On the day of ‘conviction politician’ Margaret Thatcher’s quasi-state funeral with all its pomp and pretence, Doug Nicholls reminds us of the life of a ‘tinker and poor man’, who spent years behind bars for his radical conviction and belief in the common good.
Thatcher’s choice of a verse from John Bunyan at her funeral is one of those great ironies of British history.
That a former prime minister, so unlettered and uncouth, would choose words from a poor itinerant tinker and preacher who in fact inspired the early trade union movement is a testament to the comical ignorance of right-wing politicians.
We may be used to hearing the Women’s Institute and the Proms belting out William Blake’s great poem Jerusalem and smiling to ourselves at the blissful ignorance of those, so tearful with their warm and comforting jingoism and English cuddliness, as they sing one of the great songs of socialism.
But Bunyan at Thatcher’s funeral takes the biscuit.
Thatcher perhaps associated Bunyan with strong determination and the successful struggle against all odds.
No doubt she saw in him the implacable conviction she liked to demonstrate herself.
The fact is that he exercised and expressed such virtues only to motivate an ideology linked to the early formulation of socialist and, indeed, revolutionary thinking.
His 70 books and pamphlets speak of relentless struggles against injustice, tyranny and the mind-forged manacles that bind individuals to an oppressive system.
The Nonconformist Protestant tradition of which Bunyan was a key and leading part was a radical one and Bunyan fought on the parliamentary side in the civil war.
This irony should not be lost on us either as Thatcher was the first prime minister in the postwar period to largely override parliamentary democracy.
Her signing of the European Act, for example, removed Britain’s sovereignty and no amount of her whining about the Common Agricultural Policy and rebates and so on could conceal the fact that it was her government that put the EU in control of Britain’s political economy and above its Parliament.
Bunyan wrote during the time of the first republican commonwealth, which he supported. And he was imprisoned after its collapse for preaching without a Church of England licence.
He fixed pots and pans and made shoe laces to keep his impoverished family together. He was a popular preacher of a radical, class-conscious gospel.
Christian, the hero of Pilgrim’s Progress, identifies his enemies as “the Lord Luxurious, the Lord desire of Vain Glory, my old Lord Lechery, Sir Having Good, with the rest of our nobility.”
A monster called Apollyon symbolises the state that stands in the way of human happiness and punishes dissent.
Bunyan repeatedly scorns the politics of accommodation and compromise with this state. He feared that the incorruptible inheritance of the progressive spirit would be ruined by the politics of defeatism and compromise.
Bunyan reminds us often that the everyday acts of goodness among working people and against exploitation wear out the rulers.
“… by small
Accomplish great things, by things deemed weak
Subverting worldly strong, and worldly wise
By simply meek.”
After his death, as the first working class in Britain grew and developed independently, Bunyan’s works of struggle against adversity and exploitation struck a chord and Pilgrim’s Progress became the most widely read book after the Bible.
It was especially loved by the first organised trade unionists and campaigners for political reform and extension of the franchise.
In short, Bunyan expressed the radical tradition of the English revolution, the Good Old Cause as it was sometimes called, and preserved it in terms that motivated the radicals of the industrial revolution period.
Bunyan was a gentle man. In his autobiographical work Grace Abounding he wrestles with his sense of personal sinfulness and it turns out that his worst excesses were no more than profanity, dancing and bell-ringing.
These are hardly sins by today’s standards and the bell-ringing, ecstatic dancing and rightly abusive language that hard-working people will share today will be a fitting send off to a monster that Bunyan’s Christian would have slain.
- Doug Nicholls is Chair of the Chooseyouth campaign.
- Three great socialist historians have written excellent works on Bunyan: Jack Lindsay (John Bunyan, Maker of Myths, 1937), Christopher Hill, (A Tinker and a Poor Man, John Bunyan and his Church 1628-1688, 1969) and EP Thompson (The Making of the English Working Class, 1963).