Review Article

People’s History of England*

Anirban Biswas

English history is an extremely large and fascinating subject for a variety of reasons. England was the country of the first industrial revolution, and until the outbreak of First World War, was the leader of world capitalism. Her colonial possessions were larger than those of any other western power. Her evolution from a country of military feudalism to this stage was, however, by no means simple and unilinear; various forces, classes, ideas and ideologies rose in different periods of time and clashed with one another, often resulting in bloody feuds and battles. Naturally the progress of English history was ridden with many tensions, various classes contending with one another for realizing their aspirations, and institutions changing their relative roles in different time periods. These conflicts were interlocked with religious conflicts as well. England was the battleground of conflict between Protestants and Catholics, both sides having their own class interests. Again, in every phase of English history, there are instances of large popular uprisings which, though defeated, indelibly left their marks on the subsequent courses of history.

Hence it is only natural that a large number of scholarly works should be produced on various aspects of English history. Writings on general categories that have a somewhat universal character, such as capitalism, feudalism or transition from feudalism to capitalism, has also taken the English situation as a major focus. But these writings are in general meant for scholars, and unlikely to be of much direct interest to a student or a lay reader. On the other hand, what is taught in the name of English history in schools and colleges is often too simplistic and diluted stuff, appearing to be mere chronicles of events and personages. What is really required is a comprehensive work of English history that combines the role of various classes and class struggles with the role of kings and nobles, and that of new ideas and institutions in the progress of history. Considered in this light, the present Book, originally written in the late thirties and revised in the early sixties of the last century, is a brilliant contribution to the subject. It is needless to say that an Indian edition was badly needed. A reputable publisher has fulfilled this need.

This book, which is a volume of nearly five hundred pages, discusses all major events of English history ever since the Norman Conquest and the classical feudal era. It enlightens the reader on the growth and decline of feudalism, the wars among the feudal nobility, the end of the middle ages and the genesis of the bourgeoisie the events prior to the English Revolution, the twists and turns of the Revolution itself, the alliance between the commercial bourgeoisie and the new nobility, i.e., the enterprising landed gentry, the formation of Commonwealth, the nature of the Whig England , the Industrial Revolution etc. Besides, it has described the political changes like the liberal ascendency, politico-economic phenomena like the colonial expansion, the origin and growth of the parliamentary system, the changing relations of the parliament with the crown, and the former's gradual ascendancy to power. The author has not forgotten to describe the organizations and movements of the English working class. In fact, every chapter of the book describes distinctly the class character of the forces appearing on the stage of change, their mutual collaborations and conflicts.

What is particularly noteworthy about the book is the author's careful observation on the impacts of class struggles on the society and polity in different periods of English history. For example he, after describing the Villeins' armed uprising of 1381, which was a determined resistance to the reimposition of serfdom and failed ultimately against the armed might as well as the deceptive tactics of the ruling class, observes, "But, though the rising had failed, there was no complete return to the old conditions. The lords had been badly scared. In 1382 a new poll tax was voted by parliament, placed only on the landowners on a plea of 'the poverty of the country'. In 1390 the attempt to keep the wages at the old level was abandoned when a new Statute of Labourers gave the Justices of the Peace the power to fix wages for their districts in accordance with the prevailing prices. ...the revolt did give the peasantry a new independence and a sense of their power and common interests as a class." (Pp 102-03) The same insight is found in the description of the Levellers' movement during the English Revolution and its suppression by Cromwell. On Cromwell's class outlook, the author's observation is sharp, "For all his flirtations with the left, Cromwell was and remained a landowner with the landowner's outlook and interests." The Levellers' movement gradually developed towards Quaker pacifism and a naive Utopian communism. The author's description of the agrarian revolt of 1830 is enlightening, particularly his mention of the farmers' support to the movement. "Although the outbreak began with machine smashing, the demand for a living wage...was brought more and more to the front. A striking feature was the readiness of farmers in many places to accept these demands, to point out they could only be granted if tithes and rent were reduced, to take part in the movement and direct it against the landlords and parsons.'(P-320) A L Morton's fairly lengthy description of the Chartist movement (Ch XIV), along with the ideological divisions within it, is illuminating. Equally perceptive is his comment, "The failure of Chartism was partly a result of the weakness of its leadership and tactics. But these weaknesses were themselves only a reflection of the newness and the immaturity of the working class. In the forties of the last century the bourgeoisie were still a rising class, had still a positive contribution to make to social progress and could still afford to make substantial contributions to stave off revolt. The distress of the time was more in the nature of growing pains than the sign of irresistible decay." (P-377) While going through the history of popular revolts as described by the author, readers are introduced to personalities like John Wycliffe, John Ball, John Lillburne, William Cobett, Feargus O'Conor, and their ideas. One can learn how cruel and treacherous the champions of democracy could be when their basic interests were threatened by those clamouring for a more just and humane social and economic order. One also gets acquaintance with the labour movement in Britain up to the First World War, its struggles and the infection of opportunism, along with the struggle against this opportunism. One important part of the book consists of the discussion on the rise of the merchant bourgeoisie and the English Revolution, occupying three chapters. The late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries witnessed the springing up of new industries and technical improvements in the old ones. This advance was made possible not only by external trade, but also by the expansion of the internal market. Alongside, the growth of Tudor enclosures released a large army of landless and propertyless men. What is particularly noteworthy about Morton's discussion is that he draws attention to the dissolution of monasteries that rendered unemployed a large number of monastic servants. "In fact, most monastic lands had been leased to or managed by the local gentry leaving the monks as purely parasitic rent-receivers. But after the dissolution the greater part of the monastic lands fell into the hands of landlords of a new type, men who had already accumulated considerable capital and bought these estates at bargain prices with the intention of exploiting them to the uttermost''. (P-140) But as Morton correctly notes, the struggle of the English bourgeoisie for power began only after 1588, when the Spanish Armada was defeated. "It was the merchants, with their own ships and their own money, who had won the victory and they had won it in spite of the half-heartedness and ineptitude of the crown ad council, whose enthusiasm diminished as the war assumed a more revolutionary character. The victory transformed the whole character of class relations that had existed for a century. The bourgeoisie became aware of their strength and with the coming of this awareness the long alliance between them and the monarchy began to dissolve. During the Stuart period, the opposition between the Parliament and the Crown grew in scale, but, despite individual protests, there was not much open opposition to the royal absolutism of James and Charles, until the latter's Scottish adventures revived the conflict. The civil war that followed led to the flight of Charles and then his execution by the Independents, the left wing of the anti-royalist forces, drawn mainly from (he yeomen farmers and the tradesmen and artisans of the county towns. The author carefully notes the conflicts within the anti-royalist forces, particularly between the Commons and the New Model Army. Cromwell's position was to strike a curious balance between the conflicting forces of the revolution. He suppressed the levellers and through his Irish expedition gained the support of the merchants and landowners. To these landowners, i.e. the new nobility, money was the power of all powers.

In the author's lucid discussion of 'The Industrial Revolution', one part is particularly interesting, namely that of the French Revolution and its impact on the English scene. The French Revolution was a successful bourgeois revolution, supported by the peasantry. But the English bourgeoisie were afraid of the revolution because it could 'rouse classes which up to now had been successfully kept in subjection.' It is curious that Edmund Burke, who initiated the impeachment of Warren Hastings on the alleged ground of dishonouring 'the national character of all the Commons of Great Britain' and subverting 'the laws, rights and liberties' of the people of India, firmly stood in favour of the French nobility against the Revolution. The French Revolution had, of course, its impact on Britain in the radical and republican agitation that was met with severe legal repression. It may be noted that the yeomanry acted as a class body with the object of suppression of Jacobinism. The impact of the revolution spread to Ireland and the Irish sped up their campaign for independence, but in the absence of expecte, timely support of the French and owing to the desertion of the uprising by the upper and middle class supporters, their rebellion was defeated.

The author, while describing the situation after Waterloo, has highlighted the struggle of impoverished workers and brutal attacks on them. But the brutal suppression only strengthened the aspiration for reform, and led to the Factory Acts. As Morton argues, quite insightfully, the Factory Acts were the outcome of constant workers' agitations, and at the same time, they 'were a by-product of the savage internal struggle between the two main sections of the ruling class, the industrialists and the landowners.' In this internal struggle, workers made common cause with the industrial bourgeoisie for the repeal of the Corn Law, while the landowners made common cause with the workers to carry the Ten Hours' Bill. The Corn Law was repealed in 1846, which marked the final victory of the industrial bourgeoisie over the landowning class.

One interesting aspect of the book is the discussion on the Irish question. The suppression of the uprising of United Irishmen did not smother the flame of struggle. Extortions and evictions by the landowners, large amounts of exports of corn to England in situations of acute internal distress, resultant famines and deaths led to revolts, to which was added the struggle for self-government. The struggle wrested some concessions, e.g. the Land Act of 1881 and the Home Rule Bill of 1889, but the way repressive legislations were applied in the beginning exposed the covertly imperialist nature of Gladstone the Liberal. The Bill of 1886 was defeated by the Tories and the openly imperialist sections of the Liberals. The Irish movement for freedom was revived in the early nineteenth century and now the issue of class struggle was sought to be linked with the national question. The British ruling classes felt threatened particularly because of the support extended by the British ruling class. Such internal troubles were not unique to Britain, and the author argues that along with the competition among rival imperialist powers, these internal crises too played a role in the outbreak of the First World War. What is particularly interesting about the author's discussion on colonial expansion is the account of the expeditions in Egypt and South Africa. The process of expansion in India is far too well known to Indian readers, and the colonization of Canada and Australia is not an unfamiliar story. But the British colonization of Egypt and South Africa is a far less illuminated subject. The author has noted that to the blacks of South Africa, the Boers and the English made little difference.

This review does not pretend to be an exhaustive introduction to the book, which is rich in facts and analyses. In the opinion of this reviewer, it should be kept in all the college and university libraries of India. Serious students of English history should find this book a brilliant primer, and those who wish to pursue the subject with more scholarly interest should find it a useful guidebook for further studies. The rich bibliography appended at the end of the main body of the book has certainly added to its quality. The comments made by Christopher Hill (The best history of England for the ordinary reader) and Eric Hobsbawm (Nobody since has written a single volume history of the country to compare with it) printed in the blurb are well-merited.

*A People’s History Of England

By A L Morton, Indian Edition, 2014,
Aakar Books, Delhi-110091,
484 pages, Price-Rs 42

Vol. 48, No. 40, Apr 10 - 16, 2016