David Horspool, The English Rebel: One Thousand Years of Troublemaking, from the Normans to the Nineties (Penguin, 2010), £12.99
Edward Vallance, A Radical History of Britain (Abacus, 2010), £12.99
Both these books provide extensive evidence to counter the historically illiterate arguments deployed to condemn the August riots. First, they undermine the notion that England is a traditionally peaceful, consensual society, where change happens gradually.
Second, they reject the view that any interruption to this peaceful equilibrium must be the work of shadowy “outsiders”. Both are at pains to point to internally produced conflict and rebellion.
Unfortunately, David Horspool frames his narrative around the particularist theme of “the search for English identity, for what makes the English different”. Though he questions the continuity and stability of government, he does so on the basis that “English ‘individualism’ has also been a constant, and that has more to do with the numbers of Englishmen and women who were rebels rather than conservatives by instinct”. Thus, he claims that “the story of the English rebel is a personal story”. This foregrounding of the personal traits and tactics of Great Men (and occasionally women) over the deeper social and economic tensions that drove them to the surface helps to create what Dominic Sandbrook celebrated as “a gloriously old-fashioned work of narrative” in his review for the Daily Telegraph, but makes it a significantly weaker account than Vallance’s.
So Horspool’s narrative includes a litany of medieval and early modern court intrigues, which has the virtue of supporting Marx’s characterisation of the ruling class as a “band of warring brothers” but which largely squeezes out modern industrial struggle. The exceptions are not dealt with very well. The account of the Bryant and May matchmakers’ strike of 1888 is over-reliant on a biography of Annie Besant, inflating her role and providing a patronising account of the working women who actually led the strike, as shown by Louise Raw’s excellent Striking a Light. He also examines the General Strike of 1926, but from the top down, and without the context of the greater grassroots activity in the earlier Great Unrest. The potential for the Communist Party of the day to intervene is ignored, as it is not by Vallance, and thus the capitulation of the TUC is presented as inevitable.
Vallance’s twin aims to evaluate radicalism within its historical context and to trace the development of a “radical tradition” through those events enables a much more fruitful engagement with the socialist movement and its progressive precursors. He is more analytical in approach than Horspool. While Vallance is somewhat coy about his debt to Marx, the influence of Marx’s analysis of how being shapes consciousness—that ideas are historically located in the relations of the society that produces them—is evident throughout his work. He shows a much keener awareness than Horspool that the religious disputes of the Civil War period were an expression of the genuinely revolutionary processes at work, providing a language for innovative impulses towards democratisation and egalitarianism.
Both authors also recognise the importance that radical movements have placed in historical precedent to legitimise their rebelliousness. Sometimes this has involved projecting backwards intentions anachronistically—as is still common today with Magna Carta, for instance, which was more an act of baronial self-protection than popular constitutionalism. Other examples may have been used instrumentally by later movements, but generally in ways that reflected their radical essence—dubbing Thatcher’s Community Charge the “poll tax” was a great way of invoking Wat Tyler’s rebellion of 1381.
Both authors take account of this popular mythologising, and relate it to historiographical debates. Tristram Hunt criticised Vallance for this, claiming that it led to distracting tangents that made the central narrative more obscure to the general reader. But this criticism is misplaced, as the historians Vallance discusses are contextualised sufficiently to make the debates accessible. In fact it is refreshing to read a book that bridges the divide between popular and academic history.
The third challenge to the reactionary discourse of the recent riots is that both books provide more nuance than the romantic account of historical rebellions espoused by many liberals and social democrats—riots have always been messy affairs.
A fourth reminder provoked by these histories is that the distinction between violent and non-violent protest is rarely as stark as it first appears. The strategies of “moral force” and “physical force” within the Chartist movement expressed class and regional differences and reflected the ebbs and flows of the struggle, while “militancy” in the women’s suffrage struggle took a variety of forms, some of which were legal but which contradicted gender norms.
There is some irony in the fact that the much broader constitutional suffragists, whose membership topped 100,000 by the start of the First World War, have largely been overshadowed by the increasingly elitist Women’s Social and Political Union, who were denounced as terrorists in their day for “hysterical” acts of window-breaking and arson, but whose leader, Emmeline Pankhurst, converted to the cause of warmongering and by 1930 was honoured with a statue in Westminster.
It is to Vallance’s credit that he deals with women’s oppression and their resistance to it at some length, and not just in relation to the suffrage movement. But any works of such breadth as these are likely to provoke criticism for what they leave out. A serious weakness of both books is their inadequate coverage of internationalist and anti-racist movements, most mystifying in the case of the Abolitionist movement, which had huge participation throughout Britain. Other notable absences are the Anti-Apartheid Movement and the Anti Nazi League.
The scourge of fascism is encountered by both authors when tackling Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists (BUF). While thoroughly condemning his politics, Horspool includes Mosley within his rogue’s gallery of English rebels. This points to the contradictory nature of his frame of reference, where national identity trumps class analysis.
Vallance echoes the experience of more recent movements against the Nazis when he describes how “not only did the Labour Party refuse to endorse the actions of anti-fascists at Cable Street, the party’s leadership actively worked to suppress such militant activity”. He also points out that the Public Order Act supposedly brought in to deal with the BUF was more commonly used to restrict anti-fascists. It’s disappointing then that he concludes ultimately that it was “the broad support for the British constitution and parliamentary democracy” that prevented a breakthrough for the BUF, and thus fails to build on some of his earlier insights regarding the specifics of class struggle at the time.
In general though, Vallance provides a much more inspiring account than Horspool, who often seems at pains to stress the futility of the struggles he recounts. Vallance is much more attuned to the subtle but lasting impact of resistance, the way it shapes the expectations and confidence of the oppressed and oppressor, the way reforms are often conceded in a trickle in the aftermath of revolts, when the ruling class attempts to distance the change from the battle that precipitated it. This dialectical view underpins Vallance’s analysis, and leads him to conclude optimistically that “Our freedom lies in our power” and that “the struggle for our freedom goes on”.