Thursday 5th July is publication day for a new book by historian Frank McLynn. Author of over twenty books he has written about such varied historical figures as Richard the Lionheart and Captain Cook, and such varied historical events as the Burmese Campaign and 1066. His new book focusses on the seven moments when Britain has come closest to revolution and why, each time, it has chosen the non-revolutionary path. Very kindly Frank has written a piece exclusively for Broad Conversation:
Happy is the country that has no history,runs the old adage. While it would be absurd to claim that Britain has no history – arguably its past is even more intriguing than that of its world competitors – it is true that Britain has never experienced a true revolution,in the sense of a profound,seismic root-and-branch transformation of its social and economic system. Such world-shattering changes have been attempted in many societies – notably France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Mexico and in a few cases (Russia, China and Cuba) successfully carried out. Nothing like this ever happened in Britain,and I wanted to find out why not.I have always been interested in revolution.The subject features largely in my account of the rise of Napoleon in my 1997 biography of the emperor and is the core of VILLA AND ZAPATA (2000),dealing with the Mexican Revolution,which I actually subtitled A BIOGRAPHY OF A REVOLUTION.
Revolutions usually end in tears,invariably in the form of a ‘strong man’ or man on horseback who subverts the hopes and aims of the original revolutionaries.We see this in the case of Russia (Stalin), China (Mao), Cuba (Castro) and even Mexico (the 70-year long one-party rule of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional). People often ask me what is the essential difference between the French Revolution and the so-called English Revolution of 1642-50, given that both were unsuccessful in the long run. My answer is that left-wing solutions were actually attempted in France, that profound changes in property holding killed off the Ancien Regime for all time, and that Napoleon appeared on the scene only quite near the end of a titanic ten-year struggle. In England the strong man, Cromwell, was there from the very beginning. He was essentially a conservative who wanted the old regime minus the king and all non-Presbyterian religions. When the Levellers and Diggers tried to turn the civil war in a leftward direction after 1645, Cromwell promptly stamped on this. Nonetheless,the years 1645-50 represent the nearest Britain ever came to revolution.
In my book I analyse seven ‘revolutionary moments’ when the chance of revolution was,albeit fleetingly,genuinely present. The seven occasions are: the Peasants Revolt of 1381, the Jack Cade rebelion of 1450, the Pilgrimage of Grace of 1536, the ‘English Revolution’ of 1642-50, the Jacobite Rising of 1745, the Chartist agitation of 1838-1850 and the General Strike of 1926. While I leave it open as a possibility that the avoidance of revolution on these occasions might have been pure chance or contingency, I suggest that a number of factors might provide a general explanation. In the first three cases,the revolutionaries could not think outside the box and were hamstrung by the myth of ‘good king, bad courtiers’ when it was the monarchs themselves that were the problem. From the seventeenth century, at least a dozen major factors seem to have been salient: Britain’s island position which saved it from invasion; the unimportance of the Army in British politics (except for 1645-50); the elimination of the peasantry as a major social problem (in contrast to the French, Russian, Chinese and Mexican revolutions where the peasantry was the central issue); the export of revolutionary energies via the British Empire; the role of heterodox Protestant religion,especially Methodism; and the failure of Masrxism to make an impact in the crucial period 1848-1918.