Still hated by the establishment after all these years

'Before Paine, political writing was like the shipping forecast: no one could understand it'
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One of the things I love about Tom Paine is that, 200 years after his death, The Daily Telegraph still hates him. Partly, that is because he was the opposite of the stereotypical human being. Until the age of 37, he did nothing radical. Then he wrote three of the most controversial books of all time, inspiring two, and almost three, revolutions. It was as if Noel Edmonds had turned 40, then gone off to form a Crinkly Bottom People's Army alongside the MPLA in Angola.

One of the things I love about Tom Paine is that, 200 years after his death, The Daily Telegraph still hates him. Partly, that is because he was the opposite of the stereotypical human being. Until the age of 37, he did nothing radical. Then he wrote three of the most controversial books of all time, inspiring two, and almost three, revolutions. It was as if Noel Edmonds had turned 40, then gone off to form a Crinkly Bottom People's Army alongside the MPLA in Angola.

So now, a campaign for a statue of Paine in Trafalgar Square has been met with horror, in an article that asserts Paine cannot be a hero because: "Heroism is inseparable from patriotism." If you rescue a drowning child from an icy lake, make sure you cry: "I save this child for God, the Queen Mum and the majestic pound," or it won't even warrant a round of applause.

It's not surprising they can't stand him. George III, said Paine, was ruler by virtue of being descended from a "French bastard landing with armed banditti and establishing himself King against the consent of the natives". Something for everyone there. Even taxi drivers must have said: "Mind you, he's got a point about the Frogs."

Even so, I can't get enthusiastic about the demand for the statue. Maybe that is because his modern fan club seems to be led by people who've missed the point and assume that Paine was a republican simply because he wished for a modern constitution. For example, Jonathan Freedland, in his book Bring Home the Revolution, claims that America has "succeeded" largely because it has followed Paine's model of a modern state. But Paine saw republicanism as one stage toward eradicating inequality, stating that for rich and poor to live in the same society was like "dead and living bodies chained together".

He proposed a welfare state paid for by a tax on the wealthy, which would include pensions for the over-50s, child allowance, free hostels for the homeless and a death allowance to cover all funeral expenses. That last one, even now, would have the tabloids screaming that cheats with nothing wrong with them would start deliberately dying to scrounge their free coffin.

America, on the other hand, is the most unequal society in the world. Claiming that it is run according to the values of Paine is like saying, "What I love about Amsterdam is how it's run according to the teachings of Mary Whitehouse."

"To be fair, Freedland does acknowledge that anomaly, writing that "in 1992 the richest 20 per cent of American households had eleven times as much income as the bottom 20 per cent." But his answer to this contradiction is: "... yet Americans seem quite happy with this state of affairs." Let me guess that the percentage of Americans quite happy with that state of affairs is - oh, let's pick a figure at random - perhaps 20 per cent. Whereas, and again I'm only guessing, people in the ghettos of Washington, in which infant mortality is higher than in Bangladesh, maybe aren't quite so delirious.

There's another reason why Paine was and remains hated by the rulers of society: his writing wasn't just for academic discourse. The Telegraph claims: "In his day... he was despised by most of his own countrymen." But Common Sense inspired thousands of Americans to fight the British, persuaded Washington to support independence and was read to troops as they went into battle. And Rights of Man sold 300,000 copies in six months, when the population was 10 million, of whom 40 per cent couldn't read, and it was illegal to own a copy.

Partly, that was because Paine was the first writer to produce a political book aimed at the "common person". Up until then, political writing was like the shipping forecast: the whole point was, hardly anyone could understand it.

The first part of Rights of Man, referring to the British government's attitude to the French Revolution, ends: "They tremble at the approach of principles, and dread the precedent that threatens their overthrow." So a bit of me doesn't want a statue of a sanitised, cuddly Paine, unveiled by grinning New Labour acolytes. Or maybe that's the same snobbish disappointment you feel when an obscure band you've been following gets into the charts.

Whatever, the true legacy of Paine is in examples such as the Chartists of Merthyr Tydfil, who, according to one account, "assembled in secret places on the mountains, and taking his works from under a concealed boulder, read them with great unction".

I wonder if anyone has ever read anything by a New Labour politician with any unction. I certainly can't imagine many people sneaking up a mountain, leaning against a boulder and going, "Hnnnnnnn, push, hnnnn, a bit more. Ah, here we are, the speeches of John Prescott."

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