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Response to Review no. 888

It is rather difficult for me to respond to Dr. Hessayon’s review, not least because he appears to be offering a critique of quite a different book from the one that I have actually written. In particular, I am baffled by his repeated references to the British National Party (eight in all) within his review, where he refers to the BNP twice as many times as I do within the whole 600 + pages of my A Radical History of Britain. To put this in perspective, there are almost as many references to him within my book as there are to that far-right party.

So it is with some puzzlement that I met Dr. Hessayon’s suggestions that my book may provide ‘ammunition to dangerous extremists’. I realise that many readers of Reviews in History will not have looked at my work, so I provide here a key passage from p. 549:

This yoking together of freedom and Britishness has continued, through the writing of George Orwell in The Lion and the Unicorn, to the present day, with Gordon Brown’s calls for a new sense of national identity constructed around British values of ‘liberty, tolerance and fair play’. The BNP would certainly struggle to live up to the second of those values. It is hard to see how British radical movements such as the Chartists, which included prominent black members and supported the abolition of the slave-trade, or the suffragettes, who included leading anti-colonialists such as Sylvia Pankhurst, can fit into the BNP’s bleached-white vision of Britain. Yet, in the radical tradition’s appropriation by the far-right, we can nonetheless see some of the dangers in claiming universal values such as tolerance, fairness and liberty as peculiarly British.

My (very brief) discussion of the far-right, then, has two purposes: 1. To demonstrate the malleability of the idea of a radical tradition; and 2. To show the potential dangers of connecting particular rights or values to a specific national identity.

This doesn’t seem to me (nor to other reviewers of my work) to be an encouragement to storm the barricades.(1)

Dr. Hessayon also takes me to task for the quality of scholarship on display. He criticises my work for featuring ‘just’ two pages of primary sources in the bibliography. Firstly, as is clearly stated in the bibliography, a lot of printed ephemera (especially newspapers) used in the book are, for reasons of space, only referenced in the footnotes.  Secondly, some of the references in those two pages of primary sources are major works such as Gregory Claeys’ recent edition of Chartist writings, which runs to six volumes, and the complete writings of Thomas Paine. Thirdly, this is an odd sort of criticism to make about a book that is clearly a work of synthesis aimed at a general readership, rather than a scholarly monograph directed at an academic audience.

Dr. Hessayon further criticises me for not giving due acknowledgement to the work of other historians. It was always my intention to give full recognition to the many scholarly works that I have used in writing this book. He chooses not to mention the 12 pages of secondary sources listed in the bibliography, nor the 40 pages of notes which give further direction to the work of these authors, nor the in-text references to a number of historians, all of which I hope would be clear testimony to this fact.

This includes acknowledging the work of the two historians Dr. Hessayon names in his specific criticism of my use of secondary sources – Dr. Alistair Dunn and Dr. Isobel Harvey. I refer to both authors in the text itself (at p. 91 and p. 120), in my footnotes and in the bibliography.

However, I concede that this is not an excuse for the similarities which Dr. Hessayon has uncovered in chapters two and three between parts of my text and their works. On reviewing the passages singled out by Dr. Hessayon and my notes, it is clear to me that both my citations and my note-taking were inadequate here. This is a matter of considerable regret to me. I have a great deal of admiration for the work of Dr. Dunn and Dr. Harvey. Consequently I have offered both historians my sincere apologies, assured them that this lack of footnote acknowledgement of their work was completely unintentional and promised that any future editions of my book will thoroughly recognise my debt to their work.

In conclusion, I find myself in rare agreement with Dr. Hessayon about the importance of maintaining high standards of scholarship. I can only express my dismay that this has clearly not been the case in the two chapters he cites.

But scholarship extends beyond appropriate citation; it is also about maintaining respectful and professional standards of discourse. According to its mission statement, the purpose of Reviews in History is to provide ‘a forum for serious engagement with contemporary works of history’. Its guidelines consequently request that reviewers should not indulge in ‘personal comment or attacks’. This is certainly what I sought to avoid in my, albeit highly critical, review of Dr. Hessayon’s own book.(2)

Overall, this seems an eccentric reading of my book, especially given my own left-leaning politics which will be clear to anyone who has read my New Statesman articles or heard my talks at Demos or Republic: The Campaign for an Elected Head of State. His points concerning Dr. Dunn and Dr. Harvey’s works aside, Dr. Hessayon’s review offers little serious engagement with my work and, in my view, breaches the IHR’s own standards for scholarly debate.

Notes

  1. P. Brendon, ‘A radical history of Britain’ by Edward Vallance, The Independent, 14 August 2009; T. Hunt, ‘The people’s history’, The Guardian, 25 July 2009.Back to (1)
  2. T. Vallance, ‘Rebels, radicals and ‘lukewarm’ republicans in early modern England’, English Historical Review, 124, (2009), 895–908, at 906–8.Back to (2)