on 8 November 2010
This is a book on 'radical' history by someone who does not like radicalism, and as such it cannot help but be deeply dishonest. In many cases Vallance explicitly has a go at other radical histories (dubbed disparagingly as 'marxist') for their overly radical tone. While I am not a marxist and find those dogmas within historical writing to be very tiresome, I also do not agree with Edward Vallance's take on 'radicalism', which is in fact nothing more than the 'rights' and liberal values that have already been attained within British politics. These weak voting rights and equally weak protective shields within parliamentary democracy are for him the 'radical' outcome he is pleased with, while any more radical ideas that didn't make it into the mainstream of British politics (or have since been crushed) are kind of brushed aside.
It becomes apparent then that the author has an axe to grind throughout the book: he wishes to debunk more radical accounts of history in favour of a circular logic that says that those movements that resulted in the rights we have now were the true radicalism, while those radical ideas which didn't make it were not to be taken seriously in the first place. There is one deviation from this pattern which is also the most serious dishonesty in the book. The rights of workers, as fought for through many decades and even centuries by the workers themselves, are barely mentioned. The word 'strike' does not appear in the index, nor can I find a mention of the 1926 General Strike that threatened the authority of government (admittedly I started skim-reading towards the end, not wanting to waste too much time on such egregious nonsense so do correct me if it's in there).
In fact the entire history of socialism is bizarrely condensened into a long section about women's suffrage and socialism, with almost all the attention paid to women's suffrage. This is followed by an 'interesting' interpretation of anti-fascist action in Britain (according to him it was affection for parliamentary democracy, not direct action, that defeated fascism - an unprovable assertion but let's not worry about that hey?). I don't even describe myself as a socialist and think that most socialists made grave mistakes in an espousing of authoritarianism which I find highly objectionable, but to write them out of history? This is the dishonesty of propaganda and I would urge you to at least read other sources before blithely taking it seriously as history.
There are some bits that aren't so bad - he joins in a string of recent attempts to rehabilitate Luddites as radicals rather than mere conservative reactionaries. This chapter is probably the best of the book. However it doesn't excuse the general tone of sidelining the radicals he doesn't like (the ones who are *too* radical, in other words).
To give you an example of how strong this author's bias is, he attempts to downplay the radicalism of the Putney Debates (between Levellers and New Model Army leaders during the Civil War) by saying that there was very little talk of universal male suffrage at the Putney Debates. Instead, he says, there was much more focus on the idea that 'every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government'. So keen is he to use this to downplay the radicalism of the Putney Debates that he appears not to notice that this latter idea is far, far more radical than the mere process of voting every few years. If taken to its logical conclusion it undermines the idea of the nation state (whether or not the speakers at the debates intended it that way) and speaks of a radical freedom much greater than that of the freedom to vote. But Vallance is now so caught up in his own intellectual dishonesties that he cannot see that he has incriminated himself from his own mouth. His 'proof' of a less radical interpretation of the Putney Debates actually operates as a proof of his bias.
In conclusion, this is a book of 'radical' history the purpose of which is to defend the status quo. I urge you to read other books instead (or as well, at least) such as Christopher Hill's wonderful The World Turned Upside Down - a book relatively 'unpolluted' by the marxism Vallance hates so much, and much more inclusive and much more fun than this book.
on 15 October 2014
Excellent. Ignore the "glorious story of kings and queens" nonsense that the Establishment pretends is the history of Britain and read this instead. The brutal suppression of ordinary folk by the State and Church over the centuries is truly shocking. Edward Vallance really brings to life the long, almost unendurable struggle by the weak to secure basic rights. It is a warning to we in the 21st century confronted by right wing rulers who, amongst other things, would like to scrap the European Convention on Human Rights.
on 4 September 2010
If one writes a book called "A Radical History of Britain" and even the Daily Mail and Sunday Express find something to like about it, one must be doing a good job. This honor goes to Edward Vallance, whose popular historical work of this title makes for an invigorating, enjoyable and above all historically reliable read. Although Vallance's intent with the book is clearly to show the extent and importance of radical movements in British history, he does not indulge in overly simplistic narratives of radicalism in which even medieval rebellions might appear as conscious working-class uprisings along Marxist lines, even in embryo. At the same time, Vallance is also not one of the grumpy type of Tory historian who attempts to downplay the classical examples of radicalism and revolt in British history as being all counterproductive or 'simply rioters' and the like. Instead, this book sets out not just an appreciation of the best known examples of radical moments in British history, from Magna Carta to the Chartists and onward, but in particular focuses on establishing the lasting effect on improving the state of the English and later British people they had. Also, the book is strong on showing how the movements themselves in their different historical periods were consciously interconnected, with each new great radical movement deliberately referring to the prior ones in terminology and commemoration.
Although the title refers to a radical history of Britain, the focus is strongly on England. Vallance begins with the Magna Carta, its real background and the mythological way in which it functions as the 'original freedom of the English', as well as the equally invented tradition of the 'Anglo-Saxon freedoms' supposedly obtained by Alfred the Great. From there on, it's on to Wat Tyler, to the 15th century revolts, the Civil War period, Thomas Paine, the British Jacobins, Chartists, and finally women's suffrage. This book differentiates itself from the standard narrative by the strong and consistent emphasis paid to the development of women's freedoms, both in terms of analysis and in terms of the proportion of the book spent on them. The author very rightly makes the slow development of the movement for women's freedom and equality the single most important cause of the book, rather than the sort of tacked-on 'sideshow' it usually becomes in the traditional left narrative. After all, the women's suffrage movement appears often as a latecomer addition to the achievements of the late 19th century electoral reformers, but in reality, it is and was much more than that. Not only are women (over) half the population, making any appeal to a 'movement of the great majority for the benefit of the great majority' an empty phrase if it does not include women's equality; but as Vallance shows, the women's political movement from the late 18th century on had itself a great influence on the development and success of other movements. It is important to show, as the author does, that the Labour Party managed to transform itself from a party still mainly dependent on the Liberals to a mass party in its own right that would obtain government mainly by the financial and political support of the WSPU and the NUWSS, which together had both much more funds and many more members than Labour did!
Vallance's narrative itself is a well-written mixture of a biographical approach to the main figures of each radical movement and a social-political context to the same. As a result, there is a relatively strong concentration on the action of individual heroes and leaders of each movement, and there will be a great many names mentioned; but it is not done in such a manner as losing track of the overall historical development. Edward Vallance is clearly a talented writer of popular history and together with a useful critical but supportive eye towards the historiography of each movement in turn, it makes for a happy combination. One can make some minor objections: the epilogue chapter in which he reflects on the meaning of the radical movements for the British today is a bit weak and seems to detract from the supportive tone of the rest of the work, and one could also point out that the focus is too strongly on English events only, with Ireland, Wales and Scotland, let alone any foreign developments, coming into the picture only insofar as they became part of an English movement. This English-only approach is so strong that even a figure like Karl Marx does not play a role in the work. But if one reads it with that in mind, something of an Englishman's patriotic radical history, it is really worth the read.
on 17 August 2009
This magnificent work is an astonishingly wide-ranging and erudite history of British Radicalism, covering historical episodes as diverse as Magna Carta, the Levellers, Tom Paine, Luddism and the fight for women's suffrage within its monumental scope. Indeed, the real revelation of this book is that Vallance's sophisticated treatment of these topics, particularly virtuoso when dealing with how subsequent ages understood an episode, actually shows that the connections between them are much more complex than one believed when one picked it up. This does make the book a harder intellectual work-out than it might have been in the hands of a weaker historian, for there is relatively little common structure or simple narrative to link the sections, although there are amusing, surprising, obscene or insightful revelations frequently enough that working through it is never a chore. Moreover, coming to a full understanding that the British radical tradition is not so much a single golden thread as a complex multicoloured tapestry repays the effort that this book demands and deserves, and is a lesson I wholeheartedly recommend to both contemporary radicals and their conservative opponents.
Having been inadequately educated and having been brought up amidst Toryism and surrounded by what passes for Tory 'thought,' I have long known that what was missing in my reading at least was more study of the radicals in our British history. I have tried to remedy the omission. I came to admire David Lloyd George for his sticking up for the down-trodden in Wales and elsewhere and for his opposing the war with the Boers and, likewise, James Ramsay Macdonald for his principled but unsuccessful stand against British involvement in war in 1914. Another book has now come along that has helped me again.
'A Radical History of Britain.' by Edward Vallance, is a massive (639 pages, including notes and the index) and important study of British history as seen via radical eyes. It starts (after an 'introduction' that brings in King Alfred) with the Magna Carta. It moves on to the turbulent fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and I can now better distinguish my Jack Cade from my Robert Kett, my John Ball from my Jack Straw, and my Wat Tyler from my Lollards.
The English Revolution - one of my favourite periods of history - is well covered and such as the Levellers, the Diggers and the Muggletonians become people and causes rather than the footnotes to which they are often consigned. No radical history would be worthwhile without chapters on Thomas Paine, the Rights of Man and a description of the torn British attitudes towards the French Revolution. The Peterloo Massacre is given pride of place, as are the Tolpuddle Martyrs and the Chartists. I knew about these but I now know much more.
Later in the nineteenth century, the emergence of the women's suffragists brought to prominence the rights of women as much as the 'rights of man.' The latter didn't always embrace the former. One of my reservations about the book was that too much space is given to the suffragists' cause at the expense of other aspects of radicalism.
Another reservation was that some great radicals are not mentioned at all. For example, Mr Joseph Arch, M.P. (1826 - 1919), founder of the first union of agricultural labourers and an outstanding advocate of better pay and votes for many of the labourers - not won until 1884 - as well as a strong supporter of freedom of religion in the country areas where the Church of England was dominant and the introduction of Parish Councils. I recall in my own lifetime the mutual antagonism of the respective adherents of 'church' and 'chapel.' Sadly, both church and chapel are finding these secular times hard. Parish Councils thrive, however. Maybe that is what some of those early British radicals desired.
All in all, though I had reservations about this book, I recommend it highly. It's a very good read and I continue to learn.
on 16 May 2010
This book is described on the dust jacket as 'rousing, brilliant and hugely readable'. I agree that it is probably brilliant, in the sense of being full of information, but it is not particularly readable. The main reason for this is because it is overstuffed with threads and names and details in a way typical of much modern historical writing, designed to show the writer's erudition and gasp of the material, and trump the view of other historians, but all at the expense of clarity and direction. As a result I didn't find the book 'rousing' either.
Take the chapter on the Pankhursts for example. The average reader is surely not concerned with which particular modern historian or journalist thinks what about them, nor why this author's view on them is superior to the view of other historians, which is what we get at length. We just want to read about the Pankhursts and their role in getting votes for women, as well as the way in which they link up with the broader thread on liberty and rights.
For that reason a far more readable and rousing book on the same broad theme is 'Voice of Protest' by Harold Priestley, still available second hand. Priestley offers a clear narrative and ideological thread which is compelling, with just enough but not too much in the way of information and detail.
In short, this book could benefit from a stronger and clearer narrative thread to keep the reader interested, and fewer distractions and details which are only of interest to the academic historian, and are better kept for more scholarly discussions. It is impressive in its range and scope, but Priestley offers a far more approachable, readable and inspiring read.
on 11 May 2012
I picked this up sight unseen on the basis of the title, which is pretty ambitious. The book lives up to it.
It's a great account of many of the key moments in British history which have gradually increased the equality and freedoms we have. I'm amused by the reviewers who complain it's not complete, or not Marxist enough. It seemed to me to be fairly unbiased, and as comprehensive as it can reasonably be without being a series. Obviously there will be omissions - that's the price you have to pay to cover such a broad sweep of history in one book. The advantage from that is that it gives a fantastic joined-up view of many of the battles for our freedoms that have taken place in different periods.
The best win though, is that it's a readable and enjoyable book (I'm a non-historian), that you can read for pleasure, and just accidentally learn a lot along the way. It's written in an entertaining, fluid style that conveys a lot of information without ever feeling like it's work.
on 24 April 2014
Edward Vallance writes with authority as an academic historian, but is a good story teller, and this is a very readable book. As expected, it is accurate, but not too academically dense, it travels from Alfred the Great to the 20th century, following the people's rebellions. Essential reading for anyone interested in the history of the British people, and how we got to the situation we are in today.
on 4 January 2013
Chose this because I have given it to friends (of different political persuations) in the past who all rate it highly. It is an explanation of how we arrived at so many concepts we take for granted nowadays.
on 26 December 2009
I'm not an historian, but this book is so well-written and informative, and accessible with great depth, that I have gained a great deal by reading it. Vallance gives the background to today's world, an account which is not just interesting, inspiring.