Nigel Jones takes issue with the arguments made in a provocative study of thwarted revolts
It is axiomatic in British history that this country – unlike many European neighbours – does not ‘do’ revolutions. This assumption is at least arguable. If the Civil War of the 1640s, resulting in the quasi-legal killing of a king, and his replacement by a military dictatorship with millennial overtones, was not a revolution, then the term has no meaning. Ditto the 1688 ‘Glorious Revolution’. Yet according to Frank McLynn, neither of these upheavals constituted a true revolution, which, he argues, Britain has never experienced.
His book focuses on seven moments when he claims Britain came closest to “the possibility for overthrow of a regime and a drastic change of direction politically, economically, socially”: the Peasants’ Revolt, Jack Cade’s 1450 rebellion, the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536, the Civil War, the 1745/6 Jacobite uprising; the Chartists of the 1840s, and the 1926 General Strike.
The revolts led by Wat Tyler and Jack Cade were centred on Kent and, says McLynn, were due to readily identifiable social causes: the breakdown of the feudal system after the Black Death; the fluctuating price of corn; unemployment after the Hundred Years’ War and so on. He has no truck with the idea that Cade’s rising was the opening round of the Wars of the Roses, putting the failure of both revolts down to the ‘ruling class’ regaining control after a temporary loss of nerve.
The Pilgrimage of Grace, the northern rebellion triggered by Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, was indeed a serious threat to the Tudors and he acutely analyses the divisions among the rising’s gentry leadership, so cannily exploited by the king to cause its collapse. McLynn’s reading of the Civil War, however, is vitiated by his charge that Cromwell snuffed out a real revolution advanced by the Levellers and the Diggers.
Though informed by wide learning, McLynn perpetrates a historical howler in saying that the Cromwellian General Lambert “acquiesced” in the Restoration. (In fact Lambert opposed it forcefully and was imprisoned for life for his pains). He is on surer ground with the Jacobites, on which he is an authority – though, as with the Pilgrimage, this rural and reactionary movement was never a revolutionary threat.
The examples McLynn lumps into his revolutionary sack are questionable: if the Pilgrimage, why not the Prayer Book or Kett’s rebellion? And if Chartism, why not the era of Peterloo and the Cato Street conspiracy? This is also very old-fashioned history, with heroes and villains praised – or more frequently damned – featuring Henry VIII, Cromwell and (bizarrely) Stanley Baldwin in a rogues’ gallery of tyranny.
As to why Britain avoided revolution, McLynn discounts such theories as its insular isolation, its small professional army, the popularity of its modern monarchy, or the myth that its people were less violent than their continental counterparts (before the 18th century the reverse was the case). He identifies a few factors as crucial: Britain’s early industrialisation; its acquisition of an empire to export its surplus workforce; and finally the preference for gradualist reformism to revolutionary activism, exemplified by the popularity of Methodism over Marxism.
It cannot be plausibly claimed, as McLynn does, that Chartism or the General Strike represented missed opportunities for red revolution. Both were legalistic Labour movements whose moderate leaders respected parliament and democratic norms, (which McLynn regards as an unforgivable betrayal).
Though interesting counter-factual history, and a good book to argue with, McLynn fails to convince. While he denies being “a Marxist or even a socialist” this too often reads like a turgid Marxist tract, with long-winded diversions – for example on tidal waves in British waters – of dubious relevance. He relies on dated and discredited class war ideas, quoting professional revolutionaries Lenin, Trotsky and Gramsci, who barely visited the place, as experts on Britain. And although admitting that revolutions undam rivers of blood and suffering for nil or negligible gains, he regrets that the British ‘proletariat’ sensibly prefer sport. Few would agree.
Nigel Jones is author of Tower: An Epic History of the Tower of London (Hutchinson, 2011)