How Britain Narrowly Missed A Revolution
In the introduction to this book, McLynn refers to two other contemporary books on the same topic: David Horspool’s The English Rebel and Edward Vallance’s A Radical History of Britain. In these, Vallance took an optimistic stance, tracking a chain of progressive ideas through history and sees the rebellions and protests of British history as part of that; Horspool sees the rebellions as failures and often rooted in tradition. McLynn tries to walk somewhere between these – he stresses that he isn’t a Marxist, but does find himself rooting for the underdog.
The book focuses on a few big movements: the Peasants Revolt in 1381 (and to a lesser extent Jack Cade’s revolt), the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536, the influence of the Levellers on Oliver Cromwell, the Jacobite rebellions (particularly 1745), the Chartists, and the General Strike of 1926. The underlying question is why did these protests never turn into a true revolution? The Glorious Revolutions is dismissed as a mere regime change, and Cormwell’s Protectorate as not radical enough.
One answer is the flexibility and, to be blunt, the dishonesty of the ruling class. The Machiavellian talents of Henry VIII are shown off in the 1530’s, as he stalls and charms his way out a tricky military situation then stamps down on the rebels (McLynn portrays Henry as a brutal tyrant in the mould of the worst 20th century dictators – he’s not a fan).
The double dealing and outright lies of the General Strike are also covered in detail. McLynn shows disdain for the gradualists of the Labour party like Ramsay McDonald and right wingers in the unions like J.H Thomas, who would let down and even work against the strikers. The unreasonably hardline Conservative government of Baldwin, Churchill, F.E Smith and Joynson-Hicks also comes in for a bashing. The characters are well drawn out.
Frank McLynn’s area of expertise (despite his long and varied list of biographies) is the Jacobites, and that part of the book probably feels the least obvious. How revolutionary would Charles Stuart have been? There were Jacobite followers of various kind and we are introduced to some (including some Tories) who sympathised with the working classes.
It could have been revolutionary in that sense, but it never really feels like a true overthrow of the system – this is true throughout the book. What McLynn does or does not include lacks consistency, or (more generously) sometimes needs a little bit of imagination to see “what if?”. In what he does cover, McLynn does trace a fascinating and personal history of near-revolutionary change in British history and attempts to explain what prevented it from sparking. It’s more interesting than authoritative, but the portrayal of the personalities of the general strike alone make the book worth reading.