Reviewed by: Ted Vallance
Author: Ben Wilson
Publisher: Faber and Faber
Price (RRP): £14.99
Ben Wilson’s new book is accompanied by a blog, website and ‘pay what you think is fair’ ebook download campaign. This engagement with the social media of the 21st century, however, is not reflected in the first 200 pages of the work which could quite easily have been written in the 19th century, so indebted are they to a Whiggish teleology of steadily broadening British liberty.
Indeed, portions of the work actually read as if they might have been written in the 18th century: Wilson’s discussion of the struggles of the English civil war and Glorious Revolution would have made as much sense to Catherine Macaulay (a reformist of the 18th century), as Thomas Babington Macaulay (a reformist of the 19th).
The John Milton who appears in Wilson’s book is the secularised ‘patriot’ of 18th-century histories, not the zealot whose idea of liberty was the freedom “to serve God, and to save his own soul”, and whose projected English republic was an undemocratic perpetual senate of the ‘godly’.
Where Wilson differs from his Whiggish forebears is that he sees the narrative of British liberty as a bell-curve, turning downward towards despotism from the dawn of the 20th century onwards. Perhaps Wilson can be credited with developing a new school of thought after all: the disappointed Whig theory of history.
The problem with this book is not just that, for all its attempts at political relevance (withreferences to the recent debate over 42-day detention), its first half is remarkably antiquated – but that it is also very badly organised. Although the structure of the work is broadly chronological, there is a considerable amount of flitting backwards and forwards with no obvious argument to justify these detours and reverses.
Tom Paine and John Wilkes appear without introduction in Wilson’s chapter dealing with the American Revolution, but Wilkes’s campaigns are only really addressed in the following section and poor old Tom Paine is simply left hanging. There were also some startling omissions: it certainly seems remiss for a work on liberal thought to make merely a passing reference to John Locke and then only as an influence on the American Founding Fathers.
These problems might have been overcome had Wilson offered at the beginning a clearer discussion of his core theme, liberty. Yet, throughout, he seems reluctant either to define what liberty meant at any historical moment or to chart struggles over particular liberties (freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom of conscience etc.) The book also gives little, if any sense, of the human cost of winning and securing these freedoms.
Though he briefly mentions “radicals and campaigners”, popular movements get scant acknowledgment: the Levellers (much more ‘liberal’ than Milton) get half a sentence and the Chartists’ fight for democracy is completely overlooked in favour of a discussion of the battle for better drains in late-Victorian England. You will not find a word here about the sedition trials of the 1790s, Peterloo or Suffragette hunger-striking. Freedom, it seems, was won simply through the intellectual energies of great men such as JS Mill, not through the blood, sweat and tears of ordinary people.
This all makes it difficult to see what the point of Wilson’s book is. He tells us that history “is the greatest tool in the fight to maintain and enlarge freedom for it keeps alive that spirit”. Yet, as his work almost completely overlooks that ‘fight’, it can hardly be said to be girding the loins of the British reading public for action.
He ends instead with an unsupported assertion, that the British have a “long, long experience of liberty” which is far better than some “single uncompromising belief we can chant or worship”. But is this ‘experience’ anything more than a hollow ‘chant’ itself, that despite all the historical evidence to the contrary, “Britons never, never will be slaves?”