Dead British Radical Watch*: Mary Wollstonecraft

Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), wife of William Godwin, and mother of Mary Shelley, born 250 years ago today.

PS. A good indicator of what’s wrong with how we teach history in this country: the BBC’s history site puts Wollstonecraft’s biography under ‘Empire and Seapower‘. Splice the mainbrace!

* with apologies to Chris


The Police and Public Protest: A Very Short History


‘Police, n.

II. Organisation, or a controlling body within a community’

Commentators upon the incidents of alleged police brutality against G20 protestors and bystanders have asked what has gone wrong with British policing. But the assumption of columnists such as Timothy Garton Ash, that the police are there to protect the public is fundamentally misguided. The role of the police is to maintain public order (a quite different thing). They are not there to uphold the public’s right to free association.

In the wake of Ian Tomlinson’s death, there has been a notable volte-face, even from the right-wing press, in the treatment of the protests. The coverage prior to April 1 concentrated on the threat of attacks on city workers from crazed anarchists. The message was repeated by Cabinet ministers such as Ed Miliband who spent much more time expressing concern over the potential for violence than they did engaging with the arguments of the protestors (a point I made at the Demos discussion of movement politics on 30 March).

As it turned out, the destruction meted out by a tiny minority of G20 protestors was pretty pathetic, (remember those images of a couple of hooded idiots smashing in the windows of a branch of RBS, massively outnumbered by massed ranks of photographers, cameramen and reporters?) Only as the video evidence relating to Tomlinson’s death (footage, it should be remembered, taken by a member of the public, not a journalist) came to light did this story slowly begin to change.

Nobody should really be surprised at this. The history of public protest in Britain demonstrates that it is almost always the protestors who suffer the violence, not the forces of law and order. ‘Peterloo’ is, of course, the most famous example of this, with fifteen known fatalities and a further 654 injuries (most of them serious). There are, though, many other incidents of this kind. In November 1887, three people were killed and another two hundred were injured on ‘Bloody Sunday‘ as police charged a meeting to defend the right of assembly Trafalgar Square. One leader of the protest, Robert Cunninghame Graham, then a radical Liberal MP, was badly beaten by police after he had been arrested. A young writer, Alfred Linnell, was killed by police at a meeting the following Sunday held to protest at the outrages of the previous week. One rationale for the suffragettes move towards more violent acts of militancy (still directed at property not persons) was the increasing danger they were exposed to at mass meetings, including physical assault by the police, as on ‘Black Friday’ November 1910. There are, of course, more recent incidents of this kind, like the so-called ‘Battle of Orgreave‘ during the Miners’ Strike of 1984, as police support units, first deployed during the Toxteth and Brixton riots, were used to ‘mop-up’ the remaining strikers following a cavalry charge by mounted police. The extent of this police over-reaction to the actions of the strikers was revealed as prosecution after prosecution for ‘riot’ against the miners was thrown out and the South Yorkshire constabulary was forced to foot a hefty compensation bill. Little, though, was learned from this incident. A year later, at the Battle of the Beanfield, the Wiltshire police used similar tactics to prevent travellers from entering the area around Stonehenge.

What the above shows us is that we certainly do need a change in how our police approach public protest. But that change needs to be far more drastic than simply abandoning tactics such as ‘kettling’. Policing needs to strike a balance between public safety (not that invidious concept, public order) and the right to free association and expression. For too long, it has been order, not freedom, that the police have been protecting.

AHRC Studentship in Early Modern History at the University of Plymouth

University of Plymouth AHRC Collaborative PhD Studentship in History ‘Networks, News and Communication: Political Elites and Community Relations in Elizabethan Devon’ Applications are invited for a full-time 3 year AHRC-funded Collaborative PhD studentship in History, tenable from 1 October 2009. The successful applicant will receive UK/EU tuition fees (£3,390 for 2009/10) and an AHRC maintenance grant (£12,940 in 2008/9; the level for 2009/10 will be announced shortly). The studentship is funded by an AHRC Collaborative Doctorate Award, and is part of a joint project between the Department of History at the University of Plymouth and Devon Record Office, focussing on ‘Networks, News and Communication: Political Elites and Community Relations in Elizabethan Devon’. We are looking for an early modern historian with interests in social, cultural and political history. A working competency in palaeography would also be an advantage. Applicants should have completed, or be about to complete, a relevant MA; and must fulfil the normal academic requirements for acceptance for postgraduate study at the University of Plymouth. The doctoral project (‘Networks, News and Communication: Political Elites and Community Relations in Elizabethan Devon’) will investigate the nature and social dynamics of political networks and community relations in Elizabethan Devon. It has three distinct elements – academic, archival and curatorial – which will provide a first-class doctoral training and equip the successful candidate for his/her future career. The student will be encouraged to develop his/her own particular doctoral identity, leading to the production of a stand-alone doctoral thesis. Secondly, one of the key objectives is for the project to provide an intensive practical skills training element as part of the cataloguing and digitization of an important and newly discovered corpus of relevant documents (Seymour MSS) recently deposited at Devon Record Office. The successful candidate will work as the project historian alongside conservators, archivists and cataloguers on this important body of documents, which will form the springboard to broader study of elite networks in Elizabethan Devon. Finally, he/she will also be able to assist in curating a major exhibition on Elizabethan Devon and Cornwall to be held at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery in Exeter, as well as to be involved in tie-in conferences and publications. The supervisory team consists of Dr James Daybell (Main supervisor; Reader in Early Modern British History) and Professor Mark Brayshay (Professor of Historical Geography) at the University of Plymouth, as well as Mr John Draisey (Head Archivist at Devon Record Office).

Published in: on April 15, 2009 at 2:49 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Think radical, drink radical

While spending an idle moment with a pint of Special reading the London Drinker, I came across the fantastically named Hertfordshire pub, The Land of Liberty, Peace and Plenty. The pub gets its name from the fact that the first Chartist Land Plan Colony, O’Connorville, was established at nearby Heronsgate. There’s a nice image of the imagined Chartist Utopia here. As a pub name, The Land of Liberty certainly beats the Slug and Lettuce.

Easter fun: mind how you go!

Mind how you go

(Click on the pic to follow the link and make your own scary anti-terror poster!) To see some excellent examples, go here.

Great put downs of our time – ‘Chick-hist’ fights back

Lisa Hilton on David Starkey in the Sunday Times:

‘I’ve just written a book about English queens, but this one is beneath my notice.’


Published in: on April 7, 2009 at 7:53 am  Leave a Comment  
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Gerrard Winstanley, the Diggers, the Levellers and the G20

There is an interesting piece by David Horspool in the Times today, seeing resonances between some of the G20 protests, notably the G20 Meltdown on Wednesday 1 April, and the Diggers, whose commune on St. George’s Hill, Surrey was established on the same day 360 years ago.

Of course, some of these protesters had already been very consciously linking their actions back to an earlier tradition of protest – if not quite back to the mid-seventeenth century – see Climate Rush‘s appropriating of suffragette style, slogans and tactics in opposing Heathrow expansion.

Horspool’s argument also involves an artificial division between Leveller ‘democrats’ and Digger ‘communists’ (with a small c.) But even Winstanley’s supposedly neo-Stalinist last political tract The Law of Freedom in a Platform envisaged a democratic state built upon a clear notion of a social contract, while the Levellers were a lot more interested in the defence of individual liberty against tyranny than they were in securing the vote for adult males. Back in the mid-17th century, the Levellers had already recognised that voting rights alone could not reverse political inequalities. For that reason, not only did government have to be clearly founded on the principle of popular sovereignty, by the actual act of subscribing to the Leveller proto-constitutions, the Agreements of the People, but once elected, the power of the new ‘representative’ (Parliament) and the executive had to be hemmed in by a series of ‘reserves’, rights which no power in the land could abrogate.

More interesting is Horspool’s suggestion that the Diggers’ vision was more global than the Levellers. That is largely a consequence of the wedding of the plan for Digger communes with Winstanley’s vision of the new millennium, an event that obviously was not going to be confined just to England. Even so, the Levellers, again, get a bit hard done by. Didn’t Edward Sexby try, albeit with limited success, to sell Leveller ideas (via a French translation of the Agreement of the People, ‘L’Accord du peuple’) to the Frondeurs? And see also Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker’s excellent treatment of the wider implications of Leveller rhetoric in The Many Headed Hydra.

But certainly, the largely peaceful, carnivalesque nature of the G20 demonstrations this week has clear affinities with many British popular movements that successfully combined sociability with solidarity, like the orderly processions that marched to Peterloo in 1819, indebted to the Lancashire tradition of  ‘rush-bearing’

Even Winstanley is at last getting a party in his honour, with a festival commemorating the Digger settlements to be held in Cobham in September this year.

Tom Paine 200 Thetford

I’ll be speaking at the Thetford Paine bicentennial festival on Saturday 6 June at 2.30pm. Festival brochure here.

You can also join the Tom Paine 200 facebook group if you like.

Published in: on April 3, 2009 at 9:48 am  Leave a Comment  
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