Viking £25

The English Rebel, By David Horspool

A fascinating look at the upshot of people power

This is an unexpected book: not what it purports to be at all. It seems to be in the gimmick-history genre, which sells well. I am not being snooty about it, honestly. I like history-with-a-twist and believe that you can learn as much, if not more, from what-if histories or grand theories as from the conventional stuff. I like Stephen Pollard's book about 10 days that shaped modern Britain. I like I Wish I'd Been There, in which 20 historians reveal which event they would most want to have been present for and why. And I thought that this book, subtitled "One Thousand Years of Troublemaking, from the Normans to the Nineties", would be in that vein. I'm afraid to say, too, that I thought it would be a poor advertisement for the genre: the idea of "the rebel" as an actor in English history over such a long period seemed fraught with too many problems.

David Horspool begins the book by stoking those fears. Rebels, he points out, could be reactionary or progressive. By definition, they are failures: if they succeed, they are rebels no more. Yet the definition is imprecise: some want to force the government to govern differently; others want to overthrow it altogether. (And some, such as the Parliamentarians of the Civil War, started with one aim and ended with another.) Most use or threaten violence, but Horspool includes pacifists such as Bertrand Russell, the founder of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in the 1950s. He even claims that, by focusing on the rebels who tried to "interfere with the flow" of history, his book offers an antidote to the Whig interpretation of English history since 1066 as a march – erratic and sometimes set back, but relentless – towards parliamentary democracy.

How surprising, then, that Horspool's actual book, as opposed to the one advertised in its subtitle, blurb and introduction, is a readable and lucid but utterly conventional history of the English state and its long, Whiggish transition from absolute monarchy to democracy. Rather unexpectedly, Horspool's use of "the English rebel" as the central figure of his inquiry provides just the narrative thread and thematic unity that he needs to make sense of 1,000 years of history in a single book. It compresses the story, stepping from crisis to crisis, as the uppity barons inadvertently create precedents to which the next set of rebels appeal when the next crisis breaks. Horspool is wittily knowing about the misinterpretations of, for example, Magna Carta, both by contemporaries and by contemporary "'why, oh why' journalism", yet those misreadings are precisely what gave the proto-democratic tradition its power over the centuries. He knows, too, that "democracy" was not the aim of those appealing to the tradition of restraint of royal power. Simon de Montfort did not intend the meetings of barons that he convened to become a permanent parliament. But there was a logic to the widening of the scope of taxation, the rule of law and political rights: it was not historical inevitability but a succession of probabilities. Horspool traces the parallel development of the English language and the concepts of democracy: not just parliament but also the earlier, 12th-century, idea of the "community of the realm", which became the Commons.

For most of us, I suspect, 1066 and All That is better known than the national history it satirises. Horspool's is a brilliant retelling of that basic story of the Anglo-British state; every time I thought I would skip the medieval stuff – yet another boring bunch of barons – I was drawn back into the narrative. In fact, my haste to get to CND, the miners' strike and Margaret Thatcher's poll tax was misplaced. The story was essentially concluded with the arrival of universal suffrage in 1928. Thatcher was defeated not by the "riot" of March 1990, but by her refusal to bend in the face of the certain verdict of the people at the ballot box.

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