Frank McLynn takes us on a journey through British history to explain why, despite our collective moaning about how it screws us over, we’ve never managed to turn ‘The Establishment’ out on its arse. McLynn looks in-depth at various almost-revolutionary occasions – the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, the Jack Cade rising of 1450, the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536, the English Civil War of the 1640s, the Jacobite Rising of 1745-6, the Chartist Movement of 1838-48 and the General Strike of 1926 – to consider why we never achieved the genuine root and branch social and political change experienced by some of our European neighbours.
It’s a 500-pages-of-small-text whopper of a book, a bit male-centric (although McLynn admits and seeks to remedy this with occasional stories of women’s involvement), and at times I wished for a thematic rather than a chronological approach which would concisely answer the exam question of why we failed to transform these significantly tumultuous periods into pivotal change. But the point is that there is no simple answer to this quandary, but multiple, interacting factors, including the fact we’re an island of four countries with competing interests, defended primarily by a sea-based Navy rather than a land-based army, were early to industrialize, and built an Empire of subjugated peoples abroad which conveniently created some delusion about how subjugated we were ourselves in dear old Blighty.
However McLynn’s detailed observation of these events and the characters that led them is riveting and made me view them in an entirely new light. I was – naively – shocked by the pure violence that accompanied the early struggles, and the readiness of the state, including relatively recently when protest was comparatively peaceful, to use its force to crush the pesky proles: if you’ve got mad love for Winston Churchill, read about his approach to the General Strikers in 1926 and tell me if he is still worthy of National Hero Of The People status. Most of all, I was surprised by how close we actually got to revolution at times – for example, my History A-level arguably mis-sold the Chartist impact (which is even worse than mis-selling PPI, whatever those cold-callers tell you), and my previous assessment that the Jacobites were just a bunch of nincompoops rollicking around in ruffs pretending to be King James was clearly misjudged.
Therefore I wonder if our teachers should big-up these stories of near-revolution to encourage our young people to believe that change is actually possible. Even if we never achieved a genuinely trans-class revolt, and even though the ‘commoners’/ latterly working classes were fragmented and bizarrely deferential (to a monarchy they refused to believe could do them any wrong, to gentry/middle class leaders who later sold them down the river, and to religion), the point is: there were some moments when ‘The Establishment’ was genuinely pooping its velvet, diamond studded pants. Who knew, for example, that a group of Brentwood Essex boys launched the Peasants’ Revolt? We need to tell these stories. Thank you, Frank.