Tristram Hunt’s review of A Radical History of Britain – a response

First, I’m grateful to Tristram Hunt for the kind words that he has to say about my treatment of seventeenth and eighteenth-century radicalism and for his appreciation of my comments on women’s involvement in radical politics (one of the parts of the book I was most pleased with myself.)

The second half of his review, though, takes issue with the focus and tone of the book and here I must disagree with his view of my work. In terms of scope, Hunt argues that my treatment of British radicalism is too ‘parochial’ and lists a number of international movements (the abolitionist campaign, the anti-apartheid movement) which could have been incorporated within the narrative.

First, I do not see how a book which begins in Australia, takes in the Chagos Islands and, along the way, charts the impact of British radical ideas on both the American civil rights movement and M. K. Ghandi’s campaigns for the rights of the Indian community in South Africa, can be described as ‘parochial’.

Second, it is easy to explain why at least one of the international movements Hunt identifies was not included in my book. The abolitionist movement in Britain had a deeply ambivalent relationship with British radicalism, as I note in my chapters on the eighteenth-century. It is true that many radicals did make a connection between wage-slavery and chattel slavery (and some had direct connections with the abolitionist movement – see A Radical History of Britain p. 237). But the analogy was usually made by popular radicals to point up the hypocrisy of middle and upper-class abolitionists such as William Wilberforce and Hannah More who argued against giving political rights to the working-classes in Britain at the same time as they called for the emancipation of slaves in her colonies (ibid. p. 261).

In broader terms, I would dispute whether most of the movements Hunt lists (the anti-apartheid movement, the Pan-African Congress, the Indian National Congress) should even be incorporated within a history of British radicalism. To include these movements, I think, would be not only to employ the word ‘radical’ in such a way as to render it practically meaningless – the same point goes for Hunt’s objection to my brief treatment of the Attlee administration: I am clear in both the introduction and the conclusion of the book that I simply do not see it as a radical government – but also to expand the boundaries of ‘Britain’ in a way that Cecil Rhodes would doubtless have approved of.

Aside from this ‘parochial’ focus, Hunt’s other complaint is that the chapters relating to the nineteenth-century are lacking in freshness and insight as a result of my ‘almost total reliance on secondary sources.’ Not only is this comment false – I make use of a wide range of primary sources in these chapters, many of which – like Keith Binfield’s collection of Luddite writings- have only become available in the last few years – it is also a rather odd one to make of a history book covering over a thousand years of our national past. It would be, as I am sure Hunt knows, an impossibility to write a book covering such a grand sweep based predominantly on archival research.

Finally, Hunt complains that the most ‘debilitating’ aspect of my work is the ‘tell-tale sign of academic infection.’ Well, if my book is ‘infected’ with academic rigour, then it is a disease I am quite happy never to be inoculated against. What Hunt sees as needless ‘luxuriating’ in ‘self-conscious discussions of historiography’ I see as a necessary acknowledgment of the contribution of other scholars to the history of British radicalism. Just as it would be a gross misrepresentation on my behalf to pass off a book of this kind as a result of years of beavering away in the archives, so it would be equally disingenuous to pretend that my arguments had not benefited from the insights of other historians.

This, I should add, is not the first time that Hunt has made this sort of attack on me. A number of years ago, I criticised his proposed ‘freedom trail of British liberty’ as a dangerous ‘heritagization’ of our radical past, particularly as Hunt’s model for this British trail was the sort of deeply uncritical treatment of history found in US sites commemorating the American revolution.

I continue to have grave reservations about using heritage attractions to promote knowledge of British radical movements. At the time, Hunt responded in BBC History Magazine to my critique by claiming that I needed to ‘get out of my ivory tower’- an odd sort of comment to make about an academic working in Liverpool- and ‘join the debate’.

Well, I don’t know what writing articles for magazines and websites criticising his position is if not ‘joining the debate’: it is not, after all, much of a debate if everyone agrees with you. And having seen the dismal ‘exhibition’ at Putney – the ‘dedicated exhibition area’, described by Hunt, with no hint of overstatement, as ‘British democracy’s new HQ’, is a small glass case which lights up when you press a button*- I completely stand by my judgment that it is much better to write books and articles about radicalism which people can talk and argue about than to stuff it in a box like a dead dodo.

No author can control how readers will respond to their books. Perhaps my work will not make readers want to storm the barricades (metaphorical or real). But I think it says more about Dr. Hunt’s teaching than it does about my writing that he considers it some sort of insult to state that reading the book made him want to return to the seminar room. Surely this is as good a place as any to get people thinking about British radicalism?

* Actually, given recent events, perhaps this is an entirely apt HQ for British democracy.


Off with their heads!

A belated link to my most recent New Statesman article which was the lead essay in their republicanism vs monarchy issue.

Published in: on July 30, 2009 at 5:41 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , , , ,

A Radical History of Britain round-up pt. 2

A bit distracted by holidays and monkeys, but here is the latest news on what’s happening with A Radical History of Britain:

Scott at Me and My Big Mouth kindly asked me to list my top five radicals. Here they are. In the left hand column you will also find a ‘quick flicks’ review of my book.

I’ve also written a review article for EHR on a number of titles loosely related to rebellion and radicalism (including works by John Walter, Ariel Hessayon, John Gurney, Andy Wood and Andy Hopper.)

And finally, a giving with one hand, taking with the other review of my book by Tristram Hunt in the Guardian. A considered response to follow….

Oliver Cromwell and the Monkey

Over at Investigations of a Dog, Gavin has a great post deconstructing the Ladybird biography of Oliver Cromwell. Aside from the excellent illustrations of sour-faced puritans, I was struck by the repetition of the story that Cromwell was snatched from his cot by a monkey and carried onto the roof of Hinchinbrooke House. The same story appears in H. E. Marshall’s children’s history of Cromwell, which I posted about some time ago.

I wondered how old that particular story was. Thomas Cromwell’s Oliver Cromwell and His Times (1822) lists the story as one of the many extravagant claims inserted into hostile biographies of his ancestor (referring here to Mark Noble’s Memoirs of the Protectoral House of Cromwell (1787)) Noble claimed that he received this story – and the other familiar one of the young Oliver coming to blows with a young Charles Stuart – from ‘the rev. dr. Lort’s M.S.S.’ (Perhaps Michael Lort, the Georgian antiquary?) who in turn received this from ‘Mr. Audley’ (the non-juror Edward Audley).

The story raises also sorts of questions. Was the ownership of monkeys as pets common in gentry households in late 16th/early 17th C England? (Or at least enough so that the story would appear credible). And what type of monkey was it? It would need to be a pretty big monkey to pick up a human child, so presumably some sort of barbary ape or baboon was the simian culprit here.

Head of Cromwell's statue outside Parliament

Most importantly, though, what does this monkey story mean? One of the earliest anti-Cromwell biographies, Thomas Heath’s Flagellum (1663 and sub edns) gives a clue. Heath doesn’t mention the monkey story, though he has plenty to say about the young Oliver’s trouble-making and lust for power. However, Heath is clear from the outset as to what the general narrative of Cromwell’s life reveals:

‘Everything hath its good and evil Angel to attend or haunt it, and that grand and happy revolution was to be afflicted and persecuted by this Fury to an almost dissolution of its well composed, united and established Frame.’ (1st edn. p. 3) (The ‘revolution’ Heath is talking about here is the Stuart succession and the union of crowns that it created.)

Heath’s Cromwell is, then, a Fury, an avenging spirit raised up to rain destruction upon the British Isles (note here that ‘fury’ also has connotations of the bestial and savage.)

The same picture emerges from Noble’s recounting of the monkey story. The important part of this anecdote is not the baby being snatched from the cot and carted off to the roof but the fact that the primate brings him down again:

‘the sagacious animal brought the “fortune of England” down in safety: so narrow an escape had he, who was doomed to be the conqueror, and sovereign magistrate of three mighty nations, from the paws of a monkey.’ (p. 90)

Note ‘fortune’ and ‘doomed’: Cromwell is here transformed from the human vehicle of divine providence to the plaything of capricious fate, symbolised by that animal embodiment of all things naughty, the monkey.

(Incidentally, we really need a PhD thesis on monkey symbolism in early modern English literature.)

A Radical History of Britain Round-up

A brief rundown of the latest A Radical History of Britain news…a little review in the FT – they didn’t like the title but seemed reasonably happy with the contents … a plug from someone called Dominic Sandbrook in the Telegraph, who recommends the book as ideal beach reading…and another plug from Scott at Me and My Big Mouth (under ‘New Arrivals’). More as and when…