Oscar Wilde, the Burghers of Calais, and now Tom Paine ...

A pressure group wants to honour the great 18th-century radical with a statue. Why now? Robert Butler investigates

Who or what would you prefer to walk past: the Queen Mother, Jesus Christ or Red Rum? And what if the figure was smoking? The two recent controversies over public art in London have centred on the empty plinth in Trafalgar Square and on a statue of Oscar Wilde in the West End. The debate over what should stand on the fourth plinth in the square, designed by Charles Barry in 1841, has narrowed down to a choice, not between the Queen Mother and/or Red Rum (as was suggested), but between the work of three contemporary artists: Rachel Whiteread, Bill Woodrow, and Mark Wallinger's life-size figure of Christ with his hands tied. Meanwhile, Maggi Hambling's recently unveiled statue of Oscar Wilde shows the playwright ignoring government health warnings and enjoying a cigarette. And now, a third debate is up and running.

A campaign was launched on Friday night to erect a statue to one of the most subversive figures in our history - Thomas Paine. He is also one of our least well-known. That could change. Next month Richard Attenborough resumes work on a new film, a Gandhi-style epic about the man who was a major inspiration in the American and French revolutions. As Attenborough points out, had Paine returned to England, "he would have been hanged". In 1792, following the publication of The Rights of Man, his effigy was burnt in towns around Britain. A statue would have seemed a far-off prospect.

The proposal is to erect a statue outside the Houses of Parliament. Ideally, the unveiling of the statue would coincide with the abolition of voting rights for the 752 hereditary peers. The campaign's supporters want the statue to be placed on College Green, the patch of grass opposite the Houses of Parliament, where MPs stand to give television interviews. Either that, or on the empty fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square.

On Friday night the appeal for the Thomas Paine statue was launched at a private cinema in west London. Friday was Paine's birthday. It was also the eve of the 350th anniversary of the execution of Charles I. A hundred people from the arts, law, media and politics were there. They included Schindler's List author Thomas Kenneally, the poet and critic Al Alvarez, Billy Bragg, agony aunt Claire Rayner, Geoffrey Robertson QC, Michael Foot, playwright Trevor Griffiths and Paine's biographer, John Keane. "We are often accused of being anti-British. But we can never be anti- the Britain of Tom Paine," Keneally said. "Start with the statue and finish up making this country of ours a real democracy," Michael Foot said. Michael Mansfield said: "What Paine would be saying now is not what are the rights, it is how do we enforce these rights so that ordinary people feel empowered?"

Richard Attenborough (who was unable to be there) told me that his film will take Paine's story from the moment Paine leaves England for the American Revolution, and then follow it through his participation in the French Revolution, to his imprisonment, his release, and his return to the States, where he died. It is, says Attenborough, "a major epic", and will cost around $75m. Trevor Griffiths has written the script, which Attenborough describes as "staggering". Griffiths is an old hand at dramatising revolutions. He wrote about the Russian one for Warren Beatty in Reds. The Tom Paine script, says Attenborough, "is now in the final state of revision". The Americans are keen on the project. "They think Paine is an American. We'll have to do something about that." Daniel Day-Lewis has been approached to play Paine. Thirty years ago, Attenborough tells me, he would have asked Anthony Hopkins.

The audience on Friday night watched another film, by another Welsh actor, Kenneth Griffith. A fervent, radical and highly individual documentary- maker, Griffith revisits the sights of Paine's life, and puts the case as trenchantly as you could imagine for Tom Paine being - as the film's title proclaims - "The Most Valuable Englishman Ever". This 90-minute film is soon to be released on video, along with Griffith's other work, some of which has never been broadcast. When Griffith's film was over, the audience were invited to put pounds 20 into a bright orange kitchen bin.

The idea for the statue came from the Common Sense Club. This is a new pressure group, which intends to further Tom Paine's belief in the democratic principle through all areas of government, up to and including the monarchy. The Common Sense Club believes that "society should be governed from the bottom up, not from the top down". The three-word slogan runs: "votes not genes".

Originally a dining club which met on a monthly basis, Common Sense was founded four years ago by the PR consultant Brian Basham, the biographer Anthony Holden, the journalist Roy Greenslade, and Professor Stephen Haseler. Members include Ursula Owen, editor of Index on Censorship, Mark Leonard, director of the Foreign Policy Centre, Jonathan Freedland, author of Bring Home The Revolution, and Simon Fanshawe, broadcaster.

"It's an embryonic group with a very wide network," says another member, Hilary Wainwright, editor of the political monthly Red Pepper, "but the common thread would be that Paine symbolises the principle of popular elections and the idea that this should be carried through to the head of state. Of course different members have different elaborations on this. I would emphasise the egalitarian socialist side."

If you tap in Tom Paine's name on the Internet, you'll find it popping up in support of many different causes. You want to smoke cigarettes. You want to smoke cannabis. You want a hand-gun. You want an abortion. You don't want people to have abortions. You believe in God. You don't believe in God. In any case, Thomas Paine's name will be there.

But there are unambiguous reasons for erecting a statue. He wrote The Rights of Man, Common Sense and The Age of Reason. Many of his ideas were included in the American Declaration of Independence. He coined the phrase "the United States of America". He pressed passionately for the abolition of slavery. Aware of tyranny in all its forms, he was imprisoned by Robespierre for arguing that Louis XVI should not be executed.

There are two statues of Paine in the United States: a full seated one in Morristown, New Jersey (1905), and a bronze bust placed on a marble pillar on Paine Street in New Rochelle, New York, where he lived (1839). In 1963, a statue of Paine was unveiled at Thetford, Norfolk, the town where he was born in 1737. A number of members of the Tory-controlled local council opposed the plan. They accused the deputy mayor of failing to have details of Paine's trial and conviction as a "traitor" engraved on the statue. The controversy led to the founding of the Thomas Paine Society in the UK. Michael Foot became the society's president, and Bertrand Russell one of the vice-presidents.

IF THE CAMPAIGN for a statue of Paine succeeds, he will join an eclectic group of more than 300 statues in the borough of Westminster. These include the Burghers of Calais and Mrs Emmeline Pankhurst (both in Victoria Tower Gardens), and William Huskisson, the first man to be killed by a railway train (Pimlico Gardens). The statue to Huskisson has him dressed in a Roman gown which prompted Osbert Sitwell to describe it as "boredom rising from a bath". There are many hoops to go through. Westminster City Council is concerned that "the townscape does not become cluttered with objects that have no relationship with the city". They also want the statue "to have a historical link with the proposed location". The paperwork is daunting. The plans for the Oscar Wilde statue had to be submitted to English Heritage, the Royal Fine Arts Commission, the London Society, the Department of Culture, Media and Sport and the Westminster Public Art Advisory Panel.

That was only the beginning. Once the site for Wilde had been agreed, drawings had to be submitted to London Electricity, the National Grid, Thames Water, British Gas and Cable and Wireless. The base of the statue, the sarcophagus, is a dark green granite that comes from Brazil, and weighs four tons. It had to be sent to Italy to be cut. The weight has a serious impact on anything underneath - in this case a Victorian brick sewer and Thames Water pipes. The plans also had to be sent to the London Museum to check that no archaeological remains existed under the site. Applications had to be made to the planning authority for the spotlight. Now that Maggi Hambling wants the position of the spotlight changed, another application has to go in. Finally, once the statue is up, someone has to look after it. Oscar Wilde has been donated to the local authority. Like Eros, at New Year's Eve they will board up the statue of Oscar Wilde, to prevent any damage from revellers. It will be a nice irony when a local authority has to protect Paine from the common man.

The idea for a statue to Paine isn't that new. Griffith's film informed its audience on Friday night that 200 years ago, when the young Napoleon Bonaparte sought out Paine in his rooms in Paris, Napoleon told Paine that he slept with a copy of The Rights of Man under his pillow. Never one to think small when he could think big, Napoleon told Paine "a statue of gold ought to be erected to you in every city in the universe".

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