Thomas Paine has had far more influence upon the thinking and acting of the human race than any other English writer except Shakespeare. I say "human race" advisedly; while Paine is part of the political culture of France and the Americas, his fans in England were until recently little more than a faithful but inconspicuous sect. But this week, on the 262nd anniversary of Paine's birth, a campaign is being launched to erect a statue to the old republican in the centre of London, in Parliament Square.
The timing is well judged. Since May 1997 we have been living in something like a new political era, governed by politicians who - at least in their incautious youth - found Tom Paine and his ideas inspiring.
Back in the 1960s the Polish critic Jan Kott wrote a book called Shakespeare, Our Contemporary. Kott's work had a vast and immediate impact on the theatre, in Britain as much as in Poland, and then fell sharply out of fashion. But this lapse in popularity did not so much demolish Kott's ideas as prove his point. Shakespeare remains so intensely our contemporary that every generation must work out its own, radically new interpretations of his work. The perceptions that were so brilliantly relevant in the 1960s seemed cranky and dated by the 1980s. Quite different elements in Shakespeare were shouting to be recognised.
Just the same is true about Tom Paine. Every age gets something different out of The Rights of Man or The Age of Reason. Even in this country, and even in the post-1945 decades, the messages drawn from "Thomas Paine, our contemporary" have been surprisingly various.
When I first read him, as a university history text, he seemed a bit of a noble curiosity. That was in the drab, high-minded 1950s. We were instructed that the age of romance and revolution was over for good. Humanity's enlightened leaders had used the power of reason to discover the means to abolish mass unemployment, trade cycles and all the dotty hangovers of the irrational past; empire, inequality and the hereditary principle among them.
Britain still retained some of its colonial empire, as well as a monarchy and a comically anachronistic House of Lords. But these, like the remnants of poverty and class prejudice, would in time be dealt with by a series of mopping-up operations. The main battles had been won. The future was more or less plannable. Progress under the banners of fairness and reason, the flags under which Paine had fought in his time, would take its inevitable course. His loathing for hereditary monarchy was felt by our teachers to be rather dated and extreme, but what mattered in Paine's thinking had long since been assimilated.
So I thought at that time. May the "Supreme Being" in whom Paine believed forgive me! When I returned to Tom Paine in the British 1980s, I was appalled at my old condescension.
In the political climate of Margaret Thatcher's first administrations, reason had been dethroned along with the old social democratic consensus. The future was no longer what we made of it, but what it made of us; the sightless psychopath of "market forces" was declared to be sovereign. He could not be anticipated; no prayer or sacrifice could propitiate him or avert his sudden tempests of rage; no man-made rational plan could limit the destructiveness of this illiterate ogre. All that could or should be done was to worship him, and the only sin was to obstruct his reeling onrush.
Paine's writings about divine right and its masochistic admirers were suddenly indispensable. So was his invincible faith in the power and morality of using reason to guide public policy. The Thatcher regime (a term she used herself) was authoritarian in at least two important ways. First of all, it invoked an irrational cult of the reinvented national past, renamed "heritage", to serve as a surrogate religion. The more terribly and uncontrollably things changed in our present, the more we were induced to search for reassurance in the druid grove of heritage where nothing changed. Paine had his own views of the remote past, some of them eccentric. But he was always certain that the past was our servant and not our master. "Every age and generation," he wrote, "must be as free to act for itself, in all cases, as the ages and generations which preceded it. The vanity and presumption of governing beyond the grave, is the most ridiculous and insolent of all tyrannies." The essence of Paine's republicanism is the sovereignty of the living over the dead.
The other restoration of irrational authority concerned the state. As most people now understand, Thatcherism was a dialectic process. The withdrawal of the state from the regulation of the economy required a dramatic advance of centralised state power into other areas of society. The police became rapidly stronger, while local government and other dispersed centres of power such as universities lost much of their autonomy. A government commission prowled the land closing down university departments deemed superfluous, while Mrs T completed her abolition of the metropolitan counties by cancelling the democratic self- government of London. In a constitutional state, acts of that order are regarded as impeachable treason against liberties entrenched by supreme law. Paine, in his own time, correctly saw that no state that undertakes such acts can call itself "constitutional" (as Burke called Britain). "A constitution," he wrote, "is a thing antecedent to a government, and a government is only the creature of a constitution . . . the English government is one of those which arose out of a conquest, and not out of society, and consequently it arose over the people."
Only one public document of the Thatcher period perceived and proclaimed the true nature of those events. This was the 1988 "Claim of Right for Scotland", the mission statement of the cross-party Constitutional Convention which was later to be the midwife of Scottish devolution. And its language was strikingly Paineite. "We have now reached the point where the Prime Minister has in practice a degree of arbitrary power few, if any, English and no Scottish monarchs have rivalled. Yet he or she still hides behind the fiction of royal sanction and the pretence of deference to parliament to give legitimacy to a concentration of power without parallel in western society . . ."
The message of Tom Paine to Britain in the 1980s, then, was that the British power structure was an anachronism. Tradition and history, much of them recently fabricated, were being used to justify the survival of a highly authoritarian system. Based on the antiquated doctrine of the sovereignty of parliament, found nowhere else in the modern world, these institutions could not guarantee the rights either of individuals or of the supposedly autonomous bodies that composed civil society. Further, they were producing an accelerating drain of power towards London, where it became even less accountable. Further still, the British/English esprit des lois was blatantly out of synch with the republican, constitutional structures of the European Union and its other member states.
The Liberals had always understood all this. But in the early 1990s, these Paineite principles began at last to be hoisted on board by the Labour Party, or at least by the new Labour intellectuals. The result is the deluge of constitutional reform released by the Blair government: Scottish and Welsh devolution with modern voting systems, the enunciation of human rights as law, the new deal for big-city government through elected mayors, the Good Friday Agreement on Northern Ireland, the intention to evict the hereditary peers from the Lords. It's true that the deluge is now narrowing to a trickle: nobody can now set a date for English regional government or the referendum on PR for Westminster elections. But this is the achievement for which Tony Blair will be remembered even though he may not really understand the pent-up impetus behind the changes he has unleashed, or the strange places to which they may carry him.
So is this another time when we can forget about Tom Paine a little, assuming - as in the 1950s - that his main points have been taken by those in power? Unfortunately not. The old staymaker and exciseman is still our contemporary, and he has plenty more to tell us. He would not, for example, have accepted that incorporating a schedule of human rights into law is an adequate substitute for a written constitution. New Labour is trying to edge round the huge obstacle of parliamentary absolutism rather than to abolish it. It is true that every year now brings new practical limits on the exercise of that sovereignty - the deference to decisions and judgements from Europe, the rapid expansion of judicial review. But the British state still remains an archaic and monarchical structure in which the power-flow is from top to bottom, rather than upwards from the basic communities of a nation that license higher levels of government to exercise power on their behalf.
It is time that Paine was "repatriated". But the difficulties of getting him into the mainstream of education in this country will be great. Even those who admire him often misunderstand him. The Tory years ended in an upsurge of criticism aimed at the royal family, leaving behind it an impressive number of people who declared themselves recruits to "republicanism". But most of these recruits imagined that a republic was simply a state that had dismissed its monarchy. They had no idea of the democratic revolution that is required to establish republican institutions on the basis of popular sovereignty. Paine could have warned them against states which have no king, but no republican constitution either. Hitler's Germany, for example.
The network of Thomas Paine Societies has kept his memory alive, but rather in the manner of a resistance movement in enemy-occupied territory. Even now many Englishmen regard him as a traitor and defector - a blasphemer against the crown who fled to join the king's enemies in the American and then the French revolutions. In Thetford, his birthplace, American airmen stationed nearby during the last war put up a tablet to him: "This simple son of England lives on through the ideals and principles of the democratic world for which we fight today." And years after the war they presented Thetford with a full-sized bronze statue of Paine which stands outside the town hall. They thought the town would be grateful. But though the burghers restrained themselves over the plaque, the statue - blindingly gilded a few years ago by American subscription - was once tarred and feathered in the night, and it's said that the town council debated a Tory motion to erect another plaque with the details of Paine's conviction for seditious libel.
Not everyone in Thetford feels like this. The local Labour Party honours Tom Paine, and I once went to a Paine celebration in the town attended by Michael Foot. But even he remarked that the old boy had gone a bit too far when he demanded the abolition of monarchy and a written constitution. So which Paine, I wondered, were we supposed to be proud of? Perhaps the proto-shop-steward Paine, whose first pamphlet was written to support an excisemens' pay claim.
Memories like these suggest that repatriating Citizen Paine will be an uphill task even in Blairite Britain. Cobbett tried to bring his bones back from America in 1819, but nobody knows what became of them; one story says that they were lost in Liverpool, another that the bag containing them was washed overboard during the voyage. England (unlike Scotland and Ireland, where he has always been read and understood) is still reluctant to take him back. If a Thomas Paine statue does get erected in London, it should not be in Parliament Square (facing an unreformed institution he despised) but at the Angel in Islington, where he wrote The Rights of Man in the pub. Failing that, he should stand in the park next to Highgate cemetery. Here he can look down on all the other exiles who were not prophets in their own countries.
Neal Ascherson is a columnist for the "Observer"