It is often said that Britain’s revolution happened too early to make much of a difference. Rather than waiting for the emergence of liberalism (like France and America) or socialism (like Russia and China), Britain deposed an absolute monarch and handed the country to a bourgeois tyrant who opposed universal suffrage on the grounds that it posed a threat to private property. Though somewhat more democratic today than under Cromwell, British political progress has always been constrained by the understanding that radical politics are somehow profoundly un-British. Sure… people take to the streets from time to time but ask the wrong question or allow injustice to anger you for even a second and that very human emotional response will be used against you like a cudgel, or indeed a truncheon.
The British establishment has never been squeamish about using violence to subdue domestic radicals, but it does recognise that some groups are harder to put down than others. Race and religion are still used as a justification for violent repression (as they were in Ireland and in the aftermath of 9/11) but when the radicals start looking a little bit too white and middle-class, the tactics generally shift to smears and mockery. Central to this undertaking has been the re-invention of the British radical as stock comic character.
The vision of British radicals as comically inept hypocrites informed the 1970s sitcom Citizen Smith. Written by the same man who created Only Fools and Horses, Citizen Smith’s Walter ‘Wolfie’ Smith uses Marxist posturing to conceal the fact that he is little more than an oafish petty criminal content to sponge off of his girlfriend’s family.
A similar set of ideas is evident in Disney’s Mary Poppins, in which the Character of Mrs. Banks returns home from a Suffragette rally singing about being a soldier. The scene is played for laughs and the implication is that Mrs. Banks is not only an inattentive mother who can’t be bothered to raise her own children but also an upper middle-class hypocrite who plays the radical before returning home to an army of maids, cooks, and nannies paid for by a wealthy husband.
It bothers me that Mrs. Banks is one of the most enduring depictions of a Suffragette in popular culture.
It bothers me that the fight for women’s suffrage was ever deemed a subject worthy of mockery.
It bothers me that Britain’s radical tendencies have been systematically scorned and buried by self-serving cultural elites.
It bothers me that the history of Britain has been re-written but I am delighted that some films are beginning to challenge the idea that Britain lacks a radical spark. Poised somewhere between the transcendentalism of Steve McQueen’s Hunger and the humanism of Chris Morris’ Four Lions, Sarah Gavron’s Suffragette is an exploration of what it would take to turn a normal working-class mum into a revolutionary. Suffragette is a film marked by the stirring of Britain’s radical soul.