A Radical History of Britain, By Edward Vallance<br />The English Rebel, By David Horspool

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The Independent Culture

Can it be just a coincidence that two admirable histories of radicalism and rebellion have emerged during the dying months of the most durable Labour government ever seen? Or do they reflect a common disillusionment with the Blair project, a feeling that New Labour was old Toryism writ large and a recognition that the Third Way existed (as Francis Wheen said) somewhere between the Second Coming and the Fourth Dimension?

Certainly, both authors show that our island story was never a steady ascent to broad sunlit uplands. It has been punctuated by frequent and sometimes violent attempts to transform politics and society. While Lollards, Levellers, Chartists and Suffragettes may have failed in the short term, they have ultimately helped to bring about fundamental change.

Although these books overlap in many ways, they are very different. Edward Vallance's is the more scholarly and analytical, David Horspool's the more popular and impressionistic. Vallance deals in depth with key episodes such as Magna Carta, the Putney Debates, the Cato Street conspiracy, the Tolpuddle Martyrs and female suffrage. Horspool provides a more continuous narrative stretching from William the Conqueror's Norman yoke to the Iron Lady's poll tax. Vallance covers Britain, which he confesses to be "enriched" England, whereas Horspool frankly excludes the Celtic extremities. They both write well though Vallance sometimes resorts to academic claptrap and Horspool has a weakness for journalese.

Both, too, are sharp observers. Vallance cites Southey's nasty comment on William Godwin's mind, which was "like a close-stool pan, most often empty, and better empty than when full". Horspool notes that Hitler advised Sir Oswald Mosley to call his black-shirted force Ironsides, after Oliver Cromwell's troops. Both describe how in 1549 Robert Kett's rebels dismayed the archers defending Norwich by turning "theyr bare tayles" against them.

But Vallance's account is the more graphic and Horspool makes the dubious suggestion that in this universal gesture of contempt we might discern the origins of the modern streaker. He also slips up in describing Charles Kingsley as regius professor of history at Oxford – instead of Cambridge.

Kingsley dramatised Hereward the Wake's struggle against the Normans and what emerges from both books is the power of myth to inspire and sanction resistance to authority. Sometimes, rebels harked back to the Garden of Eden: during the Peasants' Revolt of 1381 John Ball famously asked, "When Adam delv'd and Eve span/Who was then the gentleman?" The Levellers invoked a state of nature to justify Colonel Rainsborough's celebrated pronouncement that "the poorest he that is in England has a life to live as the greatest he".

Often there were appeals to legendary freedoms enjoyed in an Anglo-Saxon Arcadia. Robin Hood was, as Horspool says, enlisted in many causes. Moreover, as Vallance demonstrates, Magna Carta became all things to all men: a guarantee against arbitrary taxation and arrest, an endorsement of universal suffrage, a defence of parliament, a mandate for the welfare state.

Such conjuring with an idealised past indicates that English rebels were seldom revolutionaries. The followers of Wat Tyler and Jack Cade expressed loyalty to the crown and attributed injustices to evil counsellors, churchmen and lawyers. The execution of Charles I evidently shocked the population at large. Few Chartists were republicans and, despite the Newport Rising of 1839, fewer still were insurrectionists.

Mrs Pankhurst was in many ways a conservative and would have been content, her left-wing feminist critics sneered, with "Votes for Ladies". Like Victorians who reckoned that males were inveterate sexual predators and females had no sexual desires, she and her daughter Christabel also preached "Chastity for Men".

Whereas Horspool discusses such movements as CND, the Angry Brigade and environmental protest, Vallance focuses rewardingly on the emancipation of women. He notices that at Peterloo they wore white, the colour of virginity and of French festivals of reason. Assaults by the drunken, sabre-wielding Yeomanry were particularly vicious, making the massacre as much part of a sex war as a class war. Women played a significant role in both Chartism and Fabianism. Vallance argues that Suffragette militancy probably delayed votes for women but symbolised their shedding of the slave spirit. On the other hand, the Pankhursts' morality campaign smacked of old-fashioned religious revivalism.

None of this is to suggest that the English were untouched by the Jacobin spirit. After the French Revolution, when bread was dear and flesh and blood cheap, many took to riot and sedition. Dissident leaders such as Ned Ludd and Captain Swing adopted pseudonyms because the state met force with repression. William Pitt restricted freedom of speech and association while employing agents provocateurs and imposing harsh punishments. One Luddite brought to the scaffold was so young that he "called on his mother for help, thinking she had the power to save him". Henry Cook, aged 19, was hanged for knocking off the hat of a member of the Baring banking family.

Some of the literature of the time was also deeply subversive. Tom Paine mocked hereditary legislators, a body about as absurd as hereditary judges, poets or mathematicians. Godwin declared that "monarchy was as a species of government unavoidably corrupt". Shelley's "The Mask of Anarchy" was a devastating indictment of Peterloo.

Paine had to flee the country. Godwin's reputation, as he poignantly remarked, fell "into one common grave with the cause and love of liberty". And Shelley's poem could not be published until 1832. But their writings rang down the ages – Chinese students chanted Shelley's "Mask" during the Tiananmen Square massacre.

Paine was unusual in seeing Magna Carta as detrimental to English freedom because, he maintained, the rights of man should be validated by reason rather than law. Vallance agrees that ancient charters of liberty constitute a flimsy bulwark against an elected dictatorship supported by a timid judiciary. He cites the disgraceful case of the Chagos islanders, who were expelled from Diego Garcia during the 1960s to make way for an American base. Magna Carta gives them no legal protection against a British government determined that they must remain exiles.

So, Vallance says, there should be a new constitutional framework to secure civil rights. But, as the American example shows, politicians can always circumvent such safeguards, not least during a "war on terror". Vallance is on surer ground when he calls for the long radical struggle to continue, the price of liberty being eternal vigilance.

Piers Brendon's 'The Decline and Fall of the British Empire' is published by Vintage

Red letter days: protest in England

1215: the barons force King John to sign Magna Carta; 1381: the Peasants Revolt against the ruling class, but not the king; 1549: Kett's Rebellion encircles Norwich but is brutally quashed; 1649: the execution of Charles I ends monarchy for 11 years; 1689: in the 'Glorious Revolution', the parliamentary elite ousts James II ; 1819: at the Peterloo Massacre, militia in Manchester crush a pro-reform protest; 1918: partial victory for the Suffrage movement, with women over 30 given the vote at last.

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