Page 15, 28th October 2011

28th October 2011
Page 15
Page 15, 28th October 2011 — The Britons who upset the geopolitical applecart

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The Britons who upset the geopolitical applecart

This brave and learned book is spoiled by too much spleen, says Jonathan Wright

Treason of the Heart


There is a long tradition of Britons embracing radical foreign causes. The results have been mixed: everything from treason and espionage to poetic whimsy, noble self-sacrifice and mild-mannered civil disobedience. Sometimes the causes have been deemed noble (fighting in the Spanish Civil War, for instance, or helping out the Ottoman-stymied Greeks) and sometimes they have been wretched (cheering on Hitler being the most baleful example). David Pryce-Jones takes us on a whistlestop tour through this fascinating history, all the way from British support for the American and French Revolutions to 20thcentury Communist fellow-travellers.

There is a lot of learning in this book (which is good news) but far too much spleen (which is regrettable). Pryce-Jones is not one to pull his punches and all sorts of luminaries are scolded. Byron and T E Lawrence come in for hefty criticism but the deadliest venom is reserved for the self-styled champion of late 18th-century political hullabaloos, Thomas Paine. He was no believer in liberty, Pryce-Jones avers. He was just an angry demagogue with an “inhuman indifference to the consequences of his polemics”.

This is grossly unfair, but it gives an early indication of Pryce-Jones’s fondness for catchy, scathing denunciations. Many individuals who only make fleeting appearances in the text also receive the Pryce-Jones treatment. Hazlitt was apparently the “most over-rated and equivocal of writers”. Auden “brought to Communism the popular sentimental guff with which Wordsworth had once smothered the French Revolution”. The composer Michael Tippett possessed “a mind too incoherent to be capable of rational thought”.

Perhaps this is bold and punchy prose or perhaps it’s just reductive grumpiness. In either case it distracts from an otherwise sophisticated and enlightening analysis of why so many Brits have taken up overseas causes and placed their patriotic credentials in jeopardy.

As you’ll have guessed, PryceJones disapproves of many of these ideological crusaders. Some of his targets are easy – no one should defend Lord Haw-Haw – but he also seeks to identify the flaws of more reputable characters. He does quite well. Pryce-Jones has scant tolerance for the person who abused a cause in order to nourish their selflove. Byron needed the goal of Greek independence far more than the goal of Greek independence needed Byron. Pryce-Jones also laments the way in which hard realities have often been ignored in order to sustain an intellectual fantasy. The French Revolution sometimes became “a movement of the imagination detached from the cruelty actually involved” and much the same might be said of Stalinist Russia: far too many British intellectuals kept faith with the Soviet enterprise for far too long. These are sensible points but there is room to grumble. Pryce-Jones criticises the formulaic way in which many people skirted and crossed the borders of treachery and dissent but he does his own share of generalising. Let’s not forget that it was possible to sympathise with the French revolutionary cause without approving of the Terror. Similarly, you could admire Napoleon without inviting a French invasion force. Heck, you could even remain on the hard Left during the middle of the 20th century and still despise the Gulag.

The problem, here, is that PryceJones spends too much time focusing on the “the danger of foreign ideological causes”. The danger was real enough and, as Pryce-Jones demonstrates with considerable skill, there has been no shortage of self-serving villains but that is surely less than half the story. It could be argued that willingness to look elsewhere, challenge assumptions and fulminate with abandon is an admirable aspect of the British intellectual tradition. One man’s potential traitor is another man’s necessary gadfly. The difference can be wafer-thin.

My best advice is to approach this book with caution. At times PryceJones soars, usually when he descends from his high horse. It was wonderful to hear about the people who, regardless of prevailing intellectual fashion, explored Islam, stood up for less modish independence movements in the 19th century and dared to investigate places like Ottoman Turkey in a relatively even-handed fashion.

This was the brighter side of curiosity and contrariness and Pryce-Jones is to be commended for exploring it. For the most part, however, he complains too loudly and you might just be deafened.

Here’s the fair summation. This is a plucky volume and you’ll learn a lot from it. Pryce-Jones refuses to kowtow to any accepted wisdom and offers idiosyncratic portraits of famous and not-so-famous folk who’ve upset the geopolitical applecart. That’s fine and worthy. He also gets things wrong. Tom Paine had more faults than most and his prose was often ludicrous but he wasn’t nearly as loathsome as Pryce-Jones would have us believe. He barked, that’s all, and regardless of whether you approve of his agenda, you might want to accept that he was part of a venerable British tradition.

This is a brave book, clearly designed to generate controversy. That’s no bad thing. We’re entitled to examine the past but we should always be wary of overly broad brushstrokes. As one example, it’s silly to define Napoleon’s quest for power as setting “the style for future Third World tyrants”. That doesn’t make sense and a thread of over-egged anachronism runs through this book. Pryce-Jones wants easy answers where none is available.

Brits, including those who had a soft spot for Bonaparte, have taken up seemingly errant causes for good and bad reasons and have always done so, for better or worse, in the context of their time. We might as well be proud and ashamed in almost equal measure or, better yet, realise that overarching theses and adamantine historical adjudications don’t apply.

Pryce-Jones forgets this cardinal rule of historical inquiry from time to time but let’s forgive him. The highlights of this book are splendid and they will prompt others to think longer and harder about a truly significant topic. That’s no small achievement.

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