Friday, October 5, 2012

Revolutionary England, Almost

Frank McLynn writes about seven times when England could have experienced a complete revolution--somehow passing over the Civil War and the Glorious Revolution of 1688. He includes the Pilgrimage of Grace and the Jacobite uprising (the '45) among the seven. As Nigel Jones comments in this review, the premise is a little weak, and the selection might be questionable:
It is axiomatic in British history that this country – unlike many European neighbours – does not ‘do’ revolutions. This assumption is at least arguable. If the Civil War of the 1640s, resulting in the quasi-legal killing of a king, and his replacement by a military dictatorship with millennial overtones, was not a revolution, then the term has no meaning. Ditto the 1688 ‘Glorious Revolution’. Yet according to Frank McLynn, neither of these upheavals constituted a true revolution, which, he argues, Britain has never experienced.

His book focuses on seven moments when he claims Britain came closest to “the possibility for overthrow of a regime and a drastic change of direction politically, economically, socially”: the Peasants’ Revolt, Jack Cade’s 1450 rebellion, the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536, the Civil War, the 1745/6 Jacobite uprising; the Chartists of the 1840s, and the 1926 General Strike. . . .

The examples McLynn lumps into his revolutionary sack are questionable: if the Pilgrimage, why not the Prayer Book or Kett’s rebellion? And if Chartism, why not the era of Peterloo and the Cato Street conspiracy? This is also very old-fashioned history, with heroes and villains praised – or more frequently damned – featuring Henry VIII, Cromwell and (bizarrely) Stanley Baldwin in a rogues’ gallery of tyranny.

As to why Britain avoided revolution, McLynn discounts such theories as its insular isolation, its small professional army, the popularity of its modern monarchy, or the myth that its people were less violent than their continental counterparts (before the 18th century the reverse was the case). He identifies a few factors as crucial: Britain’s early industrialisation; its acquisition of an empire to export its surplus workforce; and finally the preference for gradualist reformism to revolutionary activism, exemplified by the popularity of Methodism over Marxism.

Whenever I think of book about revolutions, I think of Susan Dunn's Sister Revolutions: French Lightning, American Light, published in 2000:

The American and French revolutions presented the world with two very different visions of democracy. Although both professed similar Enlightenment ideals of freedom, equality, and justice and set similar political agendas, there were also fundamental differences. The French sought a complete break with a thousand years of history; the Americans were content to preserve many aspects of their English heritage. Why did the two revolutions follow such different trajectories? And what lessons do they offer us about democracy today? In lucid narrative style, Dunn captures the personalities and lives of the great figures of both revolutions, and shows how their stories added up to make two very different events.

I completely agree with the assessment of this reviewer: "Everybody should read this book. It offers a lively education in a small package. Then, if there's time, reread Federalist 10 and 51, as well as Simon Schama's book Citizens. What the French took from the Americans, Lord Acton once wrote, "was their theory of revolution not their theory of government — their cutting but not their sewing.""

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