Mark Steel: The 12 greatest Britons ... an alternative view of our nation's history

Roundup: Talking About History

The Tories, being cool and young, have presented a list of top people. Because everything now is judged by lists, which is why every night there's a television programme called something like The 50 Top TV Wasps. And the Tories' list, of British people who've created the nation, tries to be modern and inclusive and ignores Churchill and Thatcher, and there was probably someone who suggested replacing Alfred the Great with Lily Allen.

For example, they include Aneurin Bevan, the socialist minister credited with creating the National Health Service. I suppose the thinking is, "He's extremely important, because if he hadn't formed the NHS, we wouldn't have a chance of selling it off." But the whole idea of this list is flawed, firstly because it assumes history is created solely by a handful of monarchs, generals or geniuses. The NHS wasn't just a product of Bevan's brilliance, but a response to a widespread sentiment among millions of people that the working class should be rewarded for the war effort. Which is why one official Labour Party pamphlet in the 1945 election began: "The capitalist is a leech that sucks the worker's blood." To be honest, I didn't read the last Labour manifesto, but I think that bit might have been dropped.

Also, hardly anyone now suggests Britain is created just by the British. Beethoven, Bob Marley, Dante, James Joyce, Jesus and whoever invented the panini all shaped our culture more than most Englishmen. Nonetheless, if the Tories really want to big up an English crew for the times, here are my suggestions for the people they could choose:


Or whatever she's called now. Here was a woman who responded to the occupation of her people's land by attacking the invading forces, and burning down towns, including London. To which the Romans declared: "But why doesn't anyone look at the positive things that are happening?" and insisted they would stay until the job was done and the insurgents defeated.

Wat Tyler

One effect of the Black Death, a plague that wiped out a quarter of the population in the 14th century, was to create a labour shortage. There was such a demand for peasants to till land that they became like modern plumbers, offering their services to landowners, while saying "I'm booked up 'til April mate. I could get my brother to come round to do a quick rotation crop job but it'll cost yer." So the landowners fought back by introducing a rule that no peasant could leave their estate, and they brought in a poll tax, to be paid by every peasant aged 14 or over. Inspectors were sent round to assess whether a peasant was 14 by checking whether they had pubic hair.

A revolt against this began in Essex and Kent, where Wat Tyler rode around making speeches. Eventually Tyler led an army of 60,000 peasants into London, where the good people of Southwark allowed them through a drawbridge, and they burnt down the tax office. In the end, Tyler was tricked into attending a meeting with the King, where he was murdered with a dagger. But in the aftermath serfdom was abolished, and from that day to this, no British leader was stupid or arrogant enough to introduce a poll tax ever, ever again....

[The Conservatives' choice of great Britons]

St Columba (521-597)

A Gaelic missionary, known as Columba of Iona, who reintroduced Christianity to Britain.

Alfred The Great (849-899)

Defended Anglo-Saxon England from the Vikings, formulated laws and fostered a rebirth of religious and scholarly activity.

Henry II (1133-1189)

Under Henry, new judicial procedures were established and the first legal textbook was written.

Simon de Montfort (1208-1265)

Called the first directly elected parliament since ancient Athens. Laid down the foundations for the development of the House of Commons.

James IV of Scotland (1488-1513)

A true Renaissance prince who spoke 10 languages. Married Henry VII's daughter, Margaret Tudor.

Thomas Gresham (1519-1579)

English financier and founder of the Royal Exchange.

Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658)

Statesman, instrumental in making England a republic.

Isaac Newton (1643-1727)

Known as the greatest-ever scientist, his work on gravity and optics earned him the title the "father of physics".

Robert Clive (1725-1774)

Clive of India, he established the supremacy of the East India Company, securing Britain's interests in the sub-continent.

Robert Peel (1778-1850)

Founder of the Metropolitan Police and as prime minister oversaw social reform including the repeal of the Corn Laws.

Millicent Fawcett (1847-1929)

One of the leaders of the women's suffrage movement, known for her peaceful and rational approach.

Aneurin Bevan (1897-1960)

Minister of Health for the post-war Labour government and chief architect of the NHS.

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