Saturday, September 5, 2015

Radicals and Reactionaries - The Making of Modern Britain

by Jemahl Evans

It shattered a unified society forever; ever since then we have had essentially some kind of two party system. The division of Roundhead and Cavalier got perpetuated in many ways into Whig and Tory, Liberal and Conservative, Conservative and Socialist. (Prof Ronald Hutton)

Hutton’s words on the English Civil War emphasise the long shadow that it has cast. Even today, modern Britain is defined by the political divisions of the English Civil War - the radical revolutionaries and conservative (with a small c) reactionaries. The leaders of our two main political parties (at the time of writing Jeremy Corbyn is favourite for the Labour Leadership) demonstrate the point.

David Cameron's official portrait
from the 10 Downing Street website
David Cameron: Eton educated, related to the Queen, the latest politician in a family line that stretches back to the Seventeenth Century. Cameron’s eight times great grandfather was Sir Robert Sawyer, Attorney General and Speaker of the House after the Restoration. Robert Sawyer’s father Sir Edmund was expelled from the House of Commons in 1628 and declared unfit to ever return after pressuring witnesses to lie to a committee of the House. He had been involved in raising extra, illegal taxes for the King. He later persuaded King Charles I to indemnify him against prosecution after swindling a widow out of £500 (about £120,000 in today’s terms).

Jeremy Corbyn
Courtesy of Garry Knight
via Creative Commons
Jeremy Corbyn’s family lineage may not be so, shall we say, illustrious? However, today he is as much a part of the revolutionary radicalism born in the 1640s as Cameron is of the conservative reactionary. Corbyn’s parents, a maths teacher and electrical engineer, were peace campaigners that met during the Spanish Civil War. Corbyn’s own political history as a trade unionist, socialist, supporter of CND, and Stop The War Coalition is very much in the grand tradition of the Left in British politics, if not always as radical as some might think.

John Lilburne
The radicalism of the English Civil War that fired the ideals of Levellers like John Lillburne, overthrew the monarchy, and also threatened Cromwell’s dictatorship seemed extinguished in 1660. The widespread relief that accompanied Charles II's early years earned him the moniker Merry with some justification - just ask Nell Gwyn. Charles (with more political nous than his father ever managed) was careful with his early Parliaments and benefited from the overwhelmingly Royalist makeup of the members. His second Parliament was known as the Cavalier Parliament and lasted from 1661 - 1679, the longest in our history that actually sat. The Long Parliament only lasted from 1640 - 1648, although it made a comeback to dissolve itself and bring back the King in 1659 - 60.

Charles II was not so lucky with his later Parliaments. His suspected Catholic sentiments and his brother’s open conversion to Catholicism in 1673 reignited the embers of puritan radicalism. In 1679, Charles saw Parliament introduce the Habeas Corpus Act to enshrine the law against arbitrary imprisonment. The fear of an over mighty Catholic King terrified the Protestant commons. Charles’ lack of legitimate heirs, his brother James’ likely ascension to the throne, and the example of Louis XIV across the channel in France brought back the ‘Good Old Cause’ against monarchist tyranny.

James II
The atmosphere was whipped into a frenzy by the fabricated Popish Plot and subsequent Exclusion Crisis where successive Parliaments tried to remove James from the line of succession. It was in the divisions of the 1680s that the two parties took the names Whig and Tory that would dominate the next century and a half of British politics. Tory from the Gaelic, originally meaning bandit, and Whig from the Scots Whigamoor, meaning cattle driver. The attempt to exclude James failed in the face of Royal power. Charles merely dissolved Parliament and borrowed money from his cousin Louis XIV (an option not open to his father in the 1640s). James Duke of York was crowned King in 1685, but the battle lines had been drawn.

As James II, he showed all his father’s cunning and political vision. He was deposed in 1689 by the Whigs and deserted by his most faithful supporters (including Winston Spencer Churchill’s ancestor John Churchill, the future Duke of Marlborough and victor of Blenheim). James fled the country and in a fit of petulance threw the Great Seal into the Thames to stop Government business. Parliament simply had a new one made and invited the Dutch William of Orange to be king - with conditions. William, and later Queen Anne, were careful to include both Tory and Whig in their governments (although Anne would lean to Tory in her later years). The Hanoverians were different, always associating the Tories with the failed Stuart cause. The Tory party would remain out of power from 1715 until 1774 and Lord North’s disastrous government.

The Whig ascendancy accompanied one of the most rapid periods of technological and social change in Britain. New farming methods saw the end of famine, and involvement in the slave trade and colonies saw wealth pouring into Britain at an undreamed rate. There is a dark irony that capital which would fund the Industrial Revolution and drive the radical movements of the nineteenth century that opposed it was gained at the expense of African slaves under ‘radical’ Whiggish direction.

Charles Fox
English radicalism had by then been exported. The cry of "no taxation without representation" would have been recognised by the protestors against Ship Money in the 1630s. The revolution in the American colonies was countered by a conservative reaction in Britain. In opposition, Charles Fox the great Whig orator would speak out in favour of the American cause and later The French Revolution. Such a position was not popular as The French Revolution descended into the chaos of The Terror and then Bonaparte’s dictatorship. The Tory party was re-elected, almost continuously, from the 1770s onwards with the aim of suppressing any hint of revolution at home.

During the Napoleonic Wars (as in the carnage of World War 2) political radicalism was buried in the national interest. Napoleon cast as great a threat to European peace and stability as Nazi Germany would. Afterwards, in spite of the government’s best attempts, changing social conditions of the early industrial period caused the pendulum to swing back once again. In 1830, the Whigs were finally returned to power. They completed the abolition of slavery and began a process of extending the franchise with the 1832 Reform Act.

The Peterloo Massacre, Tolpuddle Martyrs, Chartists, Newport Rising, Rebecca Riots; a list of battles between the Left and Right of British politics. The terms Left and Right were born in the positions the delegates in the National Assembly had taken during the French Revolution, but soon attached to the newly named Liberal and Conservative parties in Britain. During the second half of the Nineteenth Century, the two parties swapped power more regularly, the ‘radical’ Liberals periodically extending the franchise, just a pinch, in the face of ‘reactionary’ Conservative attempts to retain the status quo.

Benjamin Disraeli
There was of course one notable exception to that process in Benjamin Disraeli, who, despite his adherence to the Conservative Party, was more in the radical reforming tradition of his opponents. Disraeli brought in laws that protected industrial workers, allowed for peaceful picketing, and extended the franchise even further. Such was the impact of Disraeli’s changes that Liberal/Labour MP Alexander Macdonald remarked in 1879: The Conservative Party have done more for the working classes in five years than the Liberals have in fifty. Disraeli’s concept of One Nation Conservatism would dominate the thinking on the right of British Politics until the 1970s.

At the end of the Nineteenth Century, Labour was the new insurgency on the Left. The slow reform process that had defined Liberalism was challenged on its own ground by the growth of radical Labour. The Liberals were dragged to the left in their last government, bringing in Old Age Pensions, Sick Pay, Labour Exchanges, Free School Meals and National Insurance with support from the few Labour MPs in the House. Conservative reaction was extreme, culminating in the 1910 budget crisis and only ending when the King filled the House of Lords with Liberal peers. The Parliament Act 1911 was brought in to stop the conservative Lords ever challenging the supremacy of the Commons again. It was the Liberals last hurrah as a radical force in British politics.

The explosion of World War One and the impact of the Russian Revolution both invigorated and discredited the radicalism of the Left, just as the French Revolution had done to the Whigs a century before. David Lloyd George, the radical of 1906, was kept in power by Tory support to maintain the status quo. This he did with aplomb, handing out titles like confetti to his friends and donors and failing in his promise to deliver a land fit for heroes.

The interwar years were dominated by conservative governments determined that the red menace would not succeed in Britain, and Labour failed to establish a clear mandate to rule. The nine day General Strike in 1926 and the forged Zinoviev letter appalled the middle classes, so vital to revolution in the 1640s and the Liberal reformers of 1906. Even Ramsay Macdonald - the first Labour Prime Minister - deserted his radicalism in the face of the Great Depression, remaining in power only with Tory support and imposing crushing austerity.

Attlee with George VI
War, as Trotsky said, is the locomotive of history. By 1945, two world wars had transformed British society. The post-war Labour government led by Clement Atlee was one of the most radical in our history, establishing a political consensus that would last thirty years. A massive rebuilding programme, the NHS, and nationalisation of essential services - all defined the social change that continued in the white heat of technology until the end of the 1960s.

Margaret Thatcher
Courtesy Rob Bogaerts / Anefo
Creative Commons
Like Benjamin Disraeli a century before, Margaret Thatcher was a radical reformer more in the tradition of John Lillburne or even Atlee. First, she challenged Disraeli’s concept of One Nation Conservatism, then the established social consensus was ripped apart by her governments of the 1980s and 90s. In opposition to that change was the potential new Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. His vision of Social Democracy that seems so radical to some today was the post-war consensus that Thatcher destroyed.

Still the pendulum swings and History rhymes if it does not repeat. Tony Blair’s New Labour accepted the Thatcherite vision of society just as Macmillan’s Conservatives adhered to the post-war consensus. The financial crisis of the 1630s and 40s gave birth to the idea of radical reform in society; the financial crisis since 2008 has seen the rise of their successors in British politics. The SNP, The Green Party, and the enthusiasm in the Labour membership (if not the Parliamentary Party) for Jeremy Corbyn’s ideas, even UKIP, all point to a periodic radical shift in British politics that has happened every thirty years or so since the English Civil War.


Jemahl Evans is the author of The Last Roundhead published by Holland House Books. He started writing The Last Roundhead in 2013, and early revisions won awards on the British Arts Council site YouWriteOn and Harper Collins Authonomy. The novel was released in August 2015 and nominated as one of Netgalley’s top ten UK books of the month. His interest in the English Civil War was sparked as a child after reading Simon by Rosemary Sutcliff, which is probably why his sympathies lie with Parliament! You can follow him on Twitter @Temulkar.



  1. Really informative. Thank you Jemahl.

  2. This is almost too big to be treated as a daily blog. It needs to be saved and savored. We read much about the history of the monarchy. This overview of the evolution (or devolution) of the political leadership of Britain is an outstanding bit of research.

  3. I was aware of some of the history, but I found your thoughts and conclusions enlightening. Thank you.

  4. I do believe the Seven lords had invited William to take over the English throne prior to James "in a fit of petulance" throwing the Great Seal in the Thames... Interesting post.

    1. Hi Anna, Certainly the conspiracy went back to the very early days of JamesII reign. The immortal 7's invitation was very much a factor in persuading William to invade. He rapidly realised that he hadnt been told the whole truth by Danby and the rest.

      James was actually captured after dumping the great Seal and brought back to London before finally escaping at the end of December 1688. There followed a new election to Parliament and protracted negotiations with a series of votes in both the Commons and the Lords before William was accepted as King.

      In the end, the Tory Lords were forced to accept when faced with William's threat to leave them to a Whiggish Republic.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.