h i s t o r y e dward va l l a n c e
The Revolution Will Not Be Realised he Road Not Taken: How Britain Narrowly Missed a Revolution
By Frank McLynn (The Bodley Head 610pp £25)
Historians are fond of making grand claims for their particular periods of interest: to take just one example, a recent major history of the Glorious Revolution by Steve Pincus, 1688: The First Modern Revolution, contained the claim that it was not only bloodier than the French Revolution but also established the template for all subsequent modern revolutions. Arguments such as this certainly have value in provoking historical debate but they can become wearing when every historical event is described, either by historians or their publicists, as a ‘turning-point’, ‘watershed’, or suchlike. It is refreshing, then, to be confronted with a book whose aim is actually the reverse: to show why Britain has not, contrary to the arguments of historians such as Pincus, experienced a ‘real’ revolution.
In The Road Not Taken, the prolific historian Frank McLynn looks at seven episodes where Britain narrowly avoided experiencing revolutionary change. McLynn’s choices range from the medieval period (the Peasants’ Revolt) to the modern (the General Strike). Erudite and authoritative, the book is a pleasure to read. The sections on 1926 are particularly strong, filled with vivid (and very funny) pen-portraits of Labour figures such as J H ‘Jimmy’ Thomas and Beatrice Webb.
However, while some of the moments chosen as ‘nearly revolutions’ make perfect sense (1381 and 1848 being good examples), other episodes seem to offer a poorer fit with McLynn’s overall argument. It does seem surprising that a work on ‘revolutions that didn’t happen’ should devote two chapters to the Pilgrimage of Grace of 1536 but only a couple of pages to the rebellions of 1549. Not only were the latter disturbances more widespread, they also clearly had the potential for more far-reaching sociopolitical change, evident in the rebels’ employment of radical notions of ‘commonwealth’ and in the (admittedly very short-lived) possibility of a new partnership between Crown and Commons.
The inclusion of two chapters on the Jacobite rebellions also seems a choice driven largely by McLynn’s own personal interests (he has already published four books on the subject). It is fair to say that most eighteenth-century historians would now accept that Jacobitism did pose a significant threat to the Hanoverian regime and that it continued to do so after the defeat of the ’45. Most historians would also agree that Jacobitism’s appeal extended beyond an enduring sense of loyalty to the Catholic Stuart dynasty to encompass a much wider set of grievances and aspirations. Yet, without endorsing E P Thompson’s view of counter-factual history as Geschichtswissenschlopff (‘unhistorical shit’), it does seem to be stretching a point to argue that something that didn’t happen (the Jacobite overthrow of the Hanoverian monarchy) was more significant than something that did (the Revolution of 1688–9).
Doubtless, in dismissing the Glorious Revolution and the American Revolution as not really revolutions at all, McLynn is just indulging in a little historical iconoclasm. But his redefinition of 1688–9 as no more than an intra-elite power struggle and of the Civil War as, at most, a revolution manqué raises some broader issues. In his conclusion, McLynn wisely eschews ahistorical arguments that suggest that Britain’s unrevolutionary past is a consequence of its people’s innate conservatism or some other form of cultural ‘exceptionalism’. Instead, he makes two arguments about the unrevolutionary nature of British history. The first is simply to stress the importance of contingency – this is just the way things fell out. But McLynn, though he approaches them with laudable caution, is not prepared to abandon general theories of revolution. Ultimately, he suggests, Britain did not experience a major revolution because most of the factors that precipitate ‘types 2 & 3’ revolutions (revolutions that threaten or lead to social and economic transformation) were no longer present: the peasantry no longer existed and the ancien régime had already been swept away. The key catalysts of social and political strife – an unreformed, unresponsive state and a rigidly demarcated class structure – were absent from modern Britain.
McLynn makes a very persuasive case, on the way dealing with other potential ‘safety-valves’ (such as the British Empire and popular religion) that may have helped alleviate political tensions. Yet his argument paradoxically seems to re-emphasise the importance of Britain’s revolutionary past, specifically the two revolutions of the seventeenth century, in effecting these changes. This is despite the fact that McLynn is only prepared to mark the Civil War as a ‘type 1’ (purely political) revolution; 1688–9 gets a big, fat zero. The grading, however, is surely affected by a certain amount of chronological foreshortening. The discussion of England’s mid-century revolution effectively stops in 1649 and there is no real discussion here of the Glorious Revolution. Yet, as McLynn himself reminds us in the book’s appendix, revolutions need to be judged ‘by their outcome rather than by the intentions, perceptions, ideologies and neuroses of the actors’.
Some of the most significant ‘outcomes’ of revolutions are products of the revolutionary process themselves. After all, a history of the French Revolution that stopped in 1789 might look considerably less revolutionary than one that ended, say, in 1793. Likewise, on its own the change of monarchs in 1688–9 might appear relatively insignificant, but the knock-on consequences of the dynastic revolution – financial, military, political and social – were profound. William of Orange’s goal was to beat Louis XIV, not to create a British imperial state with parliament at its centre, supported by an urbanised, commercialised society. That is, nonetheless, what this allegedly insignificant palace coup ultimately produced.
While Britain’s history might not be as unrevolutionary as Frank McLynn suggests, he is certainly right to remind us in this intelligent, provocative book that the lack of a revolution in modern British history is something to be very thankful for. As Chairman Mao noted, whatever else a revolution might be, it ’s no dinner party. To order this book for £20, see the Literary Review bookshop on page 41
Literary Review | j u l y 2 0 1 2 12 h i s t o r y max e g r emont
Alnwick Calling As They Really Were: The Citizens of Alnwick 1831
By Keith Middlemas (Frances Lincoln 176pp £25)
Can you freeze a moment of history? Keith Middlemas surely gets close to doing so in this absorbing book. He achieves this partly through meticulous research, and partly through a series of sketched portraits of the inhabitants of Alnwick in Northumberland, drawn by a local artist, Percy Forster, in 1831 and handed down to Middlemas by his grandfather, a solicitor in the town.
Middlemas came late to them. Previously he has written about the political and economic history of modern Europe and the UK, although these sketches lay in the back of his mind, like a youthful memory. His learning adds greatly to this book as he draws on the methods of Ranke, Marx, William Morris and Fernand Braudel. This is local history written with broad knowledge and sophistication.
As They Really Were also has a moving sense of coming home. Although Middlemas has worked mostly in London and as a professor at Sussex University, he grew up in Alnwick, shaped by Northumberland’s wild and beautiful landscape, by its atmosphere – near to Scotland, hardy yet scornful of Calvinism – and by its combination of heavy industry and estates large enough to be small kingdoms.
In Percy Forster, Middlemas has an artist who can capture not only likeness but character. Forster, born in 1801, exhibited at the Royal Academy; these drawings almost speak to you through their ability to show movement and expression. 97-year-old Jackie Thaw, for instance, advances on two sticks, the tails of his coat dropping behind his thin legs, an outsize top hat above a nose that hints at years of contented drinking. The crippled William Cleghorn is truculent on crutches; the Duke of Northumberland, head of the Percy family and Alnwick’s maharajah, seems jauntily urbane, walking stick on his shoulder like a soldier’s rifle; Colonel Lindsay, a natural autocrat, looks as if he is inspecting a parade. All this, as Middlemas says, recalls the French historian Jules Michelet’s wish to bring back the meaning and desires of dead lives.
In what state did these people enter the 1830s, a decade of contentious parliamentary reform and the beginning of Victorian Britain? Alnwick, a town of some 5,000
Hector Thompson, shepherd to the late Duke inhabitants, was fortunate, with a thriving, small middle class of shopkeepers and businessmen, and even its own historians to bolster civic pride.
Prosperity depended mostly on the grain and cattle trade of the surrounding farmland, much of which had been owned since the fourteenth century by the Percy family, who lived in the huge castle that dominated the town. If the farmers did
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£10 uk (£12 elsewhere) inc. p&p email: firstname.lastname@example.org well, the town benefited; in the event of a bad harvest or falling grain, cattle and timber prices, they (and the town) suffered. The Percys, like many landowning families, ran an early version of the welfare state. A monument was put up by Alnwick’s grateful citizens to the Duke of Northumberland, who remitted rents in the hard year of 1816; schools were endowed by the duke and the duchess; a Mechanics’ Institute was supported by the Tory duke and his neighbour, the Liberal Earl Grey.
Emboldened by the atmosphere of reform, some locals were starting to challenge the duke’s ancient status and rights; but this was no radical hotbed, and the movements of the Percys were reported like a court circular in the local press. In an age of slow travel and communication, Alnwick had a close-knit, permanent community. Rightly, Middlemas avoids nostalgia. There was legal and illegal violence: British penalties for poaching were the most brutal in Europe, with battles between the gentry and gangs of poachers common occurrences, as were burglary, armed robbery and drunkenness in and outside the town’s forty taverns and pubs. At a time of grinding toil, scanty diet, low wages, disease and bad sanitation, many of the poor dropped out of sight when philanthropy could not cope with them. No paupers are shown in Percy Forster’s portraits.
Forster’s people seem to come from a solid, confident world. The repeal of the Corn Laws, which ushered in a long agricultural depression, lay in the future, and Alnwick still had no railway and little emigration to the mines or to industrial Tyneside. Continental wars or revolutions seemed to be over. Neat smallholdings and farms rented from a benevolent landlord kept at bay the rick-burning riots that occurred further south. Children still played with hoops and tumbled about in the streets, free as yet from the stifling evangelicalism of the mid-Victorian age. There is a sense of predictability. The Victorian and Edwardian years would bring greater wealth and opportunity but also anxiety and doubt. Keith Middlemas’s twenty-firstcentury text and Percy Forster’s nineteenthcentury drawings bring back a world about to be pitched into dizzying change. To order this book for £20, see the Literary Review bookshop on page 41
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