Posts Tagged ‘Tolpuddle Martyrs’

Smith Snipes at Corbyn from the Last Refuge of the Scoundrel

July 27, 2016

Smudger must be on the rocks, and seriously rattled. Mike today posted up a piece reporting that the Pontypridd Pratt was in the Mirror, claiming that Corbyn did not understand British, that is, Scots, Welsh and English patriotism. Instead, he claimed that he had a ‘liberal’, left-wing, ‘metropolitan’ perspective that is not part of the Labour tradition. By which Smiffy means that ‘nationhood, nationalism and patriotism aren’t really part of his makeup.’

Someone once said that patriotism was the last refuge of the scoundrel. And someone else declared that patriotism was the position of the man, who had nothing else to say. Corbyn is massively more popular than Smudger, and so Smiffy is revealed for what he is – an empty politico sniping at his rival from a last, desperate fallback position, trying to bang the nationalist drum to oust someone, who is both more popular and who has much more substance politically.

Corbyn’s Genuinely Patriotic Policies

Mike also points out that it’s not fair on Corbyn to claim that he’s unpatriotic, and includes a meme to show how patriotic he is. This is through real, substantial policies that will make a positive difference to the welfare of the country and its great peoples. It is not through empty gestures, like grovelling deference to the monarchy, or standing with your shoulders back, and your tie straight to sing the national anthem, as the departing, unlamented former occupant of No 10 told him.

Corbyn wants UK utilities to be owned by the British people through the British state. This is patriotic. Profits made in the UK, should be taxed for the benefit of the British people. Patriotic. British men and women should not be sent to fight in illegal wars. Hence his opposition to the bombing of Syria. This is, again, patriotic. It shows a concern for Britain’s children, her sons and daughters, who have to do the duty of fighting and dying. It is also patriotic in the sense that it is concerned with upholding morality and the British tradition of fair play. He believes in protecting British Steel. Patriotic. He does not want British companies to be taken over by US or other foreign firms. Patriotic. He wants to stop the privatisation of the NHS, so that it is run for the benefit of British patients, not US corporations. Very patriotic. And lastly, he feels that British trade should benefit us Brits, so he will veto the TTIP. Again, patriotic.

See Mike’s article at http://voxpoliticalonline.com/2016/07/27/on-jeremy-corbyns-patriotism-owen-smith-has-given-himself-another-shot-in-the-foot/

Tories and the Right Unpatriotic in Selling Off Britain

Jeremy Corbyn is thus, in terms of policy, far more patriotic than the Right. Thanks to Thatcherite neoliberalism and the craze for foreign investment, our utilities are in the hands of foreign countries, as is much of our industry, including the City of London, so dear to the heart of Thatcher, Cameron and the rest of the Tories, including Tony Blair and New Labour. Cameron wanted British nuclear power stations built by the Chinese, as well as new roads. The privatisation of the health service carried out by Blair and Cameron has been at the behest and benefit of American firms such as Unum and Kaiser Medical. Atos, who administered the work capability assessment, was French. Maximus, who have replaced them, are American. And the mega rich, who make their profits over here, are squirreling them all away offshore in places like the Cayman Islands or Luxemburg.

By this standard, the neoliberal administrations Smiffy admires – Thatcher, Major, Blair and Cameron, are definitely unpatriotic. In fact, downright treasonous. But they got away with it because, following Thatcher, the Tory party became the Patriotic Party. You couldn’t get away from her and her chorus of sycophants yakking about patriotism. She was bolstered in this through her use of the symbolism surrounding Winston Churchill, the Second World War, and indeed through her unrestrained militarism. She had to be patriotic, ’cause we won the Falklands War. Well, just about, thanks to the Americans and Chileans. See, there’s another invocation of Winston Churchill, the great war leader and iconographic figure of British patriotism and pluck under foreign aggression. And then there was all the images of Spitfires racing across the skies in the 1987 general election. This was so blatant that Alan Coren dubbed it ‘the Royal Conservative Airforce’ on the News Quiz on Radio 4.

And even there, Thatcher’s patriotism was much less than it seemed. She sold off Westland Helicopters here in the West Country to the Americans. She made massive cuts to the armed forces. The Falklands War was partly caused by the ship defending the islands being recalled by her defence minister, John Nott. The Argentinians seized their chance, and invaded. Then there were the celebrations in the Tory right over 1992, and the closer integration with Europe that came about in that year. That was being celebrated and anticipated even under Thatcher. I can remember that in the late 1980s, a wine bar opened on the Promenade in Cheltenham with that very date as its name: 1992. Denis Skinner in his autobiography makes the point that Thatcher was far less Eurosceptic than she appeared to be. Skinner also supports us leaving the European Union, but for left-wing reasons, rather than those of the ‘turbo-charged’ Tories, Nigel Farage and the rest of UKIP. He points out that while she constantly wrangled with them over our contribution to the EU budget, she never actually threatened to leave. And it was Ted Heath, who took us in. And then in the 1990s there was all the fuss about ‘globalisation’, which meant that capital became international, and the nation state was to be gradually dissolved as more companies established themselves around the world.

So by the standards of economic policies and the practical effects of their ideologies, the Tories weren’t patriots. They advocated selling Britain and its people off to whoever would give them money. They convinced millions of impressionable voters that they were doing the opposite through manipulating the pageantry of the monarchy and the iconography of the Second World War.

Why Socialists Distrust Patriotism

But let’s examine the wider problems of Smiffy’s criticism of Corbyn’s alleged indifference to ‘patriotism’.

Firstly, a supposed ‘liberal’, ‘left-wing’ indifference to patriotism and nationalism is very much a part of the Labour tradition. Or at least, parts of it. In line with the rest of the European Socialist parties, many members of the Labour party opposed the wars between European powers in the 19th century, because it was felt – and not just by Marxists – that the working class of all nations had more in common with each other than with their rulers in the middle and upper classes. Socialists from all over Europe objected to the prospect of a war in Europe, because they felt that it would be carried out for the profit of the industrialists and the feudal aristocracy. This was shattered when the First World War broke out, and most of the Socialist parties showed themselves only too eager to vote war credits in support of the conflagration. But individual Socialists, including members of the Labour party, did protest against it, along with their counterparts in France and the German SPD.

Looking along the magazine racks in the newsagents in Bristol’s Temple Meads Station last Friday, I found among the current affairs magazines the New Internationalist. I can remember copies of that lying around my sixth form common room when I was at school. From what I remember, it’s another left-liberal magazine devoted to international social justice, particularly in the Developing Nations. Back in the 1980s, it was firmly behind the Greenham Women. I also seem to recall one of Paul Weller’s songs having the refrain, ‘Internationalists’, although I can’t remember which one.

British patriotism has also been intimately connected to imperialism. From the 19th century one of the holidays celebrated was ‘Empire Day’. David Dimbleby in one edition of his art history series, The Seven Ages of Britain, dug out a Victorian children’s book called, The ABC for Baby Patriots. Under ‘E’, the book had ‘Empire’, for wherever the British citizen went, they would be safe and free. Except for the indigenes, who were expected to work for us. While that book expressed the attitude of the imperialists, the Labour Party in the 1920s passed resolutions committing itself to giving the colonies their independence. I even found it discussed in the autobiography of another Labour politician from that period, called Benn, though I don’t know if there was a connection to Tony. This particular Benn made it very clear he stood for granting the peoples of the British Empire the right to run their own countries. And George Orwell came to Socialism through his hatred of imperialism.

Smiffy also claims that working class patriotism is often socially conservative. He’s right, which is why so many left-wingers have been intensely suspicious of it. The national symbols it embraces are those of the ruling classes, such as the monarchy, the stately homes of the rich and powerful, and so forth. In the 1960s there was considerable controversy over a history programme called The World We Have Lost. Or rather, over its title. Some historians objected to it because it expressed a nostalgic support for the good old days of aristocratic rule, when proles and tradesmen knew their place. This kind of patriotism is bound up with Michael Gove’s view of history – that it should all be very Conservative, patriotic, and reinforce Tory values.

And what really worries left-wingers is the racism that can lurk underneath this kind of patriotism. Alf Garnett was a parody of working class Conservatives, people with dirty, broken windows, living in poverty, for whom the Tories had done absolutely nothing, but nevertheless doggedly supported them. As well as generally reactionary and ignorant, Garnett was virulently racist. Johnny Speight, the writer, intended the character to show up and lampoon that aspect of Conservativism. But he was dismayed by the failure of many viewers to see the joke, and there were all too many ready to agree with him about non-White immigration.

London is a multicultural world city, far more so than much of the rest of the country, although many cities nevertheless may have sizable populations of ethnic minorities. I feel uneasy when Smudger attacks Corbyn for being ‘too metropolitan’, because it suggests that he thinks Labour should reflect the growing racism and xenophobia of the Brexit campaign. One of the criticisms the political scientist Guy Standing makes of New Labour in his book, A Precariat Charter, is that they did try to harness the growing resentment of immigrants by pushing policies that increasingly denied them their rights, such as to welfare benefits and employment legislation. Smudger’s a New Labour neoliberal, and it seems to me that with his attack on Corbyn for his ‘metropolitan’ attitudes to patriotism, there’s a concealed racism and determinism to inflict more precarity on refugees and asylum seekers, the poorest and most vulnerable in our society.

Patriotism and Working Class Culture

But patriotism can also include left-wing elements, which would no doubt also horrify Smiff. If you think of Wales, for example, there’s not only Owen Glendower, and medieval Welsh kings like Hywel Dda, there’s also the images of working class radicalism – the Welsh miners, and their leaders like Nye Bevan. Scotland has Red Clydeside, Devon in England the Tolpuddle Martyrs, without forgetting the Yorkshire Miners. These are also part of British nationalism and national identity, along with heroes like Tom Paine, Thomas Spence, Keir Hardie, Feargus O’Connor and the Chartists, and other heroes and heroines of working and lower middle class history. The British folk revival of the 1950s was inspired by Black American blues music, much of which had been collected by researchers as part of F.D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. British musicians and musicologists began exploring their own traditional music, to find the traditional British counterparts to this American working class music. And it exists. Paine’s The Rights of Man was celebrated in song in the 18th century, and it can be found in sheet music even now. Thomas Spence and the Chartists also composed songs to put their message across. Chumbawumba did a version of at least one of these songs a little while ago. It’s on the Net, if you care to look. This is all part of our national identity and culture, but one which I suspect Smiffy isn’t easy with, and which Thatcher and the Tories positively wanted to suppress or dismiss. But these heroes and heroines did inspire Clement Atlee’s Labour party, when they one the 1945 election, and introduced the welfare state.

Conclusion

Smith’s comments about Jeremy Corbyn and patriotism are therefore both wrong, and potentially dangerous. Corbyn is patriotic in the matter that counts – doing your political duty to improve the lives of one’s fellow citizens. Thatcher and the neoliberals betrayed the British people, plunging them into poverty and selling off Britain, all while maintaining the illusion of British imperial power, and maintaining and expanding their class privileges. And Britain also has a rich, working class traditional culture, that also forms part of our national identity, in opposition to the approved culture promoted by Gove. And when Labour members and supporters were critical and uncomfortable with nationalism and patriotism, it’s because it all too often leads to imperialism and racism. A racism that it seems Smudger would like to harness once again, as part of New Labour policy.

A few years ago, Lobster published a unique and fascinating article by a southern Irish Roman Catholic Ulster Unionist. This particular contributor wanted working class radicals from both the Roman Catholic and Protestant communities to unite to do something positive for the working people of Northern Ireland as a whole, regardless of their faith or national loyalties. The piece also criticised Tony Blair for embracing the politics of culture. The author explained that this was dangerous, because in Ireland it usually meant there was a man with a gun behind it. It was a danger then, and I don’t think the danger has disappeared in the decade or so since that piece was written. And it shows how dangerous nationalism and patriotism can be at their most extreme.

Working Class Experience and the Tories’ Hatred of International Human Rights Legislation

May 19, 2014

Democrat Dissection pic

William(?) Dent, ‘A Right Honble Democrat Dissected’, 1793. In Roy Porter, Bodies Politic: Death, Disease and Doctors in Britain, 1650-1900 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press 2001) 243. The caption for this reads: The various portions of his anatomy display every form of hypocrisy and immorality, personal and political.

The Tories Attack on Human Rights Legislation

Last week I reblogged Mike’s piece, ‘The Tory Euro Threat Exposed’, which demolished some of the claims the Tories were making about the EU, including their promise to hold a referendum on Europe. One of the criticisms Mike made was against the Tories’ plans to withdraw Britain from the European Court of Human Rights. Mike pointed out that the Court is actually nothing to do with the EU, and if Britain withdrew, it would mean the Tories could pass highly illiberal legislation ignoring and undermining the human rights of British citizens. He specifically mentioned workfare, the right to a fair trial and the current laws protecting the disabled as areas that would be under threat. It is not just European human rights legislation and international justice that the Tories are opposed to. They also plan to repeal Labour’s human rights legislation at home.

The Memoir of Robert Blincoe and 19th Century Working Class Political Oppression

Jess, one of the commenters on mine and Mike’s blog, suggested that the part of the problem was that most people now don’t recall a time when there was no absolutely no respect for human rights in Britain, and people were genuinely oppressed and jailed for their political beliefs. As a corrective, she posted a link to The Memoir of Robert Blincoe, a 19th century working-class activist, who was jailed for setting up a trade union. She wrote

Part of the ‘problem’ convincing people of the validity of human rights legislation is they have no concept, or memory, of what things were like before such things began to be regulated. Or the fight it took to force such legislation through Parliament.

This small book, ‘Memoir of Robert Blincoe’, now online, courtesy of Malcolm Powell’s Northern Grove Publishing Project
http://www.malcsbooks.com/resources/A%20MEMOIR%20OF%20ROBERT%20BLINCOE.pdf

“The Memoir….” was first published by Richard Carlile in his journal ‘The Lion’ in 1828. It was republished as a pamphlet the same year, and then re-serialised in ‘The Poor Man’s Advocate’ later the same year.

The pioneer Trades Unionist, John Doherty republished it in 1832, with the co-operation of Blincoe and additional text. Caliban reprinted Doherty’s text in 1977. For some reason it was not mentioned in Burnett, Mayall and Vincent (Eds) Bibliograpy (of) The Autobiography of The Working Class.

19th Century Oppression, thatcher’s Assault on the Unions, British Forced Labour Camps and the New Surveillance State

She has a point. For most people, this was so long ago that it’s no longer relevant – just another fact of history, along with the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the Great Reform Act and the Workhouse. It’s an example how things were grim back in the 19th century, but it doesn’t really have any direct significance today. In fact, it’s extremely relevant as the Tories are doing their best to strangle the Trade Unions with legislation following their decimation with the Miners’ Strike under Thatcher. The Coalition has also passed legislation providing for the establishment of secret courts, and Britain is being transformed into a surveillance society through the massive tapping of phones and other electronic communication by GCHQ. And I reblogged a piece from one of the other bloggers – I think it was Unemployed in Tyne and Weare – about the existence of forced labour camps for the unemployed here in Britain during the recession of the 1920s. I doubt anyone outside a few small circles of labour historians have heard of that, particularly as the authorities destroyed much of the documentation. Nevertheless, it’s a sobering reminder that Britain is not unique, and that the methods associated with Nazism and Stalinism certainly existed over here.

Britain as Uniquely Democratic, Above Foreign Interference

Another part of the problem lies in British exceptionalism. There is the view that somehow Britain is uniquely democratic, with a mission to spread freedom and democracy throughout the world. This conception of one’s country and its history is strongest in America, and forms a very powerful element of the ideology of the Republican party and the Neo-Cons. America has repeatedly refused to allow international courts jurisdiction in America and condemned criticism of American society and institutions by the UN, on the grounds that these organisations and the countries they represent are much less democratic than the US. To allow them jurisdiction in America, or over Americans, is seen as an attack on the fundamental institutions of American freedom. Thus, while America has demanded that foreign heads of states responsible for atrocities, such as the Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic, should be tried at the International War Crimes Tribunal in the Hague, it has strenuously resisted calls for the prosecution of American commanders accused of similar crimes.

Britain Not Democratic for Most of its History

This sense of a unique, democratic destiny and a moral superiority to other nations also permeates the British Right. Daniel Hannan, the Conservative MEP for Dorset, who wishes to privatise the NHS, has written a book, on how the English-speaking peoples invented democracy. It’s a highly debatable view. Most historians, I suspect, take the view instead that it was the Americans and French, rather than exclusively the English-speaking peoples, who invented democracy. Britain invented representative, elected government, but until quite late in the 19th century the franchise was restricted to a narrow class of propertied men. Women in Britain finally got the right to vote in 1918, but didn’t actually get to vote until 1928. Part of the Fascist revolt in Britain in the 1930s was by Right-wing, die-hard Tories alarmed at all of the proles finally getting the vote, and the growing power of Socialism and the trade unions. Technically, Britain is still not a democracy. The architects of the British constitution in the 17th and 18th centuries viewed it as mixed constitution, containing monarchy, aristocracy and democracy, with each component and social class acting as a check on the others. The House of Commons was the democratic element. And the 17th and 18th century views of its democratic nature often seem at odds with the modern idea that everyone should have the inalienable right to vote. It seems to me that these centuries’ very restricted view of democracy ultimately derived from Aristotle. In his Politics, Aristotle considers a number of constitutions and forms of government and state, including democracy. His idea of democracy, however, is very definitely not ours. He considers it to be a state governed by leisured, landed gentlemen, who are supposed to remain aloof and separate from the lower orders – the artisans, labourers, tradesmen and merchants, who actually run the economy. In his ideal democracy, there were to be two different fora – one for the gentlemen of the political class, the other for the rude mechanicals and tradesmen of the hoi polloi.

How seriously the British ruling class took democracy and constitutional freedom can be seen in the very rapid way they removed and abolished most of it to stop the proles rising up during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. Burke is hailed as the founder of modern Conservatism for his Reflections on the Revolution in France, in which he argued for cautious, gradual change firmly grounded and respecting national tradition, as opposed to the violence and bloodshed which occurred over the other side of the Channel, when the French tried rebuilding their nation from scratch. At the time, however, Burke was seen as half-mad and extremely eccentric for his views.

Imperial Government and Lack of Democracy in Colonies

The lack of democracy became acute in the case of the countries the British conquered as they established the British Empire. The peoples of Africa, the Middle East and Asia were largely governed indirectly through their indigenous authorities. However, ultimate authority lay with the British governors and the colonial administration. It was not until the 1920s, for example, that an indigenous chief was given a place on the colonial council in the Gold Coast, now Ghana. Some governors did actively try to involve the peoples, over whom they ruled, in the business of government, like Hennessy in Hong Kong. For the vast majority of colonial peoples, however, the reality was the absence of self-government and democracy.

British Imperial Aggression and Oppression of Subject Peoples

And for many of the peoples of the British Empire, imperial rule meant a long history of horrific oppression. The sugar plantations of the West Indies have been described as ‘concentration camps for Blacks’, which have left a continuing legacy of bitterness and resentment amongst some West Indians. The sense of moral outrage, as well as the horrific nature of imperial rule for Black West Indians and the indigenous Arawak and Carib peoples in books on West Indian history written by West Indians can come as a real shock to Brits, who have grown up with the Whig interpretation of history. Other chapters in British imperial history also come across as actually quite sordid, like the annexation of the Transvaal, despite the fact that the Afrikaaner voortrekkers who colonised it did so to get away from British rule. The Opium War is another notorious example, the colonisation of Australia was accompanied by the truly horrific genocide of the Aboriginal peoples, and the late 19th century ‘Scramble for Africa’, which saw much of the continent conquered by the French and British, was largely motivated by the desire to grab Africa and its resources before the Germans did.

Whig Interpretation of History: Britain Advancing Freedom against Foreign Tyranny

All this gives the lie to the Whig interpretation of history. This was the name the historian Butterfield gave to the reassuring, patriotic view of British history being one natural progression upwards to democracy and the Empire. There’s still an element of it around today. The view of the Empire as promoted by patriotic text books like Our Empire Story, was of Britain establishing freedom and justice against foreign tyrants and despots, civilising the backward nations of Africa and Asia. Similar views can be found in Niall Ferguson, who in his books states that Europe and America managed to overtake other global cultures because of their innately democratic character and respect for property. Ferguson presented this idea in a television series, which was critiqued by Private Eye’s ‘Square Eyes’.

Another, very strong element in this patriotic view of British history is the struggle Between Britain and foreign tyrants, starting with the French in the Hundred Years War, through the Spanish Armada, and then the Napoleonic War and Hitler, and finally as part of the Western free world standing against Communism. In fact, many of the regimes supported by Britain and the Americans weren’t very free at all. Salvador Allende of Chile, although a Marxist, was democratically elected. He was over thrown in the coup that elevated General Pinochet to power, sponsored by the CIA. Similar coups were launched against the democratic, non-Marxist Socialist regime of Benz in Guatemala. And it hasn’t stopped with the election of Barak Obama. Seumas Milne in one of his pieces for the Guardian, collected in The Revenge of History, reports a Right-wing coup against the democratically elected government in Honduras, again sponsored by America. at the same time Britain and America supported various Middle Eastern despots and tyrants, including the theocratic, absolute monarchies of the Gulf States, against Communism. If you are a member of these nations, in South and Central America and the Middle East, you could be forgiven for believing that the last thing the West stands for is democracy, or that it’s a hypocritical pose. Democracy and freedom is all right for Britain, America and their allies, but definitely not something to be given to the rest of the world. And certainly not if they don’t vote the way we want them.

Origin of Link between Britain and Democracy in Churchill’s Propaganda against Axis

In fact, it’s only been since the Second World War that the English-speaking world has attempted to make itself synonymous with ‘democracy’. While Britain previously considered itself to be a pillar of freedom, this was certainly not synonymous, and in some cases directly opposed to democracy. Some 18th and 19th century cartoons on the radical ferment about the time of the French Revolution and its supporters in Britain are explicitly anti-democratic. Martini Pugh in his book on British Fascism between the Wars notes that large sections of the colonial bureaucracy, including the India Office, were firmly against the introduction of democracy in England. According to an article on the origins of the English-Speaking Union in the Financial Times I read years ago, this situation only changed with the Second World War, when Churchill was faced with the problem of winning the propaganda battle against Nazi Germany. So he attempted win allies, and hearts and minds, by explicitly linking British culture to the idea of democracy. This may not have been a hugely radical step, as Hitler already equated Britain with democracy. Nevertheless, it completed the process by which the country’s view of its constitution, from being narrowly oligarchical, was transformed into a democracy, though one which retained the monarchy and the House of Lords.

House of Lords as Seat of British Prime Ministers, Not Commons

And it wasn’t that long ago that effective power lay with the upper house, rather than the Commons. During the 19th and early 20th centuries a succession of prime ministers were drawn from the House of Lords. It was only after Lloyd George’s constitutional reforms that the head of government came from the Lower House, rather than the chamber of the aristocracy.

Most of this is either unknown, or is just accepted by most people in Britain today. The British’ idea of themselves as uniquely democratic is largely accepted unquestioningly, to the point where just raising the issue of how recent and artificial it is, especially with regard to Britain’s colonies and the Empire’s subaltern peoples, is still extremely radical. And the Conservatives and their fellows on the Right, like UKIP, play on this assumption of democratic superiority. Europe, or anywhere else in the world, for that matter, isn’t as democratic us, and has absolutely no right telling us what to do.

Need to Challenge Image of Britain as Uniquely Democratic, to Stop Tories Undermining It

And so the British image of themselves as innately, quintessentially democratic and freedom-loving, is turned around by the Right to attack foreign human rights legislation, courts and institutions, that help to protect British freedoms at home. This needs to be tackled, and the anti-democratic nature of much of British history and political culture needs to be raised and properly appreciated in order to stop further erosion of our human rights as British citizens, by a thoroughly reactionary Conservative administration determined to throw us back to the aristocratic rule of the 19th century, when democracy was itself was highly suspect and even subversive because of its origins in the French Revolution.

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.