Spirits of rebellion

Voices Against War: A Century of Protest by Lyn Smith and The English Rebel by David Horspool There is a deep-seated myth about the English that insists on a national character that is rarely roused from Wyndham Lewis’s notion of an ideal Englishman: ‘straightforward, tolerant, peaceable, humane, unassuming, patient’. We don’t do rebellion or revolution […]

May 24, 2010
3 min read


Steve Platt is a former editor of the New Statesman and a regular writer for Red Pepper.

Voices Against War: A Century of Protest

by Lyn Smith

and

The English Rebel

by David Horspool

There is a deep-seated myth about the English that insists on a national character that is rarely roused from Wyndham Lewis’s notion of an ideal Englishman: ‘straightforward, tolerant, peaceable, humane, unassuming, patient’. We don’t do rebellion or revolution here, it has been said since the days of Edmund Burke and his horror at French revolutionary excess.

Even the left has gone along with this self-image. George Orwell, describing his return from Spain in his closing paragraph of Homage to Catalonia, famously bemoaned the fact that ‘it is difficult when you pass that way … to believe that anything is really happening anywhere. Earthquakes in Japan, famines in China, revolutions in Mexico? Don’t worry, the milk will be on the doorstep tomorrow morning, the New Statesman will come out on Friday.’ Here everything was as he remembered it as a child, ‘all sleeping the deep, deep sleep of England, from which I sometimes fear that we shall never wake till we are jerked out of it by the roar of bombs’.

Of course, as we know, if England was sleeping it was certainly jerked awake by that roar of bombs. And as David Horspool so lucidly describes in The English Rebel (subtitled ‘One thousand years of troublemaking, from the Normans to the Nineties’), there has been no shortage of people who have been wide awake and ready to dissent from any sleepy consensus or complacency in their nation’s past.

Horspool does well to start with those who fought the Norman conquest, an invasion as unrelentingly vicious as anything that the English inflicted on the Irish, Welsh and Scots. And he makes clear how every institution that is seen today to represent the ordered, peaceable tradition beloved of conservative England – church, monarch, parliament, law – has been contested in blood. Why do the conservatives not see it this way? Because, as Sir John Harington put it in 1618: ‘Treason doth never prosper, what’s the reason? For if it prosper none dare call it treason.’

There are plenty of treasonous and other rebels to fire the spirit in this book, not all (or even the majority) of them left-wing of course, and far from all of them violent. Horspool couldn’t do justice to them all, and Lyn Smith’s Voices Against War fills an important omission. Making use of some 200 personal testimonies from the Imperial War Museum’s oral history collection, it takes the reader close to the hearts of some of those who rebelled against a century of warfare – and lets us hear in their own words why they did so.

Steve Platt

Sound appealing? Check out our bookstore for both Voices Against War and The English Rebel.


Steve Platt is a former editor of the New Statesman and a regular writer for Red Pepper.


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