English history English radicalism



Caryl Churchill’s 1976 play was part of the great rediscovery of the English Revolution. Nearly a century ago Edouard Bernstein thought it worthy of wider understanding among German socialists. From the 1930s historians like David Petegorsky, Christopher Hill and Rodney Hilton unearthed the deeds and words of the common people who had ‘turned the world upside down’. Their wartime generation faced a supreme crisis in 1940 and found inspiration from a forgotten English tradition.

Levellers in our time

The post-war generation revived interest in the Levellers, Diggers and others who had struggled to find a democratic and egalitarian way ahead in 1649. Appropriately, a great outburst of pamphlets and events greeted the 350th anniversary of the last stand of the Levellers at Burford and the Putney Debates (convened by the Parliamentary Army Heads after Charles Stuart’s final defeat). BBC Radio 3 broadcast the Debates in 2008, Light Shining was revived by the Arcola Theatre in 2010, 2012 brought to the Hampstead Theatre Howard Brenton’s 55 Days brilliantly juxtaposing Oliver Cromwell’s revolutionary will and Charles’s fatuous arrogance. In 2015 the Levellers’ Association celebrated the 400th birthday of the Leveller John Lilburne. Burford’s Levellers’ Day is alive and well, right in David Cameron’s back yard.

Churchill’s play begins with the common people, then turns epic, as Cromwell presides over a generous exposition of key moments in the Putney Debates which occupied several days in late 1648. She boldly uses the protagonists’ own words which in their dramatic impact surpass the words of any playwright. Cromwell’s great foresight in calling for minutes preserved them, notably Colonel Rainsborough’s famous outburst ‘…the poorest he that is in England has a life to live, as the greatest he’. Taken with records of Charles Stuart at his trial and execution a few weeks later we have contemporary expressions from both sides in the first modern revolution.


Mental horizons

The second half belongs to the common people. We see Gerrard Winstanley and the Diggers setting up utopian communes. Their settlement at St. George’s Hill, Surrey was a political fact. Here the dramatist reaches beyond the records for her characters are mostly fictitious. At Putney, Rainsborough, Edward Sexby (an Army Agitator, or shop steward) and others had called unavailingly for male suffrage. By showing the propertied class crushing the Diggers, Churchill skilfully illustrates that without it there can only be economic continuity. Sadly, we know more of the deeds of these people than we do of their words. In imagining them, Churchill avoids the kind of mistake Shaw would have made, remembering that this is 1648-9. Characters may be creating the modern world but they inhabit a universe bounded by Christian thought. Might a heavenly king might be defeated and deposed like an earthly one? They could not say so. Instead, the Revolution unleashed Millenarianism – anticipation of the Second Coming. As illustrated in Ben Wheatley’s recent film A Field in England (2012), the Left Wing of the Revolution looks superstitiously backwards as well as radically forwards.

England’s Robespierre

Churchill (like Geoffrey Robertson and John Rees in the excellent programme notes) reminds us that even the most radical wing of the revolution did not advocate women’s emancipation. Early on we meet a woman preacher who inspires fear among the common people; later an imagined female character challenges the Diggers’ male-centric universe in words and behaviour. Churchill is also one of many playwrights depicting a stage Cromwell. This complex man is shown attending to the debates with the utmost seriousness, as indeed he did. He was the English Robespierre, recently voted the greatest Englishman. He is a year away from a brutal Irish campaign. We know that he will bloodily crush the Levellers within six months, yet here – surely accurately – we see a revolutionary leader, capable of the boldest deeds yet consulting widely (in his view seeking the Will of Providence) when unsure of the way. 55 Days (another play that hopefully will also be periodically revived) brilliantly explored the paradox of revolution: you have to do the unthinkable to show the future what is possible. In May 2015, after an election chucked away by timidity and lack of vision Churchill’s play reminds us that England too can be radical and that history turns the page on even the blackest defeats.



Labour History

When Labour had an identity



By Nicklaus Thomas-Symonds (IB Tauris, 2015), 316 pp. ISBN 9 781780 762098


Towards the end of Nicklaus Thomas-Symonds new biography, we see Nye reflecting on the 1959 election defeat. His last Conference speech affirmed that the future belonged to Labour, a view none of today’s leadership candidates can confidently hold. The author, newly-elected MP for Torfaen, will have plenty of time in Opposition benches to reflect on these two polls, one from the dawn of consumerism, the other after years of austerity.

Outside Wales, Bevan is remembered only as founder of the NHS (not a bad monument!). His several biographers (including Michael Foot) diverge widely in their assessment. This dynamic man began as a miner but ambition and conviction speedily propelled him into local government and (aged just 32) into Parliament. For 30 years he was unmatched in combining authority in the House with compelling extra-parliamentary advocacy.

Bevan and Benn

Among modern Labour politicians only Tony Benn – from a very different background – excelled in both. Each was a man of power, though Benn had 11 years in Cabinet to Bevan’s six. Of the great socialist orators we cannot hear Hardie, MacLean or the young MacDonald. Bevan’s conference speeches and rally orations survive, most memorably his savage destruction of Eden’s reputation during the Suez fiasco.

These two contrasting individuals had something else in common.  They should both have become leaders of their party.  But Labour, conservative to its roots, fears brilliance.  Each of them, just by being there, provoked a coalition of mediocre bullies – many of them second-rate union leaders – to block their path.  This fear of charisma doomed Labour to a succession of Gaitskells and Kinnocks, leaders quite unable to assemble winning majorities.

Aneurin Bevan

Tony Benn smoking his iconic pipe in 1981

Lost Leaders


Eclectic Leftist

Ideologically Bevan was firmly on the Left. Nationalising the ‘commanding heights’ of the economy was a central conviction; his final illness removed him from the scene just as the dogmatic Gaitskell launched his attempt to delete Clause IV of the party’s then constitution. It is inconceivable that he would have joined in though Thomas-Symonds, who can seem uncomfortable with this, points out that he was a critic of ‘Morrisonian’ state corporations. Contrast his view of nuclear weapons. Though not a party to Attlee’s secret decision to build a ‘British’ bomb he saw them as sustaining British socialist influence in the world. One of the most moving passages of Foot’s book describes how Bevan turned devastatingly on the unilateralists – his own closest political friends – at the 1957 conference. Thomas-Symonds is more neutral.

This same mercurial figure was a well-known bon viveur with friends on the Right, a powerful journalist (though author only of one book, In Place of Fear), and unafraid to take Beaverbrook’s coin. He was briefly expelled from the Party for advocating a popular front and attempts were again made to get rid of him for factionalism in the 1950s. (In fact he was an incorrigible individualist; his failure to organise against a brutal Right demoralised his friends and the wider Left.) He was a serious internationalist, committed to freedom for the colonies even if it meant opposing his own party. Had he lived – he died as Deputy Leader – he might well have succeeded Gaitskell after the latter’s death in 1963 and led Labour to victory the following year (though Thomas-Symonds fairly observes that Harold Wilson might already have been better-placed to succeed).

But the NHS was his great achievement, and if we don’t get the passion with which he drove it through the parliamentary process we do get the pragmatism that finally allowed him to bring it off. What a colossal achievement it was to bring together the various health providers under one umbrella without compromising the basic principles the whole Attlee government was determined to incorporate. Facing appalling opposition from the BMA (which happily sees the world differently these days) he stuck to his last: it was a great triumph of political will. No Briton under 70 is not in his debt.

The editors might have helped the author, cutting out repetitions here and there. This Bevan is not the familiar one from newsreels or Michael Foot’s flawed romantic hero, but a pragmatic – even a diminished – Bevan. Certainly he was not the ‘intransigent ideologue’ of legend, but any observer, friendly or hostile, of Bevan’s career could only conclude that he was driven by conviction. Thirty years on, a party desperate for office traded its beliefs for office. It has just paid a heavy price. What withering scorn Nye would have hurled at it.

This is an edited version of a review that will appear in the June 2015 number of Labour Briefing.