I live in Lewes. For those who don’t know the place, its an ancient historic town – the county capital of East Sussex – which has tenaciously maintained its identity and traditions down the centuries.
Today (November 5th) sees the culmination of the most famous of those traditions with ‘Bonfire’: a colourful, loud ( in fact very loud) folk festival of fire and sound; costumed parades, fireworks and blazing torches celebrating a rather confused history. It commemorates both the martyrdom of 17 Protestants burned at the stake in the town centre in the reign of Queen ‘Bloody’ Mary in the 1550s, as part of her doomed bid to return the country to Rome.
Also it marks the foiling – on this November day – of the 1605 Gunpowder Plot – a doomed Catholic 9/11 style conspiracy to blow up the entire English Protestant Establishment – King, Lords and Commons – that can still serve as a stark warning of the dangers of violent religious extremism and terrorism very topical in our own day.
Although modern Bonfire has outgrown its frankly sectarian, Pope-burning origins, it is still a gloriously politically incorrect celebration of what was once known as ‘Merrie England’ and entirely in keeping with Lewes’s own radical past, and indeed of a certain cussedly contrarian spirit typical of Sussex. Not for nothing is the county’s motto the stubborn words ‘We won’t be druv’, for Lewes’s other main claim to fame besides Bonfire is that it was the place where the famous 18th/19th century radical Tom Paine got radicalised.
Paine, an excise officer from Suffolk, not only unionised his fellow officers during his time in Sussex (which apparently got him sacked) but started a debating society, the Headstrong Club, at which then shocking concepts such as Republicanism and questioning the existence of God were openly discussed.
Paine ended up writing ‘The Rights of Man’ and ‘The Age of Reason’ in which he questioned and debunked traditional authority, temporal and spiritual, and substantially contributed to the climate of thought whch brought about both the French and American revolutions – in both of which he took a leading role. In fact, true to the adage that revolutions devour their own children, Paine very nearly lost his head to the Guillotine in Paris when the radicalism which he advocated went just a tad too far.
Lewes, then, was imbued with the radical, rebellious spirit which led to the great upsurge of socialism in the 19th and early 20th centuries – and in its more extreme Communist form, to the great bloodbaths of the Russian, Chinese and other Third World revolutions that left half of humanity groaning in a totalitarian vice that only eased in 1989 with the collapse of Soviet-style Communism.
Britain, which experienced its own revolution deteriorating into dictatorship in the 17th century, steered clear of such extremism, thanks to its painfully achieved traditions of toleration, Parliamentary democracy, and peaceful political evolution. But it always hosted a healthy tradition of dissent: from the Levellers of the Civil War, through to the Chartists, and allowing Karl Marx, Lenin and their Communist cronies to plot here, the Suffragettes, the conscientious objectors in both world wars and the CND marchers from the 1960s-1980s.
In the 21st century, it seems, real radicalism in Britain curled up and died. It’s killers, like the murderers on the Orient Express, were legion. There was Tony Blair and New Labour smothering the ghost of Old Labour; there was the collapse of Communism and with it the socialist dream of human perfectibility; and there was the worldwide triumph of free market capitalism.
But if the Right had won all the economic arguments, it was the Left who seized the commanding heights of culture. From the 1960s onwards, the bastions of the hated old conservative establishments: Academia, the Judiciary, the BBC, the Police – fell to the Left. As a result, a new Establishment, Politically Correct, sympathetic to socialism, statist, pro the EU, fanatical about climate change; anti the nation state, anti-Christian, paternalist, authoritarian and downright creepy – is in command of our culture.
Many of the people who make up this establishment have failed to recognise their new status. Growing up in the 1960s when their views were considered shocking, or perhaps the children of those who did, they are blinded to how mainstream left wing thinking has become. Like teenagers wearing black to rebel they proudly display their ‘radical’ credentials, unaware that they only serve to highlight their aching conformity. Nowadays, it is those within the profoundly unfashionable classical liberal right who are swimming against the tide.
Although this sad state of affairs seems that it will last forever, history shows that at some point there will be a revolt – perhaps even a revolution – against this insidiously soft tyranny. And that it why, with the Left as our new ruling class, the new radicals, the real rebels, the Tom Paines of tomorrow, have got to be on the right.
Nigel Jones is a UKIP MEP candidate for the South-East Region.