George Kerevan’s review of A Radical History of Britain

I usually think it’s not good form to answer bad reviews but in this case, George Kerevan’s appraisal of my book so misrepresents its content that some kind of response is in order.

Kerevan claims that my treatment of British radicalism is myopically Anglophile. I am the first to admit that much of the narrative focuses on England, but this is already clearly stated in the introduction to my book, p. 12: ‘For much of this book…what is offered is an ‘enriched’ English, rather than a genuinely British, history of radicalism.’

Kerevan also complains that I am not sensitive to the separate political traditions of the British Isles ‘or the fact that Britain as a state did not exist before 1707.’ Yet, on pages 38-9 I explicitly discuss the problem of creating a ‘British’ freedom trail – noting, of course, that the creation of  a British state did not occur until well into my narrative.

In his review, Kerevan states – ‘in Ireland and Scotland dissent is always about potentially overthrowing the British state, not reforming it’

Funnily enough, on p. 38 of my own book I acknowledge that

‘much that could be defined as “radical” activity in a British context essentially gains its force from its opposition to the existence of a British state, at least one run from Westminster.’

Again, Mr. Kerevan and I seem to be in agreement.

Kerevan then complains that my narrative doesn’t discuss the 1820 Rising (actually handled on p. 347), the United Irishmen (mentioned p. 247 and p. 375) or John Maclean and Red Clydeside (ibid. pp. 521-2). Perhaps he skimmed over these pages in his haste to get to the conclusion (the only part of the book from which a direct quotation is taken.)

However, it is not unsubstantiated claims of Anglocentricity or unfounded accusations about various supposed sins of omission that I really object to.

Probably the worst thing a reviewer can do is to try to tell an author what his book is *really* about ( even though the author has spent fifty odd pages in his preface and introduction explicitly setting out its aims.)

For Mr. Kerevan, the subject of my book is ‘the history of English … dissent.’ This is strange because the title of my book is A Radical History of Britain and the word ‘radical’ itself appears 1614 times in the text. ‘Dissent’ with all its manifold meanings – religious as well as political – appears a mere eight times.

I do, it is true, use the phrase ‘tradition of dissent’ twice in the book -in both instances in inverted commas and in the context of demonstrating that it is largely a political fiction.

This is the greatest injustice Mr. Kerevan does to my book , presenting it as a contribution to Whiggish accounts of steadily broadening British liberty. In fact, the purpose of the book is to expose such lazy assumptions about the incremental growth of our freedoms to rigorous historical analysis.

Contrary to Mr Kerevan’s claims, I am not the one guilty of holding a ‘romantic’ definition of radicalism. Quite the opposite. I seek to puncture many of the romantic presentations of a ‘tradition of British dissent’ made by, amongst others, Mr. Kerevan’s own literary hero, E. P. Thompson.

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Published in: on June 23, 2009 at 10:04 am  Comments (1)  

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Do you want us to go round and do him?


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