The Many Not the Few: an Illustrated History of Britain Shaped by the People

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This is an ambitious attempt to narrate some of the major battles of British working class history in a way which is accessible and entertaining to a new generation. It is an attempt which largely succeeds, even if it does leave some important questions unanswered.

By using the graphic novel format the authors immediately prevent the publication looking like an intimidating, dry, traditional history book. The lively, detailed illustrations and straight forward text make the whole thing look fun and inviting, as indeed it is. The intelligent and eye catching cartoons work to include extra detail there’s not room for in the text, as well as adding some subtle jokes, such as the appearance of E P Thompson addressing an anti-enclosure protest through a megaphone!

There are ten main events explained, from the 14th century Peasants’ Revolt right up to Brexit, taking in the Levellers and the Luddites, the Chartists and the growth of trade unions on the way. The fact that these episodes are discussed on an equal footing by a retired union rep, Joe, and his granddaughter, Arushi, ensures that they are presented in a way which underlines the rich diversity of working class history. Joe stresses that learning shouldn’t be top down, and by having the two narrators, we are reminded that education should be collaborative and two way. The dialogue between them also allows for an element of family humour.

However, this doesn’t mean that the rest of the content is lightweight, despite its necessary brevity. Complicated historical events are introduced, the role of class as a motor of history discussed and contentious ideological issues examined. The authors make no pretence of producing an unbiased historical account; instead they are clear that this is our history from our point of view, and for this alone it is to be welcomed.

At the same time, I did notice that debates were often introduced but not resolved: was the Russian Revolution a good thing, were the TUC right to call off the General Strike, was the Second World War really a fight against fascism, are the police “workers in uniform”, is the EU progressive? Ultimately, the question haunting the whole book is the same one haunting our movement during the events it covers; should we seek representation in parliament or pursue extra parliamentary action, is reform or revolution the way to end the injustices highlighted by this history?

Perhaps a book so short in pages but huge in its ambition has not the space or remit to answer this central question, and it is enough that it is raised. As one Jeremy Corbyn says in the introduction, “debate, discussion and learning from the struggles of others not only informs but also empowers us all”. Hopefully the book will introduce some younger readers (such as Arushi) to a hidden history, and leave them to draw their own conclusions for future action. In so doing, it will be like the poems, songs and stories referred to in its pages, a way of keeping our tradition and history alive.