Night Waves discussion 15/6/11

I was on Radio 3 last night as part of a discussion of student extremism and the history thereof. You can listen again via i-player for the next week or so, it’s the first segment.


Stoke Newington Literary Festival 5th June

I will be talking radicalism and rebellion at the Stoke Newington Literary Festival on Sunday 5th June at 1pm with David Horspool, author of The English Rebel. More details here.

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….

Thomas Paine podcast

Now up on the BBC History Magazine website with me blathering on once more about the great man. I’ll post a copy of the article that went along with this shortly. You can also subscribe to the podcast through i-tunes and download me to your i-pod, should you be so minded. This is not recommended for those operating machinery or driving heavy goods vehicles as my voice can cause some drowsiness.

New book on Thomas Paine

Thomas Paine in Lewes 1768 -1774

A Prelude to American Independence

£6.50 at bookshops in Lewes

This publication was borne out of the thrust of organising the Thomas Paine Festival in Lewes for 2009.

When the project was initiated it quickly became clear that very little was known about Paine’s life in England prior to his departure to America. Even less was known about the time he spent in Lewes. A small team, Paul Myles, Dr Colin Brent and Dr Seth Gopin spent 16 months in research and regular discussions and to their surprise much came to light that had not been previously thoroughly probed. Paul as a recent psychology graduate, Colin the eminent local historian and Seth, the visiting art historian from New York formed an unusual group. The combination of different approaches has proved to be illuminating.

New stories have been found. We gained a sharper insight of why Lewes has always been so radical and thus proved to be a perfect place for Paine to develop his writing and debating skills.

Colin Brent reveals how Paine, and possibly America, owes a developmental debt to Lewes. Thomas Paine as national commentator through the offices of excise is a story that has not been well known before; the strands of this tale are pulled together in Paul’s essay. Seth Gopin brought an American perspective to the challenge, and asked what now seems to be the obvious questions of how did Paine get to know so much, and was General Gage, the commander in Chief of the British forces, linked to Firle Place, just outside Lewes? Deborah Gage, a direct descendent of General Thomas Gage has written the third essay about the man who now rests, with his wife, in the family crypt at St Peters Church in Firle.

There is a rich visual component to the book, the front cover shows a largely previously unseen image of Paine painted in London in 1790. Rare images of Lewes by D Serres, marine painter to King George III painted in year Paine rode into town are shown, as well as a rare image of Paine’s Lewes friend, Clio Rickman, by Hazlitt. These images are discussed with some history of Serres.

The Authors

Colin Brent, an Open Scholar of New College Oxford, gained a formal First in Modern History in 1961 and was awarded a DPhil by Sussex University in 1974. He has written erudite articles on aspects of Tudor, Stuart and Victorian Lewes. Colin also published Pre Georgian Lewes and Georgian Lewes, the most comprehensive relevant resources of local history that was available to us.

Deborah Gage is an Art Historian, and family historian. She has held a long interest in General Gage, and continues to research relevant archives on both sides of the Atlantic.

Paul Myles was a director of Lewes Festival in the mid 90’s, a director of four major sculpture exhibitions in Lewes over the last ten years and latterly, the director of the Thomas Paine & Lewes Festival in 2009. Paul recently completed six years as a student at the University of Sussex in the discipline of psychology graduating as a Batchelor and then Master of Science. Paul is a part time lecturer at the local college, teaching access students and outreach courses in child psychology.

Lewes Thomas Paine Festival Programme

Now available here.

Published in: on June 10, 2009 at 11:51 am  Leave a Comment  
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John Lilburne Conference

London Renaissance Seminar
Birkbeck College, University of London
24 October 2009

On 25 October 1649, the charismatic Leveller leader John Lilburne was dramatically acquitted of treason following a high profile trial at London’s Guildhall. The decision was greeted by jubilant crowds and celebratory bonfires, and was quickly commemorated by a medal which explained that Lilburne had been ‘saved by the power of the Lord and the integrity of the jury’. In the 360 years since that trial, Lilburne has become one of the seventeenth century’s most well-known characters, and one of few contemporaries who have been capable of taking centre stage in both academic and popular histories of the civil wars. However, Lilburne was a flagrant self-publicist, who did much to mythologize his own story, while since his death ‘Freeborn John’ has been made into a hero for a range of more or less incompatible political causes. For Lilburne, more than for most of his contemporaries, it is vital to try and separate myth from reality, and to explore how his reputation has been made and moulded since the 1640s. This event will contribute to this process by reconsidering Lilburne’s 1649 trial, and by thinking about its importance for enhancing our understanding the life and times of this most controversial character.


Ted Vallance, Phil Baker, Rachel Foxley, Jason Peacey, Jerome de Groot

Details: Jerome de Groot

A Radical History of Liverpool

My interview with Peter Elson about the book over here.

A Radical History of Britain – out now!

At least according to Amazon. Publication date brought forward from 4 June to 29 May. Buy! Buy! Buy!