The 12 greatest Britons (an alternative view of our nation's history)

The Tories have drawn up a list of 12 people who made Britain great and deserve to be studied in schools. Mark Steel begs to differ with their choice, and offers his own definitive dozen
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The Independent Online

The Tories, being cool and young, have presented a list of top people. Because everything now is judged by lists, which is why every night there's a television programme called something like The 50 Top TV Wasps. And the Tories' list, of British people who've created the nation, tries to be modern and inclusive and ignores Churchill and Thatcher, and there was probably someone who suggested replacing Alfred the Great with Lily Allen.

For example, they include Aneurin Bevan, the socialist minister credited with creating the National Health Service. I suppose the thinking is, "He's extremely important, because if he hadn't formed the NHS, we wouldn't have a chance of selling it off." But the whole idea of this list is flawed, firstly because it assumes history is created solely by a handful of monarchs, generals or geniuses. The NHS wasn't just a product of Bevan's brilliance, but a response to a widespread sentiment among millions of people that the working class should be rewarded for the war effort. Which is why one official Labour Party pamphlet in the 1945 election began: "The capitalist is a leech that sucks the worker's blood." To be honest, I didn't read the last Labour manifesto, but I think that bit might have been dropped.

Also, hardly anyone now suggests Britain is created just by the British. Beethoven, Bob Marley, Dante, James Joyce, Jesus and whoever invented the panini all shaped our culture more than most Englishmen. Nonetheless, if the Tories really want to big up an English crew for the times, here are my suggestions for the people they could choose:


Or whatever she's called now. Here was a woman who responded to the occupation of her people's land by attacking the invading forces, and burning down towns, including London. To which the Romans declared: "But why doesn't anyone look at the positive things that are happening?" and insisted they would stay until the job was done and the insurgents defeated.

Wat Tyler

One effect of the Black Death, a plague that wiped out a quarter of the population in the 14th century, was to create a labour shortage. There was such a demand for peasants to till land that they became like modern plumbers, offering their services to landowners, while saying "I'm booked up 'til April mate. I could get my brother to come round to do a quick rotation crop job but it'll cost yer." So the landowners fought back by introducing a rule that no peasant could leave their estate, and they brought in a poll tax, to be paid by every peasant aged 14 or over. Inspectors were sent round to assess whether a peasant was 14 by checking whether they had pubic hair.

A revolt against this began in Essex and Kent, where Wat Tyler rode around making speeches. Eventually Tyler led an army of 60,000 peasants into London, where the good people of Southwark allowed them through a drawbridge, and they burnt down the tax office. In the end, Tyler was tricked into attending a meeting with the King, where he was murdered with a dagger. But in the aftermath serfdom was abolished, and from that day to this, no British leader was stupid or arrogant enough to introduce a poll tax ever, ever again.

Geoffrey Chaucer

Another effect of the labour shortage following the Black Death was that for the first time, people could change jobs even if it meant moving out of their social rank. So the British became familiar with aspirations of moving up the social ladder. Previously, when your position was determined by the position you were born into, this wasn't possible. Even the cockiest peasant wouldn't say: "I might only be a serf now, but I'm going to work hard, invest wisely, and one day I'll be the son of Lord Hampshire and inherit Basingstoke."

The first man to chart the foibles of this new world, observing the mannerisms of diverse characters, was Chaucer. And he was the first to write for a wide audience, in English, whereas most of the royal court spoke French. The Canterbury Tales was the Little Britain of its day, and there were probably school kids going: "Did you see it last night? You've no right to theft and pillage - I'm the only knight in the village."

John Lilburne

During the English Civil War, a group called the Levellers was formed, of which Lilburne was the most prominent leader. They proposed an Agreement of the People, which supporters carried in their hats. This argued for every household to have the vote, with elections held every two years, a written constitution and for the House of Lords and monarchy to be scrapped. As opposed to promising to be constitutionally radical, then calling for every trade union and public service to "modernise", while sitting in a Gothic building opened each year by a bloke in garters banging a black rod so you can all shout "Hear, Hear" round a mace.

The Levellers won the support of a large section of the army, and at one point they forced Cromwell to debate with them about how to establish the new nation. Property owners were terrified, arguing that if everyone had the vote, those with no property would vote to take things from those with property. Whereas if they'd thought it through they could have said: "Even if you vote to stop us hunting we'll ignore it, then say that proves the law is unworkable, so I wouldn't get too excited, mate."

Isaac Newton

One consequence of the new thinking leading to the Civil War was the birth of science. But Isaac Newton was not the classic English genius he's usually portrayed as, dipping feathery pens into an inkwell and declaring: "My God, until that apple I'd never noticed anything falling before." Newton got into fights, did badly at school, and was probably gay. He was an alchemist, and he thought the Pope was the anti-Christ. Partly this must have been because the Catholic Church's attitude to science wasn't always supportive. Their theory on motion would have been: "A Treatise upon Discovering the Movement of Bodies and Ascertaining the Reasons for Why they should Fall Unto the Earth: Because they do! The End."

Newton followed up his extraordinary theories on motion, gravity and light by becoming a spy for the Bank of England, sometimes being responsible for getting people sentenced to death for forging coins. How can someone be so marvellous at one job, then so appalling at their next one? It would be like if Nelson Mandela got a job at an aquarium, and was sacked for shoving a firework up the dolphin's arse.

Tom Paine

Made corsets, nearly died from poverty, sailed to America, wrote a pamphlet advocating American independence which became the best-selling book ever, persuaded George Washington on the case for independence, helped form the first American government, fell out with Washington over slavery and corruption, and left America penniless. Became obsessed with bridges and built a huge one in a field in Paddington because he couldn't afford to put it over anything. Wrote a book supporting the French Revolution that became the best-selling book ever, was threatened with execution so wrote Part Two in which he worked out how to redistribute every penny in England, for example on a welfare state, including paying for the funerals of the poor (Which would drive the Daily Mail mad: "We uncover the cheats deliberately dying to get their free coffins.") Fled to France, became part of the revolutionary government, jailed by the revolution, escaped the day before his execution was due, fled to America, wrote a book denouncing the Bible from memory, died penniless - is that enough?

Charles Darwin

Look. When he said "survival of the fittest", he didn't mean pay yourself 50 squillion quid for arseing about with hedge funds and bollocks to everyone else, and if they complain this is unfair while half the world's dying for lack of water it's the politics of envy. There was a bit more to it than that.

W G Grace

The Victorian cricketer who symbolised the dawning of modern Britain. His lifespan (1848 to 1915) mirrors perfectly the rise and fall of the Victorian ascendancy. He was the first national celebrity, advertising Colman's mustard. And was so, so Victorian. In a book advising boys how to play cricket, he included, being a man of lists, 10 top tips. And No 9 was: "Do not go into the field with a pipe in your mouth."

Far from being the embodiment of English virtue, he stayed up all night before matches, drinking and playing billiards. He drank whisky and seltzer while batting, was disciplined for hitting spectators, and found dozens of ways to cheat.

Sylvia Pankhurst

The most wonderful of the suffragettes. Not only did she endure hunger strikes and arrests for smashing things, but she mobilised thousands of East Enders in the cause of votes for women, and when their marches were attacked by police, she urged them to learn ju-jitsu. Then, when the rest of the suffragette movement supported the First World War, she resolutely opposed it, and formed a toy-making co-op to raise funds for injured soldiers and their families. She travelled illegally on foot to Italy to a socialist conference, then to Russia where she argued publicly with Lenin, married an Italian anarchist, forced Winston Churchill to get the BBC to play the Ethiopian national anthem during the Second World War, and became an adviser to Haile Selassie. Now that's feminism, not writing pompous twaddle in Sunday supplements about the phallic nature of a goalpost.

Charlie Chaplin

The living truth of the American dream. Born into desperate poverty and the workhouse, went to America to become the highest paid superstar in the world, but retained his principles so was kicked back out of America again. As a statement of individuality against the corporate world, the tramp, especially in Modern Times, is unbeatable.

Joe Strummer

To my generation, when we were 16, the older generation sounded like tinnitus. There were no sentences, just a background noise that went: "No bloody respect to think we fought a war scruffy so-and-sos bloody darkies there's another one moved in national service I wish we had the opportunities..." Then, along came Joe. By the time the first kerchang of the first track on the first album had died away it felt for the first time there was someone on our wavelength. Then he articulated the sense of shambolic radicalism and anti-racism that became a movement. If any Clash fan is tempted to become a general in an illegal war, you can be sure they'd turn down the offer, on the grounds that it would be letting down Joe.

Jimmy White

Everything that's wonderful about Britain glows in Jimmy White. Leaving school unable to read he became the most flamboyant snooker player, lovable but flawed, destined to appear in the world final about five thousand times without winning. It may turn out that Jimmy doesn't exist but is a character in a modern Dickens novel.

And his peak came during the heart of Thatcherism, when snooker was forever won by Steve Davis, the flairless robot. Whereas Jimmy was all character, trying shots that made a million people crawl behind furniture squealing: "No Jimmy, play safe!" But, although he never won, he taught us it's better to reach the final and be loved as a human being than to win and everyone think you're an arsehole. And what can be a better lesson to teach a new generation about England than that?

St Columba (521-597)

A Gaelic missionary, known as Columba of Iona, who reintroduced Christianity to Britain.

Alfred The Great (849-899)

Defended Anglo-Saxon England from the Vikings, formulated laws and fostered a rebirth of religious and scholarly activity.

Henry II (1133-1189)

Under Henry, new judicial procedures were established and the first legal textbook was written.

Simon de Montfort (1208-1265)

Called the first directly elected parliament since ancient Athens. Laid down the foundations for the development of the House of Commons.

James IV of Scotland (1488-1513)

A true Renaissance prince who spoke 10 languages. Married Henry VII's daughter, Margaret Tudor.

Thomas Gresham (1519-1579)

English financier and founder of the Royal Exchange.

Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658)

Statesman, instrumental in making England a republic.

Isaac Newton (1643-1727)

Known as the greatest-ever scientist, his work on gravity and optics earned him the title the "father of physics".

Robert Clive (1725-1774)

Clive of India, he established the supremacy of the East India Company, securing Britain's interests in the sub-continent.

Robert Peel (1778-1850)

Founder of the Metropolitan Police and as prime minister oversaw social reform including the repeal of the Corn Laws.

Millicent Fawcett (1847-1929)

One of the leaders of the women's suffrage movement, known for her peaceful and rational approach.

Aneurin Bevan (1897-1960)

Minister of Health for the post-war Labour government and chief architect of the NHS.

Have your say

Who do you think deserves a place in the pantheon of people who made Britain? Suggestions to: