain: Visionaries, Rebels and Revolutionaries – The Men and Women Who Fought for Our Freedoms by Edward Vallance

If you look at the subtitle of Edward Vallance’s A Radical History of Britain, it’s clear where he’s coming from. He’s, in his own term, a radical, and sympathises greatly with those before him who he regards as falling into the same camp. The good news is this has not destroyed his critical faculties. He’s wary of painting the present too closely on the past, of regarding former radicals as “just like us,” and keen to point out that many fond legends of the left and the right, such as the exact place of the Magna Carta in “British freedom” (largely constructed in the 14th century, when Parliament passed six acts that reinterpretted chapter 29 far beyond its original intent, making, for example “lawful judgement of peer” mean trial by jury).

Vallance clearly explains his aims in the introduction for the book: “First, it aims to evaluate radicalism in its specific historical contexts, uncovering in many places the formerly secret history of both its successes and its failures. Second, it evaluates the enduring power of the idea of a ‘radical tradition,’ by examining how each age has reinvented it to suits its own ends.”

Some of the names and events here will be familiar, at least in outline, to anyone with a smattering of school history: the Peasants’ Revolt, the Levellers, Thomas Paine, the Tolpuddle Martyrs and the suffragettes. Yet most will have little more than a sketch of these events — and often an inaccurate one.

So Vallance concludes that the Peasants’ Revolt had a different impact than suggested by the “bitter invective of the boy-king Richard, often invoked to show the futility of popular insurrection.” In fact, wages rose after the revolt, many serfs were released from villeinage, rations improved,with labourers’ rations at harvest often including up to a pound of meat a day, and life expectancy rose to about 35 (higher than industrial workers in the mid-19th century). And for the first time, Vallance said, there was an awareness in the elite that the Commons had a place in public life, as the anonymous poem “God Save the King and the King’s Crown” said: “The leste lygge-man with body and rent/He is a parcel of the Crown.”

But the core of this book, as with any book about English radicals, is around the Revolution. and the core of that is the Levellers, subject of much historical revisionism, antirevisionism, anti-anti-revisionism, etc… This is Vallance’s conclusion: “…the key Leveller writers, Lilburne, Richard Overton, William Walwyn and John Wildman, were at the centre of the political turmoil of the civil war and the revolution. Far from being marginal figure, individuals like Wildman were, in fact, well connected to radical MPs within the Commons such as Henry Marten and Thomas Rainborowe. By cautioning against seeing their politics as reflecting a simple diichotomy between radicals and conservatives, recent work has also directed our attention to those moments when the army grandees themselves seriously considered radical solutions, such as the Levellers’ various Agreements of the People, for settling the nation.”

Personally, I’m always interested in following the women, and Vallance does an entirely decent job with his female actors. He clearly admires the leveller Katherine Chidley, particularly for her “doughty riposte” to the Presbyterian polemicist Thomas Edwards (later author of Gangraena). He’d claimed that religious toleration could lead to religious and political anarchy and social disorder. She responded that an unbelieving husband, though he might command her body, could have no authority over his wife’s conscience.

He’s less sympathetic (okay, I must admit most historians are, although I’ve got a soft spot for her) about the “unstable female mystic” Lady Eleanor Davies, who “published almost seventy largely unreadable prophetic tracts,” as well as providing work to the Digger Winstanley and followers after they were driven off the common land they’d tried to farm. Yet Vallance notes that Winstanley was far from blameless in thier exchanges, by modern standards, maintaining highly masculinist predjudices about her robust behaviour.

On Mary Wollstonecraft, Vallance claims that she’s been unfairly conscipted by modern feminists to the suffragist cause. Instead, he says, she was mostly concerned with proper education for middleclass women to make them suited to be wives, and mothers, as well as capable of exercising more public virtues. But he notes that she was particularly lauded by women of her time: the poet Anna Seward called Wollstonescraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women a “wonderful book,” while a woman reader from Glasgow complained that the text was in such demand it was difficult to get a look at it.

Moving on a century, to the massacre of Peterloo, Vallance highlights the prominent ceremonial, if silent, role of women at the St Peter’s Field meeting. And once the official attack on the peaceful protest, he finds that women were particularly targeted. “Mary Fildes [president of the Manchester Female Reform Society] was dragged down from the hustings, her white dress catching on a nail. As she tried to free herself, she was slashed across the body with a sabre….a heavily pregnant woman, Mrs Elizabeth Gaunt… was badly beaten and later thrown into the New Bailey Prison, where she was kept in solitary confinement and physically abused.”

Moving on to the suffragettes, Vallance provides a decent study, with a strong hint of sociology, noting that the large numbers of respectable middle class women left without outlet for thir intellectual energies in Victorian times.

In his history, Vallance finishes with the East End Battle of Cable Street, against Moseley’s Blackshirts, but in an epilogue he brings us into the 21st century, with his thoughts on contemporary politics and the place of radicalism, and particularly civil liberties, within it. He notes how the left-winger singer songwriter Billy Bragg and the far right British National Party have both claimed to be inheritors of the same “radical tradition”, which “is a reminder of the tradition’s malleability.”

He sees in this some possibly uncomfortable realities about the past: “Few radical movements were genuinely intent on social ‘levelling,’ and even those figures who did advocate land reform … largely did so with the dream of creasting a Britain of self-sufficient, independent smallholders. The urge remained at root individualist, or at best localist, rather than collectivist. This historical preference for a smaller rather than a bigger role for the state was scracely surprising, given that for most of British history the main business of government was to wage war, to raise funds to pay for it and to recruit men to fight for it.”

He notes also another trend in British radicalism — a veneration of the law as the embodiment of liberties. Even where the law was seen as repressive, this was often seen as an innovation — at some past Utopia, often Anglo-Saxon times, it had done fufilled its “proper” role of protecting liberties. This, Vallance says, combined with another aspect of the radical tradition, its essentially patriotic outlook, leaves it open to Conservative cooption and even far right manipulation. The Levellers talked of the rights of the “freeborn Englishman” as the birthright of a particular nation.

So this is a history, but an intensely political, engaged with the present history. But it’s not a polemic, and blessedly, it’s highly readable and entertaining. Anyone who claims themselves a radical, or is heading perhaps in that direction, should read it, and have some idea of the successes — and failures — of those who came before.

About Natalie Bennett

Natalie blogs at Philobiblon, on books, history and all things feminist. In her public life she's the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.

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