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

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
artVoted for by the public, artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

    A new Russian revolution

    Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
    Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
    Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

    Standing my ground

    If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
    Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

    Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

    The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
    The man who dared to go on holiday

    The man who dared to go on holiday

    New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

    For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
    The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

    The Guest List 2014

    Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
    Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

    Jokes on Hollywood

    With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
    It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

    It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

    Voted for by the British public, the artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
    Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

    Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

    Blanche Marvin reveals how Tennessee Williams used her name and an off-the-cuff remark to create an iconic character
    Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

    Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

    Websites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
    Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

    Edinburgh Fringe 2014

    The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
    Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

    Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

    The woman stepping down as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund is worried