Thomas Paine (January 29, 1737 – June 8, 1809) is my political hero. I didn't adopt his name as a nom de guerre because I agreed with all he wrote. I hubristically purloined it because I admired the force of his writing. "Common Sense" was the most influential pamphlet in the history of the world and - had the internet existed in the 18th Century - it would have been a blog post. In a vain (in both senses of the word) attempt at sympathetic magic, I hoped - when I began this blog over eleven years ago - that it might have half as much effect.
He left school at 12 and never went to university. He was an autodidact, spending spare cash on books and spare time on attending lectures and debates. It speaks to his greatness that he is claimed these days by both Left and Right - each conveniently ignoring those parts of his thought that don't match their thinking. He believed in society taking care of the weak and unfortunate but he did not confuse society in any way with the state. He was a sceptic when it came to government. He was reviled and assaulted in the USA he helped found because no sooner was the revolution over than he was attacking corruption in the new government. He was sentenced to death in Revolutionary France, where he sat in the National Assembly, for opposing the execution of the King and denouncing the Terror.
He died thinking himself a failure; disappointed with the outcomes of both the French and American revolutions and sad that he had not been able to incite one in England. But his words still echo. He proved that one person can make a difference if prepared to put his work before his safety. He's not alive any more but he's still dangerous. More so perhaps than the Lenin and Marx with whom Steinbeck once bracketed him. His ideas will live as long as free men breathe.
I was pleasantly surprised by the even-handed approach of Melvyn Bragg - a Labour luvvie if ever there was one - in presenting Paine's story in his "Radical Lives" series. I commend his programme to you.
At this moment of British Crisis, with rogues on both sides of the referendum debate playing on our fears, I also commend to you the words from Paine's American Crisis that Washington read aloud to his troops before the Battle of Trenton;
“These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives everything its value.”
I will not lower myself to conscript the dead to my cause as both Leave and Remain have done with Thatcher and Churchill. For all I know, Paine might have supported the EU, while demanding more effectively than we have ever done the application of real democracy and the extirpation of corruption in its governance. Still, I feel sure that the emotional response of free men and women to the aristos of the European elite should be the same as that of Paine to the "asses for lions" of the 18th Century. Our modern aristos are self-selected, rather than picked at random by nature, but their contempt for the people they seek to rule and their sense of entitlement to lord it over us, is every bit as profound. They should meet the same fate and I hope - in my own name not Tom's - that June 23rd begins their procession to a figurative guillotine.