By Chris Bambery
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A Radical History of Britain

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Edward Vallance, Little, Brown; £25
Issue 338

I read this book as the corruption scandal about MPs’ expenses reached a climax. It fuelled my mounting frustration at commentators who repeatedly talked of the “very British” reaction to it all, in contrast to those dastardly continentals who’d be storming the palace of Westminster.

What Edward Vallance provides are clear examples of all sorts of officials being dragged out by angry protesters and decapitated on the streets of London.

In 1391, in the wake of the Black Death, as the aristocracy tried to reimpose feudal duties on a peasantry enjoying greater bargaining strength, and amid the rising tide of the enclosure of common land and the imposition of a poll tax, the English peasantry rose up.

The Kent rebels, led by Wat Tyler, took London, seizing and beheading the chancellor of the exchequer and other government officials on Tower Hill.

The Peasants’ Revolt had radical demands, as this book points out, though it did not challenge the existence of the monarchy. King Richard II murdered Tyler during negotiations and persuaded his followers to quit London.

Yet aristocratic fear of any repeat led wages and conditions to rise in subsequent years.

In 1450 Kentish rebels, led by Jack Cade, once more marched on London, this time against the high taxes imposed to fund disastrous wars with France. They took the city. Once more the rebellion was quelled by a false royal promise of pardon. Cade was executed as “order” was again imposed.

Twenty five English counties were involved in the “Kett’s rebellion” of 1549 over increasing enclosure. Kett’s forces took Norwich. The government was able to deal with each area of resistance in turn but on each of these three occasions the “mob” had effectively ruled in parallel with royal power. And of course parliamentary rule was itself won by the revolution of the 1640s.

A Radical History of Britain details the ideas of Tom Paine and the Chartists, and explains the long fight for liberty and the vote. Vallance also charts the rise of the Labour Party and gives a good account of the suffragettes. He catalogues the fight against fascism and ends with praise for the Stop the War movement.

I thoroughly enjoyed it. Now, where’s my pitchfork?

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