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….

CFP: Representing the British Civil Wars

Call for Papers

Representing the British Civil Wars 1660-2009: Adaptation, Reflection, Transmission, Debate

University of Manchester, 4-6 December, 2009

This conference considers the ways in which the conflict period of the 1640s and 1650s have been manifest in culture, political thought, historiography and popular imagination, from Southey’s Life of Oliver Cromwell to Clarendon, from To Kill a King to the imminent film of Paradise Lost. The conference looks at cultural appropriation and the ways in which particular representational tropes have been developed and perpetuated.

Sessions and panels might consider immediate post-Restoration versions of the conflict, or consider how radical theories of liberty and rights influenced political philosophy during the eighteenth century. Why is the notion of civil dispute still so potent in British culture, and why is the Cavalier/ Roundhead binary so difficult to get rid of? How have the complexities of the conflict been represented? What of the complex and continuing historiography? Which cultural clichés have become associated with the wars of this period? How have writers, dramatists, novelists, poets and filmmakers adapted texts from the time and how have they imagined the period?

Papers might consider the versions of the war found in popular novels, in drama, in film and in poetry, portraiture and song. Of particular interest might be the following: Iain Pears, David Kinloch, Cromwell, Witchfinder General, Great Britons, Tristram Hunt, popular historical writing, The Devil’s Whore, Scott’s Woodstock, Antonia Fraser, documentary series, docudrama, By the Sword Divided, historiographical paradigms (conflict/ contention, civil war/ revolution/ war of three kingdoms), wargames, boardgames, adaptation, bespoke computer game hacks, museums and exhibits.

Please send abstracts (300 words) or panel proposals by April 30 to Jerome.degroot@manchester.ac.uk.

Struggling to find a seat in the British Library?

In the Guardian today, (which I read while actually having my lunch at the BL.) Apparently, Claire Tomalin, Lady Antonia Fraser and Tristram Hunt have all been having difficulty finding free desks in the British Library. According to Tomalin the place is full of ‘schoolgirls giggling.’ Personally, I think the BL is getting overrun with biographers, journalists and popular historians, talking loudly over their cappuccinos. Some of them just come in to use the wifi, you know.

On a more serious point, the BL is very, very busy at the moment – but to an extent, that is a good thing. It’s meant to be the national library, not an exclusive club. It only really gets tricky to find a seat during UoL exam periods. And I don’t see too many students chatting, they’re too busy revising.

More difficult is the obvious change in use of certain reading rooms to meet expanding general reader demand. Rare books (where I usually work) is now being divided up into two sections: one for those actually using pre-1850 material, another for those simply seeking refuge from the bear pit of Humanties 1. That shift in use is also being signalled in other ways – the disappearance of the facsimiles of the Thomason Tracts, which used to be on open access. It may be that the BL thinks that these have now been supersceded by EEBO, which can be accessed on its workstations, but EEBO is really a poor substitute for being able to quickly and easily pull several volumes off the shelves at the same time and have them all open in front of you. How long before rare books and western manuscripts get merged?

Partly, I think this is just a question of how libraries develop over time. It’s easy to forget that the St. Pancras BL is still a pretty new library and I still think they haven’t quite worked out how best to site their open access material (why, for example, are biographical dictionaries split up amongst a variety of reading rooms, rather than placed in one location?) This is one of the reasons why, despite the absence of a coffee shop, I still prefer working in the Bodleian (on the rare occasions that I can get there.)

One thing is for certain, the British Library ‘s services are very much in demand. They deserve better government support than that offered in the mealy-mouthed response to last year’s petition.

Lord Baker of Dorking, Tristram Hunt and the Museum of Britishness

 The Telegraph has been getting very excited about the idea of a museum of Britishness, promoted by Lord Slughead of Dorking.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2007/12/11/nbrit111.xml

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/portal/main.jhtml?xml=/portal/2007/12/14/ftbritish114.xml

Tristram Hunt doesn’t like it because it will serve up the wrong sort of fabricated narrative of Britishness.

http://politics.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,,2240969,00.html

One of the interesting things about the frequently cited crisis of British/English identity (this is a disease to which the Scottish and Welsh are seemingly immune), is that it seems to be a malaise that only affects newspaper columnists and politicians.

Published in: on January 16, 2008 at 10:31 am  Comments (3)  
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How we should remember the Levellers

 

Reproduced from my article in BBC History Magazine Oct 2007, http://www.bbchistorymagazine.com

 The Levellers Legacy

The Putney debates are some of the most important political discussions in English history, but their significance is being distorted by recent attempts to commemorate them.

 

E.P. Thompson wrote his classic history of English working-class radicals to save them from the ‘condescension of posterity’. Now it seems historians must write to save radicalism from the condescension of the tourist industry.

The Putney Debates were voted the most overlooked radical moment in British history in a recent competition sponsored by the Guardian newspaper. Tristram Hunt, who launched the competition, hopes that this revived interest in Britain’s democratic heritage will lead to the creation of a ‘freedom trail’ of radical history visitor attractions based on the American model. As a starting point, St. Mary’s Putney was awarded £1000 for winning the contest, which will help fund a week’s events commemorating the debates plus a permanent exhibition. The timely raising of awareness of these historic events is welcome. However, the broader project of commemorating the development of British democracy threatens to replace genuine history with a politically-motivated fiction.

The Putney debates began on 28 October 1647, as the General Council of the Parliament’s New Model Army met to discuss The Agreement of the People. This paper, produced by civilian Levellers, called for regular, two-yearly Parliaments and an equal distribution of MPs’ seats by number of inhabitants. It guaranteed freedom of conscience, indemnity for Parliamentarian soldiers and equality before the law.

Colonel Thomas Rainborowe, MP for Droitwich, vice-admiral of the English Navy and an implacable opponent of Oliver Cromwell, expressed his belief that all men that signed the Agreement should be eligible to vote:

‘For really I think that the poorest he that is in England has a life to live as the greatest he; … every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent put himself under that government’.

An irate Henry Ireton, Cromwell’s son-in-law, responded:

‘no person has a right to an interest or share in the disposing or determining of the affairs of the kingdom … that has not a permanent fixed interest in this kingdom’.

The confrontation between Rainborowe and Ireton is often seen as the defining moment of the Putney Debates of 1647 between the army leadership, rank and file ‘Agitators’ and civilian Levellers: the radical advocate of the rights of all free-born Englishman versus the defender of the landed interest who ‘would have an eye to property’. The Putney Debates have been celebrated as a seminal moment in the history of British democracy by a host of twentieth-century historians and politicians.  Marxists scholars such as Christopher Hill saw the Levellers as representing the English petty bourgeoisie. American liberals like William Haller praised John Lilburne as an early advocate of ‘free enterprise’. The celebration of the Levellers’ contribution to the development of democracy has spread into the political arena. Since 1975, left-wingers have commemorated the suppression of the Leveller-inspired mutiny at Burford in 1649. The socialist icon Tony Benn used his speech at the second ‘Leveller Day’ to applaud them for their forward-looking ideals which ‘anticipated by a century and a half the main ideas of the American and French Revolutions.’ Paraphrasing Benn, Tristram Hunt has described Rainborowe’s comments as expressing the ‘ethical ideal of socialism’ and suggested that the ‘language and ideas expressed in the US constitution were lifted straight from the Putney debates’.

It is doubtful that the words spoken at Putney influenced the Founding Fathers, given that the text of the debate was not published until 1891. In 1649, the imprisoned John Lilburne had defiantly predicted that ‘posterity … shall reap the benefit of our endeavours whatever shall become of us.’ Yet, for over two hundred years, references to the Putney debates and the Levellers were few and far between. Although a permanent record of the debates was kept by the general secretary of the army, William Clarke, all reporting of the debates in the press was banned. They were barely mentioned in contemporary newssheets and pamphlets.

This secrecy was unsurprising. The discussion of the franchise, the most celebrated element of the debate for recent historians and commentators, was neither the most significant nor the lengthiest portion of the discussions. The focus instead was on settling the kingdom: in particular, the King’s role in any future peace negotiations. During the debates, two soldiers referred to Charles I as a ‘man of blood’, a tyrant who had waged war against his people and must be brought to retributive, divinely-willed justice. Religious language suffused the talk at Putney. People attending the debates also gathered for prayer meetings charged with apocalyptic language. New historical research suggests that Putney saw a shift from the pursuit of a negotiated settlement with the King to the decision to bring Charles I to trial. In the chaotic political situation following the first civil war, few of the participants in the debate, Cromwell least of all, were prepared to leave hostages to fortune by letting the proceedings be reported in public.

Celebration of the Levellers, including the Guardian’s recent competition, has been driven by a desire to fit them into a tradition of British radicalism, as forerunners of democracy, liberalism and socialism. But if the Levellers are part of a ‘democratic tradition’, it is a tradition which has largely been invented by twentieth and twenty-first century historians, journalists and politicians, not one created by radical movements themselves. Until the late nineteenth century there was very little reference to the Levellers and there is, frankly, scant evidence that their works influenced any subsequent radicals either in Britain, America or France. Even once C. H. Firth’s transcriptions of the Putney debates had been published, they were mainly seen as being of interest to military historians. It was not until the publication in 1938 of A. S. P. Woodhouse’s  provocatively titled Puritanism and Liberty, that Putney was established as a milestone in British constitutional history. Woodhouse’s edition of the debates had an explicitly political aim: to provide ideological ammunition for the public in the battle against the forces of Fascism and, later, Soviet totalitarianism. It is his re-interpretation of Putney as a crucible of democratic thought which has proved most influential to the present day.

Historians have now begun to ask if the Levellers have been given disproportionate attention; and whether, indeed, we can talk of the ‘Levellers’ at all. Recent scholarship has argued that there was no coherent ‘Leveller’ programme before the autumn of 1647. The term ‘Leveller’ itself did not appear until after the Putney Debates and was a pejorative label attached to these London radicals by their opponents. The radicals’ critics claimed they wanted to ‘level’ all social distinctions and do away with private property. The leading ‘Leveller’ writers, William Walwyn, John Lilburne and Richard Overton, were always keen to disassociate themselves from the term. In A Manifestation (1649) they complained that they ‘never had it in our thoughts to level men’s estates, it being the utmost of our aim … that every man may with as much security as may be enjoy his propriety’. Perhaps, as some historians have suggested, we have been guilty of accepting the words of the Leveller’s critics too literally and have viewed them as a more radical, more modern and more coherent group than they really were.

The proposals for St Mary’s Church Putney to remember the 360th anniversary of these debates threaten to set the anachronistic interpretation of the Levellers as the first democrats/liberals/socialists in stone, institutionalising an invented tradition of British radicalism through museum displays, heritage centres, and public memorials. Hunt has argued that commemorations of this kind provide an antidote to a heritage industry fixated on the lives of our kings and queens but, in fact, this version of Putney really only offers its ‘radical’ equivalent: a romantic vision of great historical democrats (Lilburne, Walwyn) struggling against oppressive tyrannical ‘baddies’ (Cromwell, Ireton). Good melodrama perhaps, but bad history. E. P. Thompson, whom Hunt invokes to promote his project, would, I suspect, be horrified at the proposed ‘heritage- ization’ of British radicalism. Thompson believed that the role of radical history was to arm the people for the political struggles that they faced in the future. Yet the recent Guardian competition offered only an opportunity to ‘celebrate’, through a Whiggish narrative of ever-broadening British freedom, the rights we enjoy at present. The history of the Levellers themselves, crushed by the army leadership and largely forgotten for nearly a quarter millennia, should warn us against this smug complacency about the security of our civil liberties.

So should we bother to commemorate Putney at all? Yes – but in ways which will allow us to continue to benefit from the most recent historical research on the subject. The Levellers are important. They were the first western Europeans to develop the idea of an essentially secular written constitution (though they did so to preserve their own deeply held religious beliefs). Consequently, they were the first to approach a more modern understanding of freedom of conscience and freedom of speech as natural, human rights. Their analysis of the politics of the 1640s remains very relevant today. They saw that an over-mighty Parliament could be as dangerous (if not more so) than a tyrannical King and called both for greater accountability in government and the establishing of civil liberties which could not be undermined by either the monarch or his ministers (even under the pretence of ‘emergency’ or ‘necessity’).

This month sees the release of a new paperback edition of the debates, and a major new collection is forthcoming on the Agreements of the People. These publications and the celebrations of the 360th anniversary of these remarkable debates should be used to spark a discussion of the enduring importance of these English writers and politicians. Leveller writing has much to say about present threats to our rights and freedoms, if we read their own words and not the anachronistic bowdlerisations of their twentieth-century interpreters. Those who spoke, wrote and gave their lives for liberty deserve more than to have their ideas reduced to ignominious (and inaccurate) banalities on a blue plaque.

Published in: on November 6, 2007 at 10:02 am  Comments (8)  
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Putney projects

As I don’t read the Guardian (it brings me out in hives), I missed this piece by Tristram Hunt in last Friday’s edition, puffing the up-coming Putney jamboree:

http://politics.guardian.co.uk/politicspast/story/0,,2199578,00.html

I’m glad that Tristram has learnt so much from our discussion in BBC History Magazine.

Published in: on November 1, 2007 at 12:02 pm  Leave a Comment  
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