22 June 2009

House of Paine

Much has been made this year of two anniversaries of Charles Darwin - the 150th of the publication of On the Origin Of Species and the 200th of his birth. And that is as it should be for a truly great Briton and this country's most important scientific work. But another bicentennial anniversary passed recently of the death of an equally important British figure who goes unremarked these days, Thomas Paine. In the 2002 BBC poll of 100 Greatest Britons, Darwin cracked the top ten, whereas Paine reached the giddy heights of 34, just behind David Beckham and Eric Morecambe.

If Paine remains overlooked by his countrymen these days, then he hasn't necessarily fallen far, since his funeral on 8 June 1809 was attended by just 6 people. Having successfully alienated his native land, by his denunciation of the British Monarchy, he proceeded to lose American friends in his adopted country by his outspoken views on organised religion. He made it his life's work to rally against mental and physical enslavement, offending many people in the process through his refusal to compromise his principles.

No doubt Paine would have a wry smile to think how Oliver Cromwell can cut a King's head off, appoint himself dictator, and somehow become treated as the father of modern British democracy, whereas Paine wrote books that are still readable today, that profoundly influenced the direction and tide of the American and French revolutions, as well as bequeathing us the idea of human rights, and doesn't merit so much as a footnote in GCSC history. Cromwell gets a statue in Parliament Square; Paine has a statue in Norfolk.

No doubt those MPs in the Commons tonight, voting for a new speaker to give them a fig leaf of respectability, would feel Paine's fierce glare. And they'd do well to remember one of his more memorable quotes: "Lead, follow, or get out of the way."

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