Foreword to Giles Wynne's abridged version of AL Morton's 'A People's History of England'
Arthur Leslie Morton's 'A People's History of England' is a classic. Morton (1903-1987) takes us back to when humans first inhabited this land and then on a forward journey that ends on the eve of the Second World War. His book shows that countless millions have inhabited this place we call England, from ancient hunter gatherer tribes and the 'Beaker People', to the Vikings, Normans and those of the industrial age.
As I was reading this abridged version by Giles Wynne, I could not help but recall the words of the late astrophysicist Carl Sagan, who stated that generals, kings, rulers and politicians have spilled rivers of blood just to become temporary masters of some or other part of the planet and that endless cruelties have been visited by the inhabitants of one corner of the globe upon inhabitants in another corner.
Morton accounts for the plight of the ordinary person, both here and abroad, who has borne the brunt of war, famine, exploitation and the political machinations of tyrants and unscrupulous leaders, whether Roman, medieval monarch, feudal baron or modern day capitalist.
He describes the rise of feudalism and its decline, the agrarian revolution that led to population increase, the English Revolution, where the people pushed Cromwell and others to get rid of the monarch, the rape of Ireland, colonial expansion and the Industrial Revolution.
As this land grew to be the pre-eminent world power, ordinary people struggled to find a voice within these shifting tectonic plates of history. Nevertheless, they succeeded.
Morton discusses the development of the working class movement and subsequent struggles: he notes the impact of the Peasants' Revolt, Peterloo, trade unionism and many other inspiring events that litter the historical landscape of England.
The conclusion to be drawn is that most change that has benefited ordinary people has resulted from the actions of ordinary folk themselves. Such benefits have never been handed out freely by the rich and powerful. This is true for women’s rights and political freedoms, as much as it is for workers' rights or any other number of gains.
If Morton shows us anything, it is that, when conscious of their class interests and sources of oppression, ordinary folk acting together can and do make a difference.
In the latter stages of the book, Morton highlights the driving forces of imperialism, which led to the mass slaughter of two world wars. Today, under the guise of ‘globalisation’ or outright war, western powers continue to plunder the world and wage war.
History can teach us much - but only if we listen.
‘A People’s History of England’ is a rallying call for action. The slaughter, deceptions and barbarity have gone on for too long.