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For a Civic and Constitutional Republic 


Issue No 104 15 July 2012

This Week

  • Annie Besant:  And How the BBC Airbrushes Out Our Great Republican History

News Stories

Highlighting news stories important to the Civic Republican view, particularly those that are overlooked or little covered in the main media.

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  • Annie Besant:  And How the BBC Airbrushes Out Our Great Republican History


Peter Kellow writes:

Three weeks ago Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time programme was devoted to one of the most charismatic and radical thinkers and activists of the late nineteenth century: Annie Besant. She was described in Melvyn’s introduction as a fighter for social reform, secularism, women’s rights, freedom of speech, socialism, Irish home rule, better conditions for workers, birth control, and Indian nationalism. All of that is true but why leave out a further important ideal that she fought for: republicanism.

Her long and close relationship with Charles Bradlaugh, a writer, publisher and MP is described but Bradlaugh emerges only as a secularist, reformer, atheist and free thinker. Again an equally important and obvious point about Bradlaugh is that he was a republican. He was editor of a journal called the Republican for many years and was elected four times as an MP for Northampton but never took his seat in the Commons. The reason for this is that, as a republican, he refused each time to swear the oath of allegiance to the queen, as all elected MPs must do before they can sit. His refusal to swear the oath is mentioned in the programme but amazingly Bragg and the three academic experts all manage to skirt around the reason why. But surely they owe it to the listeners and to Bradlaugh himself to clarify and respect his reason for this – his passionate republicanism.

But no. Not once, in a programme about an important republican figure in British history and the radical, often republican, world she moved in, is the ‘r’ word used. Besant herself was the author of a pamphlet called English Republicanism published in 1878 and when, in later life, after a long and amazing trajectory, she became a member of the Indian National Congress in 1918 again she took up her republicanism. All this is ignored. There were many sides to Besant’s life but republicanism was also important to her clearly. To sweep this under the carpet shames the academic participants in the programme and does a huge disservice to the listeners who naturally think that such an expert panel lead by the inquiring mind of Melvyn Bragg will give them a fair and honest picture of Annie Besant. And it betrays her legacy

This is by no means the first time this has happened on In Our Time. A programme dedicated to the Mary Wollstonecraft, who is widely regarded as the first person to take up the issue or women’s right in a radical way, again steered clear of the word ‘republican’. Wollstonecraft is remembered chiefly for her Vindication of the Rights of Women, published in 1792 but two years earlier she had published Vindication of the RightS of Men in response to Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), a defense of constitutional monarchy and aristocracy and the Church of England, Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790) attacks aristocracy and advocates republicanism.

To airbrush out republicanism from our history in this way invalidates any claim that In Our Time might have to impartiality and sound scholarship. The British nation, from the days of the First Republic or Commonwealth in the seventh century right up to the end of the nineteenth century, was a hotbed of republicanism and republican thought. Yes, this this often called itself radical or reforming, as there were so many ills in society and so much poverty and injustice that direct republican concerns were not always shouted about the most loudly. But, nevertheless, republican sympathies underpinned much of the radicalism.


Returning to the Annie Besant programme, at one point one of the academics starts talking about a key British republican of the early nineteenth century, Richard Carlile. This must have mystified many listeners as he was only ever referred to by his surname and so many must have confused this reference with his near contemporary, Thomas Carlyle. Carlile was a prominent figure and published the journal The Republican. Was Carlile’s republicanism mentioned? I will leave you to guess the answer.

In his 2005 book, Democracy and Populism: Fear and Hatred, John Lukacs, the great political and social historian wrote (pages 197-8):

… there is a relatively new phenomemon .. an appetite for history. …by the middle of the twentieth century and thereafter all kinds of histories began to outsell novels….many academic historians are blissfully unaware of the roiling, burgeoning appetite for history, and what this might mean for their craft”.

This is far more than a superficial comment. History has become a deep concern of many in all sorts of ways – and so it should. We are to a great extent our history

The “appetite for history” has not escaped the BBC but for them it has to mean almost exclusively history of the monarchy. David Starkey, an historian well-versed and interested in the constitutional history of the Kingdom, confines his BBC programmes to the subject of monarchy. But it is hard to imagine the BBC commissioning him to do a history referring to the three R’s so central to British history – radicalism, reformism and republicanism.

A new series called The Hollow Crown will use Shakespeare’s “history” (i.e. monarchy) plays to make up a continuous history (of monarchs). There is no end to it.

No one could possible disagree that one of the most interesting period’s of British history, if not the most interesting, must be the period leading up to and including the First Republic of 1648-60. Not only was this period tumultuous but so much of what our nation is now was laid down in that period, and this in spite of the Restoration. But does the BBC ever go near it? The closest was a recent series on the Restoration by Lucy Worsley which told us about how everybody was so relieved to get back into makeup and perfumed wigs after those drab days of the Commonwealth. Naturally, it was not thought fit to mention the violent religious and political persecution imposed by the restored king and how that contrasted with the tolerance of the Commonwealth.

It was left to Channel Four to do a drama on the Commonwealth period a couple of years ago called The Devil’s Whore. Not bad, for starters, but could we have some real history as well?

A few years ago a BBC Open University programme by historian, Peter Ackroyd, called Romantics, dwelt on another absorbing time in British history – around the turn of the eighteenth century when all kinds of radical and, yes, republican ideas were abroad. Ackroyd focused his programme on poets, William Blake, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Woodsworth. All of these had revolutionary, republican sympathies but again the distinguished historian managed to get through the whole programme without mentioning the ‘r’ word – an astonishing feat in view of the material he dealt with.

The omission of republicanism as an element of our history is a distortion of the truth. It represents a censorship worthy of the old Soviet block or China today. It is a deliberate attempt to keep the people in ignorance. But we are supposed to live in a free democracy where the truth is what matters. There can only be one explanation behind the suppression of the ‘r’ word and this is the same thing that motivated suppression of the truth in the Soviet block and motivates it in China today: fear.


The present monarchical structure in spite of all pretence to the contrary is highly fragile. It presents an impressive, opulent face to the world but the values of privilege and inherited wealth and power that underpin it are not ones that will for long be welcome in the modern world we live in

The lack of realism and desire to protect the establishment produces an acute fear of disruption and even revolution. The establishment cannot even begin to see that a different kind of society is possible. Nor does it wish to as so many of its members profit from the inequality and the privilege

And our public broadcasting service has sold out to distorting history and denying the truth in order to protect values fewer and fewer people share

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