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.


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….

Magna Cartaballs 2

Of course, David Davis’ resignation speech:

‘This Sunday is the anniversary of Magna Carta, a document that guarantees the fundamental element of British freedom, habeas corpus. The right not to be imprisoned by the state without charge or reason.’

42 Day Detention, Magna Carta and Habeas Corpus

Predictably, a whole load of journalists and politicians have been trotting out well-worn cliches concerning the threat to ‘habeus corpus, the idea born in Magna Carta which has inspired every democracy that ever existed.’ (sic.)

I don’t think anyone has put the *actual* content of Magna Carta better than Seller and Yeatman in 1066 And All That:

  1. That no one was to be put to death save for some reason – (except the Common People)

Magna Carta simply guarantees that ‘due process’ will be followed. If due process involves banging people up for 42 days without charge, that’s fine. Whether this contravenes the HRA is another matter, but given the nature of British law, either way it won’t formally annul a new counter-terrorism act.

Likewise Habeas Corpus, which was not enshrined in Magna Carta but is a piece of late medieval law finally codified in the 1679 Habeas Corpus Act. Writs of Habeas Corpus only demanded that the lawfulness of the prisoner’s detention be examined. Hence, though such writs could notionally have been used during, say, the periods of internment during the First and Second World Wars, they would have been legally useless because of the terms of the Defence of the Realm Acts. The same will apply to the counter-terrorism bill, should it come into force.

I’ve blathered on about all this before. Yes, the counter-terrorism bill is a terrible piece of legislation, but it signifies less a devil-may-care attitude to our civil liberties (though that, of course, is wholly evident) and more the very limited nature of ‘British liberty’ itself.

Lisa Jardine’s ‘Going Dutch’ – are these reviews related?

So good, the Torygraph reviewed it twice, with mixed results. One by Adam Nicolson, another by Noel Malcolm. Hmmm, shome mishtake shurely?

Over here, the Guardian sub-editor claims, disingenuously, that Sir Keith Thomas “enjoyed” Jardine’s book, (perhaps they mean “enjoyed pointing out her mistakes”?.)

Also reviewed by John Adamson in the Literary Review (who obviously couldn’t resist the temptation to invoke Sellar and Yeatman) and by Peter Ackroyd in the Times.

Braddick’s God’s Fury, England’s Fire

reviewed in the Guardian by Sir Keith Thomas. Generally positive but Sir Keith was not pleased with the po-mo twist to the tale.

Finally snagged a review copy myself but don’t hold your breath for me to post it here as the NS (for whom it is due) apparently have a bit of backlog.

Britishness watch pt. 1 – Margaret Hodge, the Proms and Henry VIII

Margaret Hodge in the Guardian, reported as saying that the proms are not British enough (or the right kind of British) because they don’t express ‘new common values,’ (fairness, toleration, democracy, yadda, yadda, yadda.)

More interesting is her suggestion that the 500th anniversary of the accession of Henry VIII to the throne which falls next year could be used to spark a fresh debate about Britishness. This is an excellent idea (although wasn’t old Henry king of England and Ireland not Great Britain?) I’d like to see Gordon Brown wrestle Nicolas Sarkozy in a field. We could also replace our current outdated national anthem with something that reflects the forward-looking, progressive modern Britain of today:


(Murray/Weston) I'm Henry the eighth I am Henry the eighth I am, I am I got married to the widow next door She's been married seven times before And every one was an Henry (Henry) She wouldn't have a Willy or a Sam (no Sam) I'm her eighth old man, I'm Henry Henry the eighth I am Second verse same as the first I'm Henry the eighth I am Henry the eighth I am, I am I got married to the widow next door She's been married seven times before And every one was an Henry (Henry) She wouldn't have a Willy or a Sam (no Sam) I'm her eighth old man, I'm Henry Henry the eighth I am ------ lead guitar ------ I'm Henry the eighth I am Henry the eighth I am, I am I got married to the widow next door She's been married seven times before And every one was an Henry (Henry) She wouldn't have a Willy or a Sam (no Sam) I'm her eighth old man, I'm Henry Henry the eighth I am H-E-N-R-Y Henry (Henry) Henry (Henry) Henry the eighth I am, I am Henry the eighth I am Yeah!
Published in: on March 4, 2008 at 10:14 am  Comments (1)  
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