Book Review: A Radical History of Britain by Edward Vallance

A Radical History of Britain front cover

A Radical History of Britain by Edward Vallance.

Edward Vallance. A Radical History of Britain. London: Abacus, 2010. RRP £13.99 paperback.

The British have a reputation for being a bit passive when it comes to protest, rebellion, and revolution. The Glorious Revolution in 1688 is celebrated for being ‘bloodless,’ and when the rest of Europe was wracked with revolutions in the mid-nineteenth century we had the largely peaceful Chartist movement. Books such as A Radical History of Britain, however, demonstrate that us Brits can rebel with the best of them.

A Radical History of Britain pretty much does what it says on the tin, although Vallance does admit in the introduction that it is largely about England rather then Britain. The book is split into seven parts, each with several chapters, that focus on particularly contentious periods in English history, including: the English Civil Wars; British radicalism around the time of the French Revolution; Chartism; and the Women’s Suffrage movement. In each case, Vallance focuses on two elements that make A Radical History of Britain more than just a straightforward narrative. The first is a concern with ideas as well as events; Vallances devotes significant attention to the theories and writings that inspired and drove radicalism, from those of the Levellers, to Thomas Paine, Feargus O’Connor, and the Pankhursts. The second element that makes the book stand out is discussion of how protests and periods of radicalism were used by later activists and campaigners as sources of inspiration, justification, and legitimisation. Social movements often draw on the history of radicalism in lots of ways, and A Radical History of Britain traces that process.

Our freedom lies in our power. Pessimists may point to demonstrations against the war in Iraq as evidence of modern government’s capacity to ignore the will of the people. However, the millions who marched against that illegal war also remind us of the readiness of the British people once again, in the words of Shelley, to rise ‘like lions after slumber.’ This is the lesson of Britain’s radical history: the struggle for our freedom goes on.

Vallance, 2010; p 552.

Last year, I reviewed The English Rebel by David Horspool. It too tells the story of English radicalism, although Horspool is more explicit about the English focus. On the surface, the two books are quite similar; they are telling the same story, and feature many of the same events. They also both indulge in my  pet hate of collecting images together rather than dispersing them throughout the text. However, there are differences. The English Rebel is more of a straightforward narrative, whilst A Radical History of Britain explores radical ideas and legacies, as I have mentioned. David Horspool’s overall message is that the English have always been more radical than our reputation implies. Edward Vallance’s key message is that rights are something that the English fought long and hard for, and they can be lost if they are not defended. The narrative in The English Rebel is more complete than in A Radical History of Britain; Vallance sacrifices breadth for depth in some places, so skips over some time periods, and finishes in the mid-twentieth century, whilst Horspool goes right through to the nineteen-nineties. I personally found The English Rebel easier to read, but that doesn’t necessarily make it a better book, it depends what the reader is looking for. I understand that not everyone enjoys reading about the history of protest as much as I do, so if you only want to read one, I can offer some advice. If you’re after a more general overview of protest in England throughout history, I would recommend The English Rebel. If you would prefer something with more analysis, then I would suggest A Radical History of Britain.

A Radical History of Britain presents some interesting arguments about how legacies of protests and radicalism are shaped and used by radicals that come after, and it also provides a thorough introduction to the history of radical ideas in Britain. It is not the easiest book to read, but I think it is worth the effort.

 

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