IN HIS conclusion to The Road Not Taken Frank McLynn reflects on the reasons why the British Isles, unlike so many of our European cousins, have not experienced a “true revolution”.
It is not because we are unusually pacific. The mobs of the 18th century and their direct legatees in modern English football hooliganism negate that delusion. It is not because our peasantry and proletariat have been treated with exceptional kindliness by our aristocracy, industrialists and ruling classes. It is not, in short, because we lacked the reason or the means to revolt.
McLynn’s subtitle, “How Britain Narrowly Missed a Revolution”, summarises his thesis. In one particular it is a questionable assumption. It is possible to argue that between the start of the Civil War in 1642 and the deposition of James II of England and Ireland and VII of Scotland in 1688, the British Isles did achieve a revolution in slow motion. But Frank McLynn’s authoritative and fascinating account of seven “failed” British revolutions deserves the benefit of the doubt. Whether it was because of our cold, wet climate, our lack of café philosophising or our stubbornly exceptionalist insularity, we have never managed a comprehensive destruction of our established ruling classes. There has been no Year One of the British Revolutionary Calendar.
McLynn’s seven failures are the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, the Jack Cade rebellion of 1450, the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536, the Civil War of the 1640s, the Jacobite Rising of 1745-1746, the Chartist Movement of 1838-1850 and the General Strike of 1926. After the collapse of the last of those, the author opines, there will be no more attempted revolutions in Britain, and nor should there be – we live now in democratic ease, at the end of history.
The Peasants’ Revolt was a deservedly celebrated milestone. McLynn demonstrates that it was very far from being an isolated uprising by Kentish and Essex malcontents. The revolt inspired insurrections as far north as York and Scarborough and as far west as Winchester and Bridgwater. But the men of the south-east came very close to complete success, all on their own. They overran London, blockaded the monarchy and its loyalists in the Tower, and seemed to have the reins of state in their grasp. They had genuinely egalitarian aspirations, evidenced by their insistence on the redistribution of land and the common ownership of property.
Their mystic intellectual John Ball uttered words that, their deism apart, would not have been out of place in Paris 400 years later: “When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman? From the beginning all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude came in by the unjust oppression of naughty men … And therefore I exhort you to consider that now the time is come, appointed to us by God, in which ye may (if ye will) cast off the yoke of bondage, and recover liberty.”
The failure of the Peasants’ Revolt is correctly attributed to a British sentiment that is still recognisable (and to some, still as confounding) in the 21st century. Wat Tyler and his associates believed in the monarchy. So far from considering the teenage Richard II to be their enemy, they thought him their friend and ally under God.
Their awareness of class warfare extended to the landowning knights and the ecclesiastical authorities, but stopped short of the supposedly impartial throne. That is why they chopped off the heads of the Archbishop of Canterbury and sundry wealthy men, but believed every single blatant lie and false promise uttered by the 14-year-old king, right up to the supposed parley at which Richard had Tyler ambushed and killed, and following which the Peasants’ Revolt was cruelly suppressed.
The same mistake would not be repeated in 1649. By then the forces of Parliament had learned to recognise the monarch as their incorrigible foe, and Charles I was decapitated.
We have come to recognise certain ingredients in a modern revolution. They include the military defeat of the established regime by a people’s army, the execution or dethronement of an emperor, king or queen, the establishment of a republic, the emergence in the public domain of a swarm of libertarian groups and philosophies, and the gradual retreat of their leading figures into a new authoritarianism justified by the stringencies of effective government.
Oliver Cromwell’s Commonwealth contained in its 11 short years all of those phenomena. Although their parliaments had not yet been united, it included Scotland as well as England. When the axe fell on Charles, Scotland also was left without a monarchy, and after 1653 the republic was known as the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland.
By standard measurements, there had been a revolution in the British Isles. The abiding question is why, after Cromwell’s death in 1658, his revolutionary regime collapsed so quickly and so cravenly, and Charles’ son was invited to regain his late father’s throne – and to wreak terrible revenge upon his family’s persecutors.
McLynn draws convincing parallels between Cromwell, Napoleon, Lenin and Stalin, all of whose dictatorships, once ended, left a power vacuum. Stalin was at least succeeded by a powerful political movement and a substantial autocracy. Oliver Cromwell was not.
The squires who led his revolution delivered few notable reforms or improvements to the lives of British citizens. At the end, the Restoration merely substituted one head of state for another.
The true legacy of the British Republic was a real but almost imperceptible destruction of the credibility of Divine Right. When, 28 years after the end of the Commonwealth, another Stuart king appeared untrustworthy, he kept his head but lost his throne, and another royal family was imported which accepted the constitutional rights of Parliament. Revolution in Britain mutated into gradual reform.
McLynn’s earlier books have examined aspects of the Jacobite rebellions of the late 17th and 18th centuries. He believes that the mother of them all, the ’45 Rising, deserves to be remembered as a true revolution rather than a dynastical dispute. McLynn has a lot of time for Charles Edward Stuart. He believes the Young Pretender could have taken London, but was betrayed by his advisors and by the French.
If the Jacobite army had marched from Edinburgh down the east coast of England, McLynn suggests, it would have attracted serious support from the common people of Tyneside. In any event – and this does make sense – it was a mistake to retreat from Derby after no military defeat and with the south of England in panic.
McLynn is perceptive about the changing faces of Jacobitism. By 1745 the movement had more than simple sentimental appeal to recusant Catholics. Persuasive as the author is, however, it remains difficult to visualise Charles Stuart as a Fidel Castro of the 18th century.
Similarly, the trade union leaders who called the General Strike in 1926 were not – to the regret of many of their members – anxious to overthrow the state. They wanted a fair deal for the miners, and they quickly abandoned even that modest objective.
As we have come to expect, McLynn has delivered a scholarly and hugely informative book. It is packed with convincing characterisations and informed throughout by the author’s sympathy for the downtrodden and dispossessed. His thesis of failed revolution will not win universal agreement.
But as a study of seven great British upheavals, The Road Not Taken is unlikely to be bettered.
The Road Not Taken: How Britain Narrowly Missed a Revolution
by Frank McLynn
Bodley Head, 624pp, £25
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Weather for Edinburgh
Saturday 25 May 2013
Temperature: 6 C to 17 C
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Wind direction: West
Temperature: 9 C to 16 C
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