Kramedart Press, £19.99, 391pp. £17.99 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Dare To Stand Alone: The Story of Charles Bradlaugh, By Bryan Niblett

How miserably we acknowledge some people. Charles Bradlaugh, pelted with insults, facing imprisonment and bankruptcy and his life shortened, ultimately defeated the Anglican hierarchy and the Conservative party at its late-Victorian nastiest. Elected Liberal MP in 1880, he took his seat in 1885. He then proved an exemplary member, adding the India Office to his enemies as he asserted the rights of the actual Indians before dying exhausted in 1891 at 57. Much of our modern mindset is Bradlaugh's creation.

Though a dedicated radical, he was not a socialist. Consequently the monstrous condescension of right-wing history has never been quite offset by the left. The image lingers of a marginal, rather tiresome player in an obscure hullabaloo.

Bryan Niblett's excellent and totally readable book should see off such complacency. He is a lawyer, and only a lawyer could do justice to the struggle through every level of procedure by which the excluded, and vivaciously abused, Member for Northampton fought and won. Bradlaugh was a brilliant lawyer never admitted. Too poor for articles, he would come, from office boy turned managing clerk, to impress senior judges as advocate, grasper of minute procedural points, his own legal devil among old statutes: a superb lawyer. After winning Northampton, he needed to be.

The issue was and was not atheism. Discreet unbelievers like John Morley had taken the oath and kissed the testament. But when Bradlaugh was elected in 1880, he had already made a wide reputation as owner/editor of the secularist National Reformer and godless lecturer. In the headlines he was "Bradlaugh the atheist". Enemy of aristocratic privilege and employers' chicanery, publisher of a pamphlet on family planning and The Impeachment of the House of Brunswick, deriding all the Georges, he was also "Bradlaugh the Contraceptionist" and "Bradlaugh the Republican".

He was not seeking publicity over the oath, but had entered the Commons chamber under this focus. The sensible request to affirm, already permitted in the courts, could have been allowed. Instead Speaker Brand, a feardy cat in the chair, turned to his officials and got a pedantic negative. Might not the oath be taken anyway? Dismally, Brand threw the issue upon the House, then to a committee, creating an eternity of rhetoric and parliamentary self-obsession.

Five years later, in a new parliament, the new Speaker Arthur Peel would say "I know nothing of the resolutions of the past. They have lapsed, they are void... I have no authority... to interfere between an honourable member and his taking of the oath." Between the two statements from the chair, Bradlaugh had been denied his seat, expelled, and in company with another outstanding radical, Henry Labouchere, re-elected by Northampton.

He had also faced a parallel prosecution and risked imprisonment for publishing the family-planning pamphlet. All the sanctimony of the age was loose. Victorian Christianity had a long streak of the pharisaical. Edward Pusey, Anglo-Catholic paladin, asked to help someone unsure about the Divinity, replied "You are blaspheming. The very thought is a terrible sin." Tennyson, not parliament, had saluted "honest doubt".

Bradlaugh was imprisoned in the Clock Tower, driven away from the Chamber and seriously hurt by Commons officers. The suitably named Charles Newdegate Newdegate attempted to bankrupt him. Lord Randolph Churchill talked high about "the indelible stain" of admitting "an avowed atheist", and stamped the Brunswick pamphlet into the carpet. Newdegate was an eccentric. Churchill didn't believe a word of it and would, after 1885, go out of his way to end the last prosecution of the avowed atheist and accommodate his bill against perpetual pensions. Sir Hardinge Giffard believed every word, was Solicitor General, thought Christianity "part of the Common Law of England", and sought Bradlaugh's destruction.

Bradlaugh's lawyer's skills somehow kept him afloat for Speaker Peel's sense, and for sudden esteem as an acknowledged guide to grown-up politics. There is nothing marginal about that.

Edward Pearce's 'Pitt the Elder: man of war' is published by Pimlico

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