Revolting Peasants

Former First Minister Jack McConnell recently dismissed the surge in SNP support as a “protest movement”.  Hearing that brought to mind a scene from a Mel Brooks film[1]:

Count De Monet:    It is said that the people are revolting.

King Louis:    You said it; they stink on ice.

In October 2014, not long after the referendum, I heard a programme on BBC Radio 4 which included coverage of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381.[2] The discussion focused on a debunking of the myth that grew up about this event.

Contrary to most people’s understanding – certainly to mine, I admit – those involved in the revolt of 1381 did not come exclusively from the lower orders, but instead largely were drawn from what was then a new section of society in the shires, namely what we would now call “the middle class”. The revolt was an expression of extreme dissatisfaction with the London elite.

As Churchill famously observed, history is written by the victors. The lens we look through at past events is not neutral, but instead intentionally distorts our perception of things to justify a position taken and often also to vilify those vanquished. In the case of the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt, the very name chosen for it by later historians was expressly intended to demean it, as a propaganda exercise no less.   That’s a point largely lost to us now.

The victorious chroniclers of history were hostile to the undertaking. They sought to create an association with the ignorant, lumpen masses – serfs – who toiled on the land and whose opinions were of course to be dismissed as of no consequence. What was being covered up was that the reality had been very different: the revolters were a mixture of various folk, but in the main they were middle class, i.e. those with a trade, merchants, gentry, local officials and even some Members of Parliament.

John Ball and Watt Tyler are the best-remembered leaders of the revolt. In his account, Thomas Walsingham put this into Ball’s mouth: “When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?”. Walsingham intended this as something clearly preposterous and thereby repugnant to all right-thinking folk. What he won’t have meant was to turn Ball and Tyler into heroes (or anti-heroes); but, that is indeed what he succeeded in doing, at least in terms of their place in many of the later accounts of the period.

Viewed from the distance of more than half a millennium, it’s clear that the propaganda effort backfired in a spectacular way. The event became entrenched in the collective folk memory of the nation (English and then British). It went on to become a potent symbol for many a radical campaign, being cited by the Levellers and Diggers of the 17th Century. Tom Paine expressed sympathy for its aims.[3] Nowadays we view the slogan attributed to Ball to be a choice characterisation of the egalitarian ideal.

As a lengthy aside, the mention of the Peasants’ Revolt made me recall George Square in Glasgow on 17th September, immediately before the referendum.

Addressing us in the square that evening were Aamer Anwar, the left-wing lawyer, and Tommy Sheridan, the people’s champion. Anwar was first, delivering an emotional rant, covering many sins laid at Westminster’s door but singling out the “war criminal” Tony Blair for particular opprobrium.

The undoubted star of the night was Citizen Tommy. He started moderately enough, but the temperature increased progressively as he continued. He treated us to the entire kit bag of the latter-day radical preacher-politician. We were reminded of the renowned 1934 exhortation of Dolores Ibárruri (“La Pasionaria”) that it is “better to die on your feet than live forever on your knees”.[4]

As his parting shot, Tommy told us that in the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 the rebels who struck such fear in the hearts of Westminster were armed with pitchforks and the like. Our revolt was going to be different: we would turn Westminster’s world upside down armed only with “wee wax pencils”.  Grand stuff.  Oh, how we whooped and hollered.[5]

After the disappointment of the referendum result, things took quite an unexpected turn.[6] Rather than the subject being dead and buried “for a generation”, the vanquished idea gave every sign of defiantly living on, ready to fight another day. It was already clear even then that victory in the September referendum was turning out to be a Pyrrhic one for the Labour Party in Scotland. Even so, what has happened since is something I simply did not foresee at all, at least not in terms of the magnitude of the change that has occurred.

So now we have Lord McConnell acting as the modern-day Walsingham. According to The Sunday Post, he had this to say:

It would be a tragedy if this protest movement based on the past got in the way of our chance to elect these people (Labour’s candidates) as MPs for the future.

I completely understand why thousands of people in Scotland who were not traditional supporters of independence voted Yes. There were times when I was angry at the No campaign, too. And there have been times over the years when I have wondered if anyone was listening to Scotland.

But the General Election is not a protest by-election. In the next 10 days we will choose the government of the country, not just someone to represent each of our local areas.[7]

Aiding this propaganda campaign is the full might of the London elite. Just as in 1381, they are terrified of the potential for social change, of the threat to their privileges. Unlike 1381, however, the vilification is happening before the event, because it’s now possible to do this. They are not waiting to rewrite history, but are seeking to determine its course in the first place.[8]

Scottish MPs having influence at Westminster is – somehow – an outrage.  You tell me that Britain is my country – if that’s so, how come I’m feeling regarded as a foreign menace?  “Scotia-phobia” would not have featured previously in most people’s lexicon, I feel sure; it undoubtedly does now.[9]

We’ve seen the First Minister of Scotland – the most senior elected official in our country – denounced as the standard bearer for a “communist dictatorship”. She was described as the “most dangerous woman in Britain” by The Sun and The Daily Mail, while Piers Morgan went one better with “. . . the world’s most dangerous woman”. All this directed at someone campaigning to end austerity, the entrenchment of inequality and the pernicious evil of Trident.  I despair.[10]

David Cameron compared Alex Salmond on air to a pickpocket. At first it appeared that this was simply a sotto voce comment, one not intended for public consumption.

Except that it no longer feels like a simple slip-up. Even if that’s what it was originally, what’s happened since has turned it into part of a conscious campaign of smearing and vilification. Only a few days later, posters went up in London portraying Salmond in the act of filching the wallet from a back pocket.

Although the propaganda effort immediately following the Peasants’ Revolt succeeded at the time, ultimately it failed in that it ended up glamourising the aims and conduct of those who took part. As regards the current election offensive, no matter how hard they’ve been trying over the months since September 2014, the Unionist Establishment can’t seem to land a single blow that hurts. As absurd as it would have appeared six months ago, one poll result published this week has Nicola Sturgeon as the most popular politician in the whole of the UK.

The more they push the vitriol, the more the opposition grows. The SNP’s best recruiting sergeant is its collective opponent.

Unintended consequences indeed.




All that aside, the most important difference between now and 1381 is that the protestors then were beaten and sent home to think again; that won’t happen this time, no matter how events play out in the short to medium term.

I can’t wait for the next chapter of this fascinating story.





1. History Of The World: Part 1.  The basic joke may well pre-date this, of course.

Versions have appeared in many other places.  I like this distant descendant:

Q:    Who led the pedants’ revolt?

A:    Which Tyler.

2. BBC Radio 4 Start The Week: Revolution (27 October 2014).

3. Let’s be clear about this: some of the aims in 1381 were definitely not admirable.

4. As Tommy mentioned, there’s a statue commemorating the Spanish Civil War on the north bank of the River Clyde, the plaque on which quotes the same slogan, which was based on an earlier one attributed to Emiliano Zapata, the Mexican revolutionary leader.

5. I have a serious point to make about the impact of those speeches, which seemed to me not to have been quite the intended one. For another day.

6. I posted about this later on in September 2014: Jammy Or What?

7. “ . . . we will choose the government of the country, not just someone to represent each of our local areas.”.

That’s seriously to misrepresent how the UK’s representative democracy works. We don’t vote for a government (far less a Prime Minister); contrary to Lord Jack’s spin on things, we do vote for our local representative. It is MPs who then organise among themselves to “choose the government of the country”.  As we’re about to see demonstrated big time . . .

8. Too bad they’re too late, eh?

9. Whilst “scotophobia” does exist, it means something else entirely. “Scotia-phobia” may be a neologism – possibly first aired in public by Bonnie Greer – but it looks like sticking.

10. For those of us who still retain some loyalty to the Labour movement, this is a tragedy on a great many levels.  It really didn’t have to be like this.

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