In 1990, Bee Wilson, now the NS food columnist, brought down the Thatcher government
The recent sectarian clashes at Holy Cross school remind me of when we were filming in Northern Ireland. The first person to greet me in Portadown was a wiry Ulsterman who immediately inquired: "What do you know about history?" I mumbled something about a doctorate. He wasn't impressed. It was the morning of the 12 July Orange Order parades, which commemorate not only the Battle of the Boyne, but also the massacre of Protestants by Catholics during the 1641 Irish rebellion. The banners they hold aloft today depict the Protestants of Portadown being drowned in the freezing winter waters of the river Bann. As a good north London liberal, I had fully expected the Orangemen to be pathologically bigoted and mindlessly obstructive. I was disappointed. The Ulstermen we talked to were intensely knowledgeable and helpful - and displayed a wicked if bleak sense of humour. For them, history lives, and the symbols and drama of the civil war of the 1640s are a part of their contemporary political currency. Yet whether that gives them the right to march through Catholic neighbourhoods beating drums bearing the legend "Cromwell and Terror", I remain less convinced of.
Reviews of Civil War* have been, as they say, mixed. Yes, yes, my voice is a bit loud and I use my hands too much. And no one really liked a sequence using a snooker table to explain the interaction between England, Scotland and Ireland. However, the criticism I really enjoyed was from the Daily Mail. A man called Peter Paterson asked why the programme had all this nonsense about "the wording of the Scottish Presbyterian prayer book" and wasn't simply an account of "the glorious tussle between Roundheads and Cavaliers"? Well, Peter, I'm afraid history is a bit more complicated than that and the war extended beyond the denizens of Middle England. Reading such dross, I find solace in the wise words of the actor Vinnie Jones. "The reviewers know who they are. And more importantly, I know who they are."
With the TV series now on air, I have returned to writing a book on Victorian cities. With every day of research, there emerges the problematic truth that it was not the Thatcher government of the 1980s that destroyed local government, but the postwar Attlee administration. Their comprehensive nationalisation of the health service, education, housing and, above all, utilities destroyed the old fabric of civic provision. By the time of rate-capping and the poll tax, local self-government was a dead duck. In 1946, delegates to the Association of Municipal Corporations conference warned of the dangers of central interference. "You have only to look around the world today and find that efforts are being made to govern countries without local authorities, and we want to avoid that by all means in this country." The speaker? A certain Alderman Roberts.
History can move in mysterious ways. Who would have thought that Bee Wilson, the New Statesman food columnist and brilliant Cambridge historian, brought down the government led by Alderman Roberts's daughter? In the summer of 1990, Bee was doing work experience at the Spectator. Running out of tasks to give her, the editor Dominic Lawson asked Bee to transcribe a tape-recording of an interview with the then trade secretary, Nicholas Ridley. The first hour of the tape was taken up with a discussion of shipbuilding in Tyneside (a subject on which Lawson was remarkably proficient) and then turned to the future of Europe. At this point, according to Bee, the tape became rather fuzzy. After dismissing the European Union as a "German racket", Ridley then said something unintelligible about Franco-German relations. Unsure of his words, Bee decided Ridley had condemned the French as "poodles" of Germany. Lawson was slightly taken aback by this description, but Bee stuck to her guns and Lawson put it in. A week later, Ridley was out. Four months later, Geoffrey Howe would resign in fury at the government's anti-European approach and quickly following him went Margaret Thatcher herself. I think the old historical adage about unintended consequences might change from Cleopatra's nose to Bee Wilson's transcription.
Dr David Starkey recently called me a Marxist for wanting to extend popular accounts of history beyond court rivalries and sexual politics. And, as such, I am looking forward enormously to Gareth Stedman Jones's new introduction to the 1848 Communist Manifesto. This is the first time that Penguin has reissued the text since A J P Taylor's classic introductory essay of 35 years ago. As the foremost historian of socialist thought, Stedman Jones promises a revolutionary reinterpretation of the Manifesto, as well as stripping Marxism of the anachronistic political baggage that the right is so fond of donating to it. But will Stedman Jones answer this vital question: which seat did Karl Marx regularly occupy at the British Library? I have always been taught it was H14, but never had it confirmed.
As every schoolboy once knew, the English civil war ends with the execution of Charles I. Matthew Taylor, director of the Institute for Public Policy Research, offers a suggestion of how to recount the moment a la Jamie Oliver. "Don't cut it off, rip it off. Bit of basil. Drizzle of olive oil."
* Tristram Hunt's Open University/BBC2 Series Civil War continues at 8.30pm on Monday