As robust and eloquent as the eccentric campaigners that he revives, Ben Wilson takes the standard trajectory of the Whig interpretation of history – with British freedom rising step by step into a glorious future – and turns a spotlight of sceptical analysis on it.
Scarred by quarrels and setbacks, the landscape of liberty that the young historian reveals looks far rockier than the sunlit utopia of 19th-century liberal myth. The British, under this gaze, worship the idea of liberty but often turn a blind eye to its erosion.
From Cromwell's despotism and the clampdowns after 1793 to the new shackles of the "war on terror", our state has picked up "nasty habits" of control and surveillance. In contrast, Wilson tells the rumbustious stories of mavericks and misfits, from Georgian drunkards to Scots unionists, who stood for freedom in dark times.