Posts Tagged ‘Bertrand Russell’

Hyper Evolution – The Rise of the Robots Part 2

August 5, 2017

Wednesday evening I sat down to watch the second part of the BBC 4 documentary, Hyperevolution: the Rise of the Robots, in which the evolutionary biologist Ben Garrod and the electronics engineer Prof. Danielle George trace the development of robots from the beginning of the 20th century to today. I blogged about the first part of the show on Tuesday in a post about another forthcoming programme on the negative consequences of IT and automation, Secrets of Silicon Valley. The tone of Hyperevolution is optimistic and enthusiastic, with one or two qualms from Garrod, who fears that robots may pose a threat to humanity. The programme states that robots are an evolving species, and that we are well on the way to developing true Artificial Intelligence.

Last week, Garrod went off to meet a Japanese robotics engineer, whose creation had been sent up to keep a Japanese astronaut company of the International Space Station. Rocket launches are notoriously expensive, and space is a very, very expensive premium. So it was no surprise that the robot was only about four inches tall. It’s been designed as a device to keep people company, which the programme explained was a growing problem in Japan. Japan has a falling birthrate and thus an aging population. The robot is programmed to ask and respond to questions, and to look at the person, who’s speaking to it. It doesn’t really understand what is being said, but simply gives an answer according to its programming. Nevertheless, it gives the impression of being able to follow and respond intelligently to conversation. It also has the very ‘cute’ look that characterizes much Japanese technology, and which I think comes from the conventions of Manga art. Garrod noted how it was like baby animals in having a large head and eyes, which made the parents love them.

It’s extremely clever, but it struck me as being a development of the Tamagotchi, the robotic ‘pet’ which was all over the place a few years ago. As for companionship, I could help thinking of a line from Andrei Tarkovsky’s epic Solaris, based on the novel by the Polish SF writer, Stanislaw Lem. The film follow the cosmonaut, Kris, on his mission to a space station orbiting the planet Solaris. The planet’s vast ocean is alive, and has attempted to establish contact with the station’s crew by dredging their memories, and sending them replicas of people they know. The planet does this to Kris, creating a replica of a former girlfriend. At one point, pondering the human condition in a vast, incomprehensible cosmos, Kris states ‘There are only four billion of us…a mere handful. We don’t need spaceships, aliens…What man needs is man.’ Or words to that effect. I forget the exact quote. I dare say robots will have their uses caring for and providing mental stimulation for the elderly, but this can’t replace real, human contact.

George went to America to NASA, where the space agency is building Valkyrie to help with the future exploration of Mars in 2030. Valkyrie is certainly not small and cute. She’s six foot, and built very much like the police machines in Andrew Blomkamp’s Chappie. George stated that they were trying to teach the robot how to walk through a door using trial and error. But each time the machine stumbled. The computer scientists then went through the robot’s programming trying to find and correct the error. After they thought they had solved it, they tried again. And again the machine stumbled.

George, however, remained optimistic. She told ‘those of you, who think this experiment is a failure’, that this was precisely what the learning process entailed, as the machine was meant to learn from its mistakes, just like her own toddler now learning to walk. She’s right, and I don’t doubt that the robot will eventually learn to walk upright, like the humanoid robots devised by their competitors over at DARPA. However, there’s no guarantee that this will be the case. People do learn from their mistakes, but if mistakes keep being made and can’t be correctly, then it’s fair to say that a person has failed to learn from them. And if a robot fails to learn from its mistakes, then it would also be fair to say that the experiment has failed.

Holy Joe Smith! I was also a reminded of another piece of classic SF in this segment. Not film, but 2000 AD’s ‘Robohunter’ strip. In its debut story, the aged robohunter, Sam Slade – ‘that’s S-L-A-Y-E-D to you’ – his robometer, Kewtie and pilot, Kidd, are sent to Verdus to investigate what has happened to the human colonists. Verdus is so far away, that robots have been despatched to prepare it for human colonization, and a special hyperdrive has to be used to get Slade there. This rejuvenates him from an old man in his seventies to an energetic guy in his thirties. Kidd, his foul mouthed, obnoxious pilot, who is in his 30s, is transformed into a foul-mouthed, obnoxious, gun-toting baby.

The robot pioneers have indeed prepared Verdus for human habitation. They’ve built vast, sophisticated cities, with shops and apartments just waiting to be occupied, along with a plethora of entertainment channels, all of whose hosts and performers are robotic. However, their evolution has outpaced that of humanity, so that they are now superior, both physically and mentally. They continue to expect humans to be the superiors, and so when humans have come to Verdus, they’ve imprisoned, killed and experimented on them as ‘Sims’ – simulated humans, not realizing that these are the very beings they were created to serve. In which case, Martian colonists should beware. And carry a good blaster, just in case.

Garrod and George then went to another lab, where the robot unnerved Garrod by looking at him, and following him around with its eye. George really couldn’t understand why this should upset him. Talking about it afterwards, Garrod said that he was worried about the threat robots pose to humanity. George replied by stating her belief that they also promise to bring immense benefits, and that this was worth any possible danger. And that was the end of that conversation before they went on to the next adventure.

George’s reply isn’t entirely convincing. This is what opponents of nuclear power were told back in the ’50s and ’60s, however. Through nuclear energy we were going to have ships and planes that could span the globe in a couple of minutes, and electricity was going to be so plentiful and cheap that it would barely be metered. This failed, because the scientists and politicians advocating nuclear energy hadn’t really worked out what would need to be done to isolate and protect against the toxic waste products. Hence nearly six decades later, nuclear power and the real health and environmental problems it poses are still very much controversial issues. And there’s also that quote from Bertrand Russell. Russell was a very staunch member of CND. When he was asked why he opposed nuclear weapons, he stated that it was because they threatened to destroy humanity. ‘And some of us think that would be a very great pity’.

Back in America, George went to a bar to meet Alpha, a robot created by a British inventor/showman in 1932. Alpha was claimed to be an autonomous robot, answering questions by choosing appropriate answers from recordings on wax cylinders. George noted that this was extremely advanced for the time, if true. Finding the machine resting in a display case, filled with other bizarre items like bongo drums, she took an access plate off the machine to examine its innards. She was disappointed. Although there were wires to work the machine’s limbs, there were no wax cylinders or any other similar devices. She concluded that the robot was probably worked by a human operator hiding behind a curtain.

Then it was off to Japan again, to see another robot, which, like Valkyrie, was learning for itself. This was to be a robot shop assistant. In order to teach it to be shop assistant, its creators had built an entire replica camera shop, and employed real shop workers to play out their roles, surrounded by various cameras recording the proceedings. So Garrod also entered the scenario, where he pretended to be interested in buying a camera, asking questions about shutter speeds and such like. The robot duly answered his questions, and moved about the shop showing him various cameras at different prices. Like the robotic companion, the machine didn’t really know or understand what it was saying or doing. It was just following the motions it had learned from its human counterparts.

I was left wondering how realistic the role-playing had actually been. The way it was presented on camera, everything was very polite and straightforward, with the customer politely asking the price, thanking the assistant and moving on to ask to see the next of their wares. I wondered if they had ever played at being a difficult customer in front of it. Someone who came in and, when asked what they were looking for, sucked their teeth and said, ‘I dunno really,’ or who got angry at the prices being asked, or otherwise got irate at not being able to find something suitable.

Through the programme, Japanese society is held up as being admirably progressive and accepting of robots. Earlier in that edition, Garrod finished a piece on one Japanese robot by asking why it was that a car manufacturer was turning to robotics. The answer’s simple. The market for Japanese cars and motorcycles is more or less glutted, and they’re facing competition from other countries, like Indonesia and Tokyo. So the manufacturers are turning to electronics.

The positive attitude the Japanese have to computers and robots is also questionable. The Japanese are very interested in developing these machines, but actually don’t like using them themselves. The number of robots in Japan can easily be exaggerated, as they include any machine tool as a robot. And while many British shops and businesses will use a computer, the Japanese prefer to do things the old way by hand. For example, if you go to a post office in Japan, the assistant, rather than look something up on computer, will pull out a ledger. Way back in the 1990s someone worked out that if the Japanese were to mechanise their industry to the same extent as the West, they’d throw half their population out of work.

As for using robots, there’s a racist and sexist dimension to this. The Japanese birthrate it falling, and so there is real fear of a labour shortage. Robots are being developed to fill it. But Japanese society is also extremely nationalistic and xenophobic. Only people, whose parents are both Japanese, are properly Japanese citizens with full civil rights. There are third-generation Koreans, constituting an underclass, who, despite having lived there for three generations, are still a discriminated against underclass. The Japanese are developing robots, so they don’t have to import foreign workers, and so face the problems and strains of a multicultural society.

Japanese society also has some very conservative attitudes towards women. So much so, in fact, that the chapter on the subject in a book I read two decades ago on Japan, written by a Times journalist, was entitled ‘A Woman’s Place Is In the Wrong’. Married women are expected to stay at home to raise the kids, and the removal of a large number of women from the workplace was one cause of the low unemployment rate in Japan. There’s clearly a conflict between opening up the workplace to allow more married women to have a career, and employing more robots.

Garrod also went off to Bristol University, where he met the ‘turtles’ created by the neuroscientist, Grey Walter. Walter was interested in using robots to explore how the brain functioned. The turtles were simple robots, consisting of a light-detecting diode. The machine was constructed to follow and move towards light sources. As Garrod himself pointed out, this was like the very primitive organisms he’d studied, which also only had a light-sensitive spot.

However, the view that the human brain is really a form of computer have also been discredited by recent research. Hubert L. Dreyfus in his book, What Computers Still Can’t Do: A Critique of Artificial Intelligence, describes how, after the failure of Good Old Fashioned A.I. (GOFAI), computer engineers then hoped to create it through exploring the connections between different computing elements, modelled on the way individual brain cells are connected to each by a complex web of neurons. Way back in 1966, Walter Rosenblith of MIT, one of the pioneers in the use of computers in neuropsychology, wrote

We no longer hold the earlier widespread belief that the so-called all-or-none law from nerve impulses makes it legitimate to think of relays as adequate models for neurons. In addition, we have become increasingly impressed with the interactions that take place among neurons: in some instances a sequence of nerve impulses may reflect the activities of literally thousands of neurons in a finely graded manner. In a system whose numerous elements interact so strongly with each other, the functioning of the system is not necessarily best understood by proceeding on a neuron-by-neuron basis as if each had an independent personality…Detailed comparisons of the organization of computer systems and brains would prove equally frustrating and inconclusive. (Dreyfus, What Computers Still Can’t Do, p. 162).

Put simply, brain’s don’t work like computers. This was written fifty years ago, but it’s fair to ask if the problem still exists today, despite some of the highly optimistic statements to the contrary.

Almost inevitably, driverless cars made their appearance. The Germans have been developing them, and Garrod went for a spin in one, surrounded by two or three engineers. He laughed with delight when the car told him he could take his hands off the wheel and let the vehicle continue on its own. However, the car only works in the comparatively simply environment of the autobahn. When it came off the junction, back into the normal road system, the machine told him to start driving himself. So, not quite the victory for A.I. it at first appears.

Garrod did raise the question of the legal issues. Who would be responsible if the car crashed while working automatically – the car, or the driver? The engineers told him it would be the car. Garrod nevertheless concluded that segment by noting that there were still knotty legal issues around it. But I don’t know anyone who wants one, or necessarily would trust one to operate on its own. A recent Counterpunch article I blogged about stated that driverless cars are largely being pushed by a car industry, trying to expand a market that is already saturated, and the insurance companies. The latter see it as a golden opportunity to charge people, who don’t want one, higher premiums on the grounds that driverless cars are safer.

Garrod also went to meet researchers in A.I. at Plymouth University, who were also developing a robot which as part of their research into the future creation of genuine consciousness in machines. Talking to one of the scientists afterwards, Garrod heard that there could indeed be a disruptive aspect to this research. Human society was based on conscious decision making. But if the creation of consciousness was comparatively easy, so that it could be done in an afternoon, it could have a ‘disruptive’ effect. It may indeed be the case that machines will one day arise which will be conscious, sentient entities, but this does not mean that the development of consciousness is easy. You think of the vast ages of geologic time it took evolution to go from simple, single-celled organisms to complex creatures like worms, fish, insects and so on, right up to the emergence of Homo Sapiens Sapiens within the last 200,000 years.

Nevertheless, the programme ended with Garrod and George talking the matter over on the banks of the Thames in London. George concluded that the rise of robots would bring immense benefits and the development of A.I. was ‘inevitable’.

This is very optimistic, to the point where I think you could be justified by calling it hype. I’ve said in a previous article how Dreyfus’ book describes how robotics scientists and engineers have made endless predictions since Norbert Wiener and Alan Turing, predicting the rise of Artificial Intelligence, and each time they’ve been wrong. He’s also described the sheer rage with which many of those same researchers respond to criticism and doubt. In one passage he discusses a secret meeting of scientists at MIT to discuss A.I., in which a previous edition of his book came up. The scientists present howled at it with derision and abuse. He comments that why scientists should persist in responding so hostilely to criticism, and to persist in their optimistic belief that they will eventually solve the problem of A.I., is a question for psychology and the sociology of knowledge.

But there are also very strong issues about human rights, which would have to be confronted if genuine A.I. was ever created. Back in the 1970s or early ’80s, the British SF magazine, New Voyager, reviewed Roderick Random. Subtitled, ‘The Education of a Young Machine’, this is all about the creation of a robot child. The reviewer stated that the development of truly sentient machines would constitute the return of slavery. A similar point was made in Star Trek: The Next Generation, in an episode where another ship’s captain wished to take Data apart, so that he could be properly investigated and more like him built. Data refused, and so the captain sued to gain custody of him, arguing that he wasn’t really sentient, and so should be legally considered property. And in William Gibson’s Neuromancer, the book that launched the Cyberpunk SF genre, the hero, Case, finds out that the vast computer for which he’s working, Wintermute, has Swiss citizenship, but its programming are the property of the company that built it. This, he considers, is like humans having their thoughts and memories made the property of a corporation.

Back to 2000 AD, the Robusters strip portrayed exactly what such slavery would mean for genuinely intelligent machines. Hammerstein, an old war droid, and his crude sidekick, the sewer droid Rojaws and their fellows live with the constant threat of outliving their usefulness, and taking a trip down to be torn apart by the thick and sadistic Mek-Quake. Such a situation should, if it ever became a reality, be utterly intolerable to anyone who believes in the dignity of sentient beings.

I think we’re a long way off that point just yet. And despite Prof. George’s statements to the contrary, I’m not sure we will ever get there. Hyperevolution is a fascinating programme, but like many of the depictions of cutting edge research, it’s probably wise to take some of its optimistic pronouncements with a pinch of salt.

Patriotism, Idealism and Cynicism in First World War Britain

January 8, 2014

Jubilant Crowd War

Photograph of a British Crowd Cheering the Outbreak of the First World War.

I’ve posted three pieces this week and reblogged others from Vox Political, criticising Michael Gove’s comments in the Daily Mail, trying to defend World War One as ‘a noble cause’, and the courage, honour and patriotism of the troops and the tactical expertise and competence of their leaders from misrepresentation by ‘left-wing academics’ and biased TV programmes like Blackadder and films like Oh, What A Lovely War! Far from the British public being alienated and cynical about the War, they actively supported it as a ‘noble Cause’, according to Gove. Mike, the Angry Yorkshireman over at Another Angry Voice, and myself have already demolished this, complete with quotes from some of the soldiers, like Harry Patch, Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, were fought in the War. Now I want to go further, and examine where Gove possibly got the impression that most people supported the War.

Now there was massive enthusiasm amongst the British for the War when it broke out. The photograph above shows a crowd thronging the street cheering it when the news broke. Such crowds gathered in Parliament Square and the Mall, and sang ‘Land of Hope and Glory’. This enthusiasm was shared by many artists, writers and intellectuals. Malcolm Brown, in his book Tommy Goes to War, recorded one artist as saying, ‘Would they (the Germans) invade us, I wondered. By George! If they should they’d find us a t5ougher nut to crack than they expected. My bosom swelled and I clenched my fist. I wished to something desperate for the cause of England’.

The modernist writer and artists, Wyndham Lewis, wrote ‘You must not miss a war … You cannot afford to miss that experience’. Lewis, it should be said, was an admirer of the Italian Futurists, who praised war and combat, calling it the ‘sole hygiene of the world’ and denouncing anything that smacked of pacificism, liberalism and feminism as ‘passeism’. Lewis founded the Vorticists, a similar movement in Britain, and was later strongly suspected of Fascist sympathies because of his authoritarian political views, expressed in the book, The Art of Being Ruled.

This war fever was also shared by Baden-Powell and the Scouts. The motto ‘Be Prepared’ is an abbreviation of Baden-Powell’s statement urging his movement’s young members to ‘Be prepared to die for your country … so that when the time comes you may charge home with confidence, not caring whether you are to be killed or not!’ Baden-Powell had other, highly unpleasant political views. Among the reasons he founded the scouts was to indoctrinate working-class boys with healthy, British Conservative patriotic values to take them away from Socialism, trade unionism and other subversive ideas. His idea of using a uniformed organisation, patterned on the military to inculcate its members with comradeship, patriotism and social solidarity, and support for militaristic, authoritarian politics was later taken up by the Fascist movements on the Continent. It’s because of this that Baden-Powell has been the subject of criticism in parts of the Left.

Poems celebrating the War, and urging soldiers to join up, were printed in the press, such as Julian Grenfell’s Into Battle, which was published in the Times in 1915. This had the lines

The naked earth is warm with Spring
And with green grass and bursting trees
Leans to the sun’s gaze glorying
And quivers in the sunny breeze;
And life is colour and warmth and light,
And a striving ever more for these;
And he is dead who will not fight;
And who dies fighting has increase….

As the War went on, and lasted far longer than the six months they originally believed it would last, disillusionment and despair set in. A Radio 4 programme on the First World War noted that this started a year or two after the outbreak of the War, when the younger brothers of men already at the front became increasingly aware of the reality of the War from their brothers’ letters and conversation when home on leave, and became very much afraid for their own lives. Among those who expressed this disillusionment was Isaac Rosenberg. In his poem, Dead Man’s Dump, Rosenberg wrote

‘The wheels lurched over sprawled dead
But pained them not, though their bones crunched,
Their shut mouths made no moan.
They lie there huddled, friend and foeman,
Man born of man, and born of woman,
And shells go crying over them
From night till night and now.’

D.H. Lawrence, in Kangaroo,sharply criticised government propaganda and the patriotic exhortations to fight and die in the popular press: ‘It was in 1915 the old world ended … The integrity of London collapsed and the genuine debasement began, the unspeakable debasement of the press and the public voice, the reign of the bloated ignominy, John Bull‘.

Sassoon photo

Siegfried Sassoon

Sassoon shared this cynicism, and his poetry includes sharp criticism of recruiting sergeants, who encourage others to go to their deaths while keeping themselves safe and sound:

‘If I were fierce, and bald, and short of breath,
I’d live with scarlet majors at the base,
And speed glum heroes up the line to death.
You’d see me with my putty petulant face,
Guzzling and gulping in the best hotel,
Reading the Roll of Honour, ‘Poor young chap,’
I’d say – ‘I used to know his father well;
Yes, we’ve lost heavily in this last scrap.’
And when the war is done and youth stone dead,
I’d toddle safely home and die – in bed.’

In my opinion, this should be printed above any statement made by Bush and the other ‘chickenhawks’, who have destroyed a country and sent thousands of brave men and women to their death or mutilation in Iraq, whenever they give any kind of statement about the invasion and occupation of that country.

Sassoon himself was strongly influence by the 1916 work, Le Feu, written by Henri Barbusse in France, who inveighed against the War and the deaths of the hundreds of thousands of Frenchmen, that had died defending Verdun from bombardment. It was translated into English in 1917, and not only influenced Sassoon but also Owen, who was also inspired to carry on his campaign against the War after meeting the former in a hospital near Edinburgh.

Wilfred Owen photo

Wilfred Owen

Owen was only one of a number of servicemen, who wrote about the War and their experience of it in order to prevent a similar conflict ever breaking out again. These works and memoirs include Robert Grave’s Goodbye to All That, Montague’s Disenchantment – surely a title that itself refutes Gove’s statement that the British people were largely supportive of the War, Blunden’s Undertones of War, as well as the more recent accounts by Harry Patch, the last British Tommy, who died only a year or so ago. In 1962 Benjamin Britten incorporated nine of Owen’s poems into his War Requiem.

Many Left-wing intellectuals were opposed to the War from the start. These included the Bloomsbury Grou, including Lytton Strachey and Bertrand Russell. Russell was fined by the government for ‘statements likely to prejudice the recruiting and discipline of His Majesty’s forces’. George Bernard Shaw also condemned the War and the fervid patriotism that sustained it. In an article in the New Statesman he declared that the best way of ending the war would be if the troops shot their officers and went home.

Now I’ve written that modern scholarship has suggested that there was much less disaffection and cynicism amongst the British public and servicemen than previously considered. There are, however, real problems in assessing just how widespread anti-War sentiments truly were. The problem is that much of the writings about the War from the men, who fought in it has been lost. It may be stored in attics and cellars, long ago thrown away, or lost with the rest of the fortifications and camps in which it was written. The material that has survived, from Sassoon, Rosenberg, Owen, Graves and others, did so because of the social connections of those officers to the middle and upper classes. The accounts of the War belonging to those lower down the social scale has been less fortunate. Nevertheless, it has survived, as the Angry Yorkshireman has pointed out in his piece on Gove’s attempt to revise the War. Another problem, highlighted by Lawrence in the above passage from Kangaroo, is that the government and media at the time were concerned to make sure that work critical of the War had a very limited circulation. This meant that not only was the pro-War sentiment preserved from much criticism, but it’s difficult to tell how many people actually agreed with it because of restrictions on its dissemination. The amount of material surviving, that patriotically supported the War, may actually be out of proportion to the number of people, who actually shared these views, simply because it was actively promoted by government and media while critical works were not.

I have, however, pointed out that even if the numbers of people disillusioned with the War is overestimated, nevertheless, the disillusionment still existed. I also pointed out that the servicemen’s newspaper, The Wipers Times, was very much like the depiction of the War and the black humour in Blackadder Goes Forth. This episode in the War’s history has been recently explored by Ian Hislop, the editor of Private Eye. It is therefore quite likely that further research will reveal much more material like this to challenge the revisionist accounts so loudly endorse by Gove.

Now Gove stated that children should be allowed to study opposing views. I actually agree with him about this. It is, however, hypocritical coming from Gove, who then goes on to attack the view of the War promoted by ‘Left-wing intellectuals’, which, as the Angry Yorkshireman has also shown, includes such notorious radicals as, er, Ken Clarke and Winston Churchill. Well, perhaps in a few years time, when Cameron has effectively turned this country into a one-party state and made the unemployed either beggars or state-owned slaves. Coming from Gove, these comments do pose a threat, as they strongly suggest that he believes that the state should dictate what views about the past should be taught in schools and universities.

Gove is wrong, often horribly wrong about the First World War, though others should certainly be free to share his views, if they agree with them. The danger is in the use of the power of the state to ensure that only the approved, Conservative version is taught. This must be strenuously resisted, so people can make their own minds up. This is the difference between education and indoctrination.

Radical Voices from History to Today

December 18, 2013

People Speak

The People Speak: Democracy Is Not A Spectator Sport (Colin Firth and Anthony Arnove with David Horspool (Edinburgh: Canongate 2012) is a collection of radical and anti-authoritarian texts from British history from 1066 to the present, collected and edited by the actor, Colin Firth, and Anthony Arnove. It was partly inspired by Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. Arnove had worked with Zinn translating the book into a series of stage readings of American radical and democratic texts, which toured the US. Realising that Firth was one of the book’s fans, Arnove approached him to do a British version. Firth, Arnove, and a number of their friends and other performers they admired did indeed stage a reading of some of the texts collected in The People Speak in 2010. This was filmed and broadcast by the History Channel. The two authors state that they hope a DVD of this reading will eventually be released to accompany the film of the same name made the year previously (2010) by Zinn and Arnove, with Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, and Chris Moore. Firth and Arnove rejected any claim that this was the ‘actorly activism’ attacked by critics such as Marina Hyde. Rather, they were simply doing what actors are paid to do – to act, and interpret other’s voices.

Firth states that the book is not an attack on history teachers or the history curriculum, noting that his own father is a history teacher. It comes from his feeling, dating from when he was studying history at school, that the kind of history we are taught is incomplete. It concentrates on kings and queens and politicians to the exclusion of everyone else, who are presented as a faceless, homogenous mass. This is his and Arnove’s attempt to put back into history the voice of the excluded, the Socialists, Anarchists, agitators, Chartists, suffragists, Lollards, Levellers, in short, the trouble-makers, like Zinn himself. Firth makes the point that democracy works from the bottom up, and that it’s protagonists are real trouble-makers. He also makes the point that the rights we now take for granted and accept as civilised and decent were at one point considered treason. The people, who fought for and won them were those without political power, and were hanged, transported, tortured and imprisoned, until their ideas were eventually adopted and adapted. Their continued existence is, however, precarious, and we need to defend them. ‘These freedoms are now in our care. And unless we act on them and continue to fight for them, they will be lost more easily that they were won.’

Firth and Arnove freely acknowledge that in covering two millennia, they have let much important material out. They hope, however, that their readers will feel rightly indignant about that, and be compelled to point it out, or, even better, write another the book, which will be the first of many. Firth hopes most of all it will inspire their readers to speak out, and make their voice heard on the issues they feel is important, ‘As Howard reminds us, democracy is not a spectator sport, and history is not something on a library shelf, but something in which each of us has a potentially critical role’.

Chronologically, the book has divided into five chapters, ‘1066-1450: Commoners and Kings’, ‘1642-1789: Representing the People’, ‘1790-1860: One Man, One Vote’, 1890-1945: Equal Rights’, and ‘1945-2012: Battling the State’ collecting some of the radical texts from these periods. Between these are other chapters covering particular political, constitutional, religious, national and economic issues and struggles. These include:

‘Disunited Kingdoms: ‘Our English Enemies’,
‘Freedom of Worship: ‘Touching our Faith’,
‘Land and Liberty: ‘The Earth is a Common Treasury’,
‘Empire and Race: All Slaves Want to Be Free’,,
‘Money and Class: ‘The Rank is But the Guinea’s Stamp’,
‘Workers United: Labour’s “No” into Action’,
‘War and Peace: ‘What People Have Your Battles Slain?’,
‘Gender and Sexual Equality: ‘A Human Being, Regardless of the Distinction of Sex’.

The chapter on the 400 or so years from 1066 to 1450 contains the following texts:

Ordericus Vitalis on the Norman Conquest of 1066,
The Liber Eliensis on Hereward the Wake,
Extracts from the Magna Carta,
Extracts from the Song of Lewes; written by a Franciscan monk in 1264, this sets out some early examples of the doctrine of resistance and popular rights.
It also contains a section devoted to the voice of the Peasant’s Revolt, including
Wat Tyler’s address to Richard II,
John Ball, ‘Until Everything Shall Be in Common’ (1381),
and William Grindcobbe, ‘I shall die in the Cause of Gaining our Liberty’.

The chapter on ‘Disunited Kingdoms – Our English Enemies’, includes the following pieces:
The declaration of Scottish independence at Arbroath, 6th April 1320,
Owain Glyn Dwr’s letter to another Welsh noble, Henry Don,
The Complaynt of Scotland of 1549,
Jonathan Swift’s bitterly satirical ‘A Modest Proposal’ of 1729,
The Speech from the Dock of the Irish Nationalist leader, Theobald Wolfe Tone,
The Speech from the Dock of Tone’s successor in the United Irishmen, Robert Emmet,
Rev. John Blackwell’s Eisteddfod Address in Beaumaris in 1832, stressing the importance of literature in Welsh,
Letters from the Rebecca Riots’,
The Letter from Nicholas M. Cummins to the Times attacking the English for refusing to supply the Irish with food during the Potato Famine,
The Speech from the Dock of the Irish American Fenian Leader, Captain John McClure, of 1867,
Padraig Pearse’s Eulogy for the Fenian Leader Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa of 1915,
An extract from the Scots writer Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song of 1932,
Bernadette Devlin’s Speech in Draperstown when she stood as the candidate for the Nationalist Independent Unity Party in Northern Ireland,
Silvester Gordon Boswell’s Address to Travellers on Appleby Hill of 1967, and Boswell’s The Book of Boswell: Autobiography of a Gypsy of 1970,
The Dubliners’ Luke Kelly’s lyric, ‘For What died the Sons of Roisin?’ of 1970,
Pauline M.’s description of the events of Bloody Sunday,
An editorial on the Tax-Dodgers on the Isle of Man by the Manx Marxist group, Fo Halloo,
Bobby Sands’ prison diary for 1-2 March 1981,
and an extract from Gwyn Alf Williams’ history of the Welsh, ‘The Dragon Has Two Tongues’ from 1985.

The section on Freedom of Worship, begins with a section on the Pilgrimage of Grace, which includes
The examination of Nicholas Leche of 1536,
The Pontefract Articles of 2-4 December 1536,
The Examination of Robert Aske, 1537,
John Foxe, ‘The Mart6yrdom and Suffering of Cicelie Ormes, Burnt at Norwich the Testimonie and Witnes of Christes Gospell’ of 1557,
Matthew Hamont’s Trial for Heresy,
John Mush, the Life of Margaret Clitherow, 1586,
Daniel Defoe’s satirical ‘The Shortest Way with Dissenters:, Or, Proposals for the Establishment of the Church of 1702,
Ignatius Samcho’s Letter on the Gordon Riots of 1780,
William Blake’s ‘America’ of 1793, his Preface to Milton of (1804) and Preface to Book Two of ‘Jerusalem’ of the same year.
Grace Aguilar’s History of the Jews in England of 1847,
George Jacob Holyoake, Exchange with his Caplain on Atheism (1850),
An anonymous account of the Basingstoke Riots against the Salvation Army of 1881,
and Victoria Brittain’s ‘The Meaning of Waiting’, using the words of eight Muslim women married to prisoners in Guantanamo Bay.

The section on the period 1642-1749 contains
Elizabeth Lilburne’s Appeal against the arrest of her husband, the leveller leader John Lilburne,
Richard Overton’s An Arrow Against All Tyrants of 1646,
The Putney Debates of 1647,
John Lilburne’s Appeal to Cromwellian Soldiers of 1649,
The last speech of Richard Rumbold at the Market Cross in Edinburgh,
Reports of torture in prison from 1721,
The frontispiece to the anonymous pamphlet ‘Idol Worship, Or, the Way to Preferment, showing that the way to political power to was kiss your superiors’ rear ends,
Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, 1776,
The American Declaration of Independence,
Paine’s Rights of Man, 1791,
Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘Destruction of the Bastille’,
An Advertisement for Commemoration of the French Revolution by Dissenters in Birmingham in 1791,
and An Anonymous Birmingham handbill to Commemorate the French Revolution, 1791.

The section ‘Land and Liberty’ contains
Robert Kett, ‘Kett’s Demands Being in Rebellion’, 1549, against the Enclosures in Kent,
Gerard Winstanley, ‘A Declaration from the Poor Oppressed People of England’, 1649,
The 1650 Declaration of the Wellingborough Diggers,
The ballad ‘Bonny Portmore’ of 1690, lamenting the destruction of the forest around Lough Beg,
Thomas Spence’s ‘Spence’s Plan for Parochial Partnerships in the Land of 1816), an early Utopian Socialist precursor,
John Clare, ‘The mores’, c. 1821-4,
W.G. Ward’s ‘The Battle, the Struggle and the Victory’ of 1873, on a battle between the National Agricultural Labourers’ Union and the employers and landowners, who refused to employ their members,
Richard Barlow-Kennett’s ‘Address to the Working Classes’ on Vivisection of 1883,
Henry S. Salts’ Animal Rights Considered in Relation to Social Progress (1892),
Ernest a Baker, The Forbidden Land of 1924 on the landowners’ denial of the right of access to land around the Peak District and the Yorkshire moors due to grouse shooting,
Benny Rothman on the Kinder Trespass in 1932 by ramblers,
and Voices from the Kingsnorth 6 Greenpeace protesters of 2007.

The section on Empire and Race has the above extracts,
William Cecil’s Speech in Parliament of 1588, against a bill against Strangers and Aliens Selling Wares by Retail, 1588,
William Shakespeare’s Sir Thomas More, Act II, Scene 4, c. 1593,
Anna Barbauld, Sins of Government, Sins of of the Nation; Or, A Discourse for the Fast, of 1793, against imperialism and war with revolutionary France,
Robert Wedderbu5rn’s The Axe Laid to the Root or A Fatal Blow to Oppressors, Being an Address to the Planters and Negroes of the Island of Jamaica, 1817,
Mary Prince, The History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave, 1831,
Louis Asa-Asa, ‘How Cruelly We Are Used’, 1831,
Joseph Sturge, Speech at the Baptist Missionary Society of Birmingham, 1836,
An Anonymous Member of the Walthamstow Free Produce or Anti-Slavery Association, Conscience Versus Cotton: Or, the Preference of Free Labour Produce, 1851,
Ernest Jones’, ‘The Indian Struggle’, 1857, supporting Indian independence during the Mutiny,
Richard Cobden’s Letter to John Bright on Indian independence, 1857,
Celestine Edwards, a Black Methodist preacher from Dominica, The British Empire, attacking imperialism,
‘A Voice from the Aliens about the Anti-Alien Resolution of the Cardiff Trades Union Congress of 1893, by Jewish worker protesting at a motion by William Inskip and Charles Freak to ban immigrant workers from joining trades unions,
Henry Woodd Nevinson, ‘The Slave Trade of Today’, 1906, against the cultivation of cocoa by Angolan slaves,
The Indian nationalist Ghadar Movement’s ‘An Open letter to the People of India’, 1913,
The satirical, ‘In Praise of the Empire’ by the Irish nationalist and founder of the Independent Labour Party of Ireland, James Connolly,
B.R. Ambedkar’s ‘India on the Eve of the Crown Government’, 1915,
John Archer’s Presidential Address to the Inaugural Meeting of the African Progress Union, 1918,
Manifesto of Bhagwati Charan Vohra, a Punjabi revolutionary Indian nationalist, 1928,
Gandhi’s Quit India Speech of 1942,
C.L.R. James’ Beyond a Boundary, on cricket and his experiences growing up in Trinidad, 1963,
Peter Hain, Defence in Trial from Picketing Apartheid South African Cricket and Rugby, 1972,
Linton Kwesi Johnson, ‘Inglan Is a Bitch’, 1980,
Sinead O’Connor, ‘Black Boys on Mopeds’, 1990,
The account of his own incarceration by an anonymous Tanzanian Asylum Seeker, 2000,
Benjuamin Zephaniah, ‘What Stephen Lawrence has Taught Us’, 2001,
Roger Huddle and Lee Billingham’s Reflections on Rock against Racism and Love Music Hate Racism, 2004,
The People’s Navy Protest on the eviction of the indigenous islanders from the islands, 2008,
and Mark Steel’s ‘The Poles Might be Leaving but the Prejudice Remains’, 2009.

The section on the period 1790-1860 has the following extracts and pieces
An Account of the Seizure of Citizen Thomas Hardy, Secretary to the London Corresponding Society, 1794,
‘Rules and Resolutions of the Political Protestants’, 1818. Political Protestants was the name adopted by a number of northern working class radical organisations demanding universal suffrage.
There is a subsection devoted to the Peterloo Massacre of 1819, in which the local militia and then a detachment of Hussars attacked and broke up a peaceful meeting in Manchester of protesters campaigning for an extension of the franchise. This section has
The Letter from Mr W.R. Hay to Lord Sidmouth regarding Peterloo, 1819,
extracts from Shelley’s The Masque of Anarchy
and William Hone’s The Political House that Jack Built.

The chapter also has following pieces
William Davidson, Speech to the Court in the Cato Street Conspiracy Trial, 1820,
and Mr Crawshay Recounts the Merthyr Uprising, 1831.
This is followed by a section on Chartism, including
Henry Vincent, Chartists in Wales, 1839,
Edward Hamer, ‘The Chartist Outbreak in Llanidloes, 1839,
and Chartist Protests in Newcastle, 1839.
Charles Dickens,’The Fine Old English Gentleman: New Version’, 1841, bitterly attack Tory feudalism and massacres of radicals,
and the Bilston, South Staffordshire Chartist Rally.

The section on money and class has a piece on the rebellion of William Fitz-Osbert against the way the Anglo-Normans barons shifted their tax burden onto the poor,
George Manley’s speech from the gallows at Wicklow, where he was hanged for murder, against the murder and plunder of the rich and general such as Marlborough,
Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in Country Churchyard,
Robert Burns’ A Man’s A Man for A’ That,
and John Grimswaw’s ‘The Handloom Weaver’s Lament’.
This is followed by a section on Luddism, which contains
John Sykes’ account of machine-breaking at Linthwaite, Yorkshire, 1812,
An Anonymous ‘Address to Cotton Weavers and Others’, 1812,
The poem ‘Hunting a Loaf’,
The poet Byron’s speech on the Frame-Work Bill in the House of Lords, and his ‘Ode to the Framers of the Frame Bill’,
The ballad, ‘The Tradesman’s Complaint’,
An extract from Carlisle’s Past and Present in which he questioned the benefits of unrestrained economic growth,
Frederick Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England,
An extract from Marx and Engels’ The Communist Manifesto,
Henry Mayhew’s ‘Labour and the Poor’,
‘The Last Sark’ by the radical working class poet, Ellen Johnston,
Thomas Hardy’s ‘To An Unborn Pauper Child’,
The Invasion of the Ritz Hotel in 1938, by Jack Dash, a Member of the National Unemployed Workers’ Union,
George Orwell’s ‘England, Your England’,
John Lennon’s ‘Working Class Hero’,
Jimmy Reid’s Inaugural Speech as Rector of Glasgow University in 1972,
and Dick Gaughan’s ‘Call It Freedom’.

The section ‘Workers United’ contains the following

An Address to the Inhabitants of Great Britain and Ireland by the Glasgow Weavers, 1820,
Richard Oastler’s Letter to the Leeds Mercury on Slavery, denouncing the harsh conditions endured by children working in the factories and mines,
George Loveless, the Tolpuddle Martyr,
Patience Kerr’s Testimony before the Children’s Employment Commission, 1842,
Thomas Kerr’s ‘Aw’s Glad the Strike’s Duin’, 1880,
William Morris’ The Depression of Trade and Socialism: Ends and Means, 1886,
Annie Besant on White Slavery in London,
Samuel Webber’s Memories of the Matchgirl’s Strike,
Ben Tillett on the Dock Strike, 1911,
The Speech, ‘I am here as the Accuser’ by John Maclean, a Revolutionary Glaswegian Socialist tried for sedition for trying to dissuade soldiers from fighting in the First World War,
An account of the General Strike of 1926 by an Ashton Sheet Metal Worker,
Hamish Henderson’s ‘The John Maclean March’,
Frank Higgins’ ‘The Testimony of Patience Kershaw’,
An account of the Miners’ Strike by Bobby Girvan and Christine Mahoney,
And Mark Serwotka’s ‘Imagine Not Only Marching Together, but Striking Together’, of 2011 against the Coalition.

The section on Equal Rights has an extract from Oscar Wilde’s The Soul of Man under Socialism,
Emmeline Pankhursts’ Kill Me or Give Me My Freedom,
George Orwell’s ‘A Hanging’,
and a section for the voices of those involved in the Battle of Cable Street against Mosely’s Blackshirts.
This section includes the testimony of William J. Fishman, a Stepney Labour activist, the then secretary of the Communist Party, Phil Piratin, Joe Jacobs, another member of the Communist Party, also from Stepney, Julie Gershon, a Stepney resident, Mr Ginsburg, from Cable Street, and Mrs Beresford, of Lascombe’s fish and chip shop.
These are followed by an extract from Aneurin Bevan’s ‘In Place of Fear’.

The section and war and piece begins with Thomas Hoccleve’s An Appeal for Peace with France of 1412,
a Handbill from the Weavers of Royton, 1808,
John Bright’s Speech against the Crimean War,
Bertrand Russell’s Letter to the Nation, 1914,
Siegfried Sassoon’s Declaration against War, 1917,
Wilfred Owen’s ‘Disabled’,
The section answering the question, ‘How Should War be Prevented?’ from Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas,
James Maxton’s Speech Against War,
Charlie Chaplin’s Final Speech from The Great Dictator,
Phil Piratin on the Invasion of the Savoy Hotel, 1940,
Denis Knight, The Aldermaston Anti-Nuclear March, 1958,
Hamish Henderson’s ‘Freedom Come-All-Ye’, dedicated to Scots anti-Nuclear marchers,
and Adrian Mitchell’s ‘To Whom It May Concern (Tell Me Lies about Vietnam)’, 1964.

There is also a section of voices from the women involved in the Greenham Common Peace Protest, containing testimony and memories from Kim Besly, Sarah Hipperson,Ann Pettitt, and Thalia Campbell.
This is followed by Mary Compton’s speech at the Stop the War Coalition, and Robin Cook’s resignation speech to parliament against the invasion of Iraq.

The section and gender and sexual equality begins with an anonymous sixteenth century Song on the Labour of Women,
The Petition of Divers Well-Affected Women, 1649, against the imprisonment of four of the Levellers,
An anonymous article from the Saint James Chronicle from 1790, recording the ‘Extraordinary Female Affection’ between the ‘Ladies of Llangollen, Lady Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby,
Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, 1792,
Anna Wheeler and William Thompson’s ‘Address to Women’, an extract from their pamphlet, Appeal of One Half of the Human Race, Women, against the Pretensions of the Other Half, Men, to Retain them in Political, and thence in Civil and Domestic Slavery, 1825,
A letter by an anonymous prostitute from the Times, 1858,
Josephine Butler’s An Appeal to the People of England, on the Recognition and Superintendence of Prostitution by Governments,
Edmund Kell, ‘Effects of the Acts Upon the ‘Subjected’ Women, against the humiliation endured by women through the examinations under the Contagious Diseases Act,
Oscar Wilde’s Second Trial for ‘Gross Indecency’,
Helen Gordon Liddle’s The Prisoner, an account of the force-feeding of the Suffragettes under the ‘Cat and Mouse’ Act,
Two passages from Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own,
Against the Law, by Peter Wildeblood, a journalist and TV producer arrested for conspiracy to incite acts of gross indecency,
The memories of Vicky and Janice of Lesbian Life in Brighton in the 1950s and ’60s,
Selma James and the Women’s Liberation Workshop, ‘Women against the Industrial Relations Act’, 1971,
Tom Robinson’s ‘Glad to be Gay’,
Quentin Crisp’s How to Become a Virgin,
and Ian McKellen’s Keynote Speech at the 2008 Stonewall Equality Dinner.

The section, ‘Battling the State’, has pieces and extracts from
Tariq Ali’s ‘The Street is Our Medium’, from Black Dwarf, the newspaper of the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign, with a copy of Mick Jagger’s handwritten lyrics to Street Fighting Man.
Paul Foot’s Speech on the Murder of Blair Peach, 1979,
The Clash, ‘Know Your Rights’, 1982,
Elvis Costello, ‘Shipbuilding’, against the Falkland’s War,
Pensioner Nellie discussing the Poll Tax revolt,
Jeremy Hardy, ‘How to Be Truly Free’, 1993,
‘Catching Buses’ by the Bristolian disabled rights activist, Liz Crow,
Harold Pinter’s ‘Art, Truth and Politics’, 2005,
Mark Thomas’ ‘Put People First G20 Protest of 2009,
Euan Booth’s ‘Subversively Move Tony Blair’s Memoirs to the Crime Section in Bookshops’,
The Speech on Student Protests by the fifteen-year old schoolboy, Barnaby Raine, to the Coalition of Resistance Conference.
The book ends with Zadie Smith’s piece attacking library closures in 2011.

As well as notes and a normal index, the book also has a chronological index, placing the pieces in order according to the dates they were written.

The book is indeed encyclopaedic and comprehensive in the range of its selected texts through two millennia of history. Firth is quite right when he says that much has been necessarily left out. Whole can and have been written about some of the subjects he has touched on, such as popular protest in history, the Enclosures, Chartism, the development of British Socialism, Irish, Scots and Welsh history and nationalism, Socialism in Britain, opposition to the workhouse, to name but a few. There are a number of works on gay, gender and women’s history. E.P. Thompson himself wrote a history of the English working class, which remains one of the standard texts on the subject. Labour history-writing goes further back than Thompson, however. The Fabians, Sidney and Beatrice Webb wrote two books on the country and town labourers respectively. A number of the first Labour MPs to be voted into parliament have also left their autobiographies, describing their rise from manual labourer to Member of Parliament.

The book does an important service by showing just how old some of the issues and techniques raised and used by today’s protesters actually are. Hoccleve’s appeal for peace with France shows that peace protests go right back to the Middle Ages. Indeed, in the Tenth Century the Church led a peace movement to establish God’s Truce. This was the ban on fighting by the knights and the aristocracy on certain days of the week, so that the peasants, their crops and livestock were harmed as little as possible. And some of the 19th century popular protests are surprisingly modern in flavour. I was struck in the 1980s by how similar Cobden and Bright’s peace meetings demanding an end to the Crimean War were to contemporary anti-Nuclear peace marches and protests. An earlier generation would doubtless be struck by the similarity to the anti-Vietnam protests. The various articles, pamphlets, books and letters written attacking British imperialism are a reminder that, even during the intensely patriotic Victorian age imperialism and colonial expansion were the subjects of criticism. One of Gladstone’s ministers was privately strongly anti-imperial, and wrote articles for the Liberal press denouncing imperialism. ‘A love of empire’, he wrote, ‘is the love of war’. It’s as true now as it was then.

The Anti-Saccherist League is another example of a startlingly modern Victorian protest. It was an early example of ethical consumption. It aimed to attack slavery by destroying the profits from sugar produced by slaves. Instead of buying sugar from the Caribbean, it instead promoted Indian sugar, which it believed was produced by free people. The book doesn’t mention it, but there were also feminist campaigns to end slavery. One of the petitions against slavery compiled by anti-Slavery activists, was by women, attacking the brutality experienced by enslaved women, and addressed to the Queen herself, Victoria. It was felt that she, as a woman, would have more sympathy to the sufferings of the other members of her gender in slavery than men. Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman is justly famous, and has been published in Penguin Classics. It, and the 19th century pamphlet similarly protesting women’s subordination and exploitation are a reminder that feminism did not begin with the suffragettes or was a product of ’60s radicalism.

Some of the older, more ancient texts from the book could easily be reprinted today as an indictment of modern conditions and attitudes under the Coalition. The descriptions of the government and employers’ opposition to the dock and matchgirls’ strikes sound very modern indeed, and Annie Besant’s denunciation of white slavery in London – the gruelling work performed in factories by poorly paid and exploited workers, sounds exactly like the world Cameron, Clegg and the rest of the whole foul crew would like to drag us back to.

I do, however, have problems with some of the material included in the book. It’s true that the United Kingdom was largely created through military expansion and conquest, as the Anglo-Norman barons first took Wales, and then established the English pale and suzerainty over the Gaelic clans in Ireland. They tried to conquer Scotland, but England and Scotland were only politically united after the failure of the Darien colony in the early 18th century. The history of the British control of Ireland is one of repeated misgovernment and oppression, as well as missed opportunities for reform and improvement. If some of George III’s ministers had succeeded in enfranchising Roman Catholics, so that they had at least some of the same rights as Protestants, or Gladstone, himself very much a member of the Anglican Church, had succeeded in granting ‘Home Rule all round’ to the ‘Celtic Fringe’, then some of the sectarian and political violence could possibly have been avoided. Discrimination against Roman Catholics was widespread and resulted in the Civil Rights demonstrations by Ulster Catholics in the 1960s. It also produced the Nationalist terrorist groups, who, like the Loyalist terrorists, which opposed them, have been responsible for some truly horrific atrocities, including the mass murder of civilians. I do have strong reservations of parts of the Irish folk scene, because of the way folk songs describing and denouncing historic atrocities by the British, were used by Nationalist paramilitaries to drum up hatred and support for their murderous campaigns. I am certainly not accusing any of the modern folk groups included in the book, whose lyrics denounce what they see as the continuing oppression of the Irish people, of supporting terrorism. Firth and Arnove appear to have deliberately avoided choosing the contemporary folk songs that do glamorise terrorism. Nevertheless, there is a problem in that some of the Irish folk songs about the suffering of their country and its people can be so abused. I am also definitely not impressed with Protestant, Loyalist sectarianism and its vilification of and celebration of violence against Roman Catholics.

It’s also the case that historically at least, many Protestants did support the aspirations of their Roman Catholic fellow-countrymen for freedom and emancipation. A few years ago Mapping the Town, BBC Radio 4’s urban history programme, broadcast an edition from Belfast. This noted that one of the first Roman Catholic churches built in the town in the late 18th or early 19th century was half funded by the town’s Protestants. Although there denominations were recognised and permitted by the Anglican establishment, unlike Roman Catholicism, which was rigorously prohibited, they also suffered serious legal disabilities and were prevented from holding political office. They shared the resentment their Roman Catholic friends and fellow Irishmen felt, and so sometimes, as here, made common cause with them. The book does include some of the speeches from Wolfe Tone’s United Irishmen, the 18th century militant Nationalist organisation that included both Roman Catholics and Protestants. This makes the point that the struggle for an independent Ireland has historically included Protestants as well as Roman Catholics. Nevertheless, possibly some further Irish Protestant texts supporting independence or Roman Catholic emancipation would have been useful, to show such issues can and did transcend the religious divide.

Another problem with the section on Ireland is that in Northern Ireland the majority of the inhabitants were Protestants, who wished to remain part of the United Kingdom. Indeed, the province was created through an uprising against the possibility that it would become part of Eire. While the oppression of Roman Catholics in Ulster is definitely undemocratic, it also has to be recognised that Ulster has remained part of the UK through the wishes of a majority of its people. This has been implemented through democratic politics, which is something that needs to be recognised. Unfortunately, the exclusive focus on Irish nationalism in the book obscures the fact that the province’s inclusion in the UK does have a popular democratic mandate.

A further issue is the exclusion of a modern, working class Ulster Protestant voice. Nearly a decade ago now the Independent reviewed a play by a working class Ulster Protestant playwright about the Troubles. The play was about a family reacting to the rioting occurring outside. I’ve unfortunately forgotten, who the playwright was. What I do remember was his comment that working class Protestants in Ulster were disenfranchised, as there were no organisations representing them. It’s a controversial claim, but there’s more than a little truth in it. Many of the working class political parties in Northern Ireland, such as the SDLP, are more or less Nationalist. The Unionist party, on the other hand, was formed from the merger of the Conservative and right-wing parts of the Liberal party. There has therefore been little in the way of working-class Protestant political parties, although some of the militant Protestant paramilitaries did adopt a radical Socialist agenda in the 1970s. Again, it would have been good to have a text or so examining this aspect of Northern Irish politics, though one which would not support the Protestant paramilitaries and their violence.

Equally problematic is the inclusion in the book of the voices of the womenfolk of the men imprisoned in Guatanamo Bay, collected by Victoria Brittain. Now Gitmo is indeed a human rights abuse. The prisoners there are held without trial or sentencing. The reasoning behind this is that, while they are guilty of terrorism offences, wartime conditions and the pressures of battle mean that it has been impossible to obtain the level of evidence required to secure a conviction under civilian law. If they were tried, they would be acquitted, and disappear to continue their terrorist campaigns against the US. Hence, for national security they must be detained outside the law. It’s a dangerous argument, as it sets up a precedent for the kind of ‘Nacht und Nebel’ disappearances and incarceration without trial of domestic opponents that was ruthlessly used by the Nazis on their political opponents in Germany.

This does not mean that the men held without trial in Gitmo are democrats. Far from it. Those that fought for the Taliban supported a vehemently anti-democratic regime. It was a violently repressive theocracy, which rejected ‘man-made law’ in favour of the Sharia. Under the Taliban, no forms of religious belief or unbelief were tolerated apart from Islam. Women were prevented from going out in public except when clad in the chador. As they were supposed to be silent and not draw attention to themselves when in public, they were beaten if they made a sound. This included the noises made by the artificial limbs of women, who had been mutilated by the mines and ordnance used in the fighting. There was also an active campaign against female education. This situation has been challenged by the presence of the Coalition forces in Afghanistan. Jeremy Hardy in the News Quiz derided this as ‘collateral feminism’. He has a point. The war was not fought to liberate or improve the conditions of Afghan women. This is very much a side effect. However, if the Western occupation of Afghanistan does raise their status and give them more freedom, then it will have done some good.

As for the occupation of Afghanistan itself, I’ve read material that has argued that the real reason the Western forces are there is to secure access to and appropriate the country’s oil pipelines. There’s possibly something in that. However, the immediate reason for the invasion was al-Qaeda’s attack on the US on 9/11. The destruction of the Twin Towers and parallel attacks on the Pentagon and the White House were acts of war. There is simply no two ways about this, and the West’s counter-attack and invasion of Afghanistan was an entirely appropriate response. It is therefore somewhat disingenuous to include the piece of on the suffering of the wives of the men imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay, when the men themselves were the militant, murderous supporters of an oppressive regime that itself had absolute contempt for democracy and Western notions of human rights.

If many of the texts in this volume seem surprisingly modern, the extracts on the Ladies of Llangollen can be somewhat misleading in that historically British society has recognised a number of intense same-sex relationships, that were not at the time regarded as homosexual, or which included a homosexual element that was nevertheless seen in context as part of a wider relationship. There has been a book published within the last year or so on the homosocial relationship between medieval knights, which examined the all-male camaraderie and loyalty between them. The chivalrous concept of campiognage, which was the extreme friendship and loyalty between two knights, could be described in homosexual terms, even when one knight was helping his comrade in arms to escape with his lady love. In the 19th century there was the ‘romantic friendship’. This was a devoted friendship between two members of the same sex. These now can strike us as definitely gay, but at the time these were not seen as being necessarily homosexual or particularly extraordinary. Cardinal Newman’s request to be buried next to another priest, with whom he shared a profound friendship, was almost certainly such a Victorian romantic friendship, rather than a straightforward gay relationship. Although the ladies of Llangollen described themselves as having eloped, they always maintained that they devoted themselves to artistic and intellectual pursuits. They were celebrated at the time for their devotion to each other, and visitors to their home included many of the 19th century’s great and good, including the Duke of Wellington. It seems to me therefore that there relationship was seen as another romantic friendship, rather than a lesbian relationship.

It is also the case that the Victorians were aware of the existence of lesbianism. The story that when they were formulating the laws against homosexuality, Queen Victoria and her ministers did not outlaw female homosexuality because they didn’t believe it existed is a myth. They knew that it did. They just didn’t see it as a particular threat. The historian Martin Pugh makes this point in his book, British Fascism between the Wars. He argues that lesbianism was only perceived as a threat to British society after the First World War, when there was a ‘crisis of masculinity’. It was widely believed that the cream of British manhood had all been carried off by the War, and that only inferior men had been left behind. This created the atmosphere of sexual panic in which arose Pemberton Billing and his notorious black book. Billing was an extreme Right-wing Tory MP, who believed that the Germans were blackmailing British homosexuals into betraying their country. He claimed to have a little book containing the names of 50,000 ‘devotees of Sodom and Lesbia’, and regularly attacked other public figures with accusations that they were gay. At least one of his victims sued for libel, but the trial was called off when Billing accused the presiding judge of being another gay, whose name was in his book. I’m no legal expert, but it has struck me that the judge would have grounds for jailing him for contempt. Moral fears and legislation against gay women arguably date from this period, rather than the Victorian age.

These reservations aside, this is a powerful, inspiring book, that should encourage and empower anyone with an interest in radical history and who is determined to defend freedom and dignity today from the increasing attacks on it by the Coalition, the most reactionary regime this country has endured since the election of Mrs Thatcher in 1979.