Great British Ideas


01Sunday Feature2011022020120718In this new series for BBC Radio 3, historian Tristram Hunt rediscovers the stories of three ideas that emerged in Britain - and then traces how their impact has spread far beyond our shores.

In the first programme, Tristram explores how the insight of the great British economist, the Reverend Robert Malthus (1766-1834), wreaked havoc in 19th century India - and yet was later adopted by Indians themselves. Malthus argued that the number of people in the world will always tend to increase faster than the supply of food to feed them. The only way to prevent this was to act to lower the birth rate. Or to wait for famine, war and disease to intervene.

Tristram begins in Hertfordshire, among the elegant quadrangles of what was once the home of the East India Company's training college. Here, he discovers, Malthus taught for almost thirty years, shaping the worldview of future colonial governors. But soon he follows the trainees' journey to India. When famines began to strike India in the later 19th century, many administrators responded on Malthusian lines. Famine was inevitable. Spending a fortune to save lives was at best a ""necessary evil"".

In Delhi, Tristram visits the site of the astonishing 1877 'Durbar', an eye-popping display of Imperial grandeur - which began just as news was emerging of a terrible famine in southern India. And he discovers how, amid a week-long feast for thousands of dignitaries, one senior British administrator was dispatched south. His mission: to stop the regional government spending too much money on famine relief.

From there, Tristram travels to Chennai (formerly Madras) to learn about the apocalyptic horror the region endured, at the cost of millions of lives. He listens to a Tamil folk song which mourns the suffering of people driven to dig up roots and give away their children in their struggle to survive. And then - astonishingly - he discovers how Malthus' ideas were taken up by Indians themselves, from campaigns for contraception in the 1930s to the coercive sterilisation campaigns of the 1970s.

But finally Tristram asks whether the malign uses to which Malthus has been put mean that his basic idea can be safely ignored? Or is the ongoing growth of the world's population a serious issue that urgently needs our attention, for the good of everyone?

With Professor David Arnold, Dr Minoti Chakravatry-Kaul, Dr David Hall-Matthews, Dr Chandrika Kaul, Professor A.R. Venkatachalapathy, Associate Professor S. Anandhi, Professor Mohan Rao, Sir Jonathon Porritt.

PRESENTER: Tristram Hunt MP

PRODUCER: Phil Tinline.

02Sunday Feature2011022720120719In Great British Ideas, historian Tristram Hunt explores ideas which have been developed in Britain or by British thinkers and follows their influence abroad. In this programme he charts the intellectual currents between England and Ireland in the 1840's as two nationalist movements emerge onto the political stage.

'Young England', a Tory clique led by future Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, wanted to reach back into history, glorifying models of English medievalism and feudalism to solve the chronic social problems unleashed by the Industrial Revolution. Watching it closely, 'Young Ireland' was born in Dublin. They were a small group of agitating Repealers who also re-imagined Ireland's heroic past as a way of forging a new route for Irish nationalism; breaking from its father figure, Daniel O'Connell. Both groups reacted against mechanistic Utilitarianism, and both groups were trying to create a new politics by looking for inspiration from the past. But this is also the story of a British idea, used to tear apart the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.

By following the influences of Thomas Carlyle, Jeremy Bentham, O'Connell, Disraeli and Gladstone, the historian Tristram Hunt MP pieces together the flow of ideas between these two 'Young' movements as the 'Irish question' began to demand an answer.

03 LASTSunday Feature2011030620120720Historian Tristram Hunt explores the surprising tale of a largely forgotten English journalist and economist, John Atkinson Hobson, and the book he wrote which inspired Lenin.

Hobson was a bourgeois liberal - the sort of writer one might think a communist hardliner like Lenin would despise. But as Tristram discovers, Hobson's attack on the economics of the British Empire caught the exiled Lenin's attention in the first years of the 20th century - and formed a major part of his own attack on Imperialism on the eve of his seizure of power in the Russian Revolution.

Tristram discovers how a visit to South Africa in the descent into the Boer War spurred Hobson into a blistering attack on what he saw as the true motive for Imperial conquest. This was neither glory, nor territorial greed, nor the quest for raw material but a search for new investment opportunities away from an ossified, over-saving British economy. This argument was marred by a strain of anti-Semitism against Jewish city financiers on Hobson's part - despite the fact that his chief target was Cecil Rhodes.

Tristram goes on to explore how a shivering, impoverished Lenin arrived in London in 1902, the same year Hobson's controversial book is published. He takes a ride on an open-topped bus, just as Lenin did, to discover how this militant communist marvelled at the capitalist might of the Empire's capital city.

He traces how Lenin likely came across Hobson's book in London and took it to Switzerland to translate it - even as Hobson's countrymen were busy ignoring or opposing his case.

And he discovers how - with the advent of the First World War - Hobson's notion that imperial rivalry can lead to war seemed to some, Lenin included, like a prescient argument. Tristram hears how this worldview helped to shape Lenin's suspicious attitude to the Western powers once he was in power himself - and how it even helped to shape his domestic economic policy.

From there, Tristram traces how, through Lenin, this anti-imperialist critique found its way to the Indian nationalist leader, Jawaharlal Nehru.

In the 1930s, as many thought capitalism was entering its death-throes, and as communism and fascism seemed to some to offer a solution, the ideas of Hobson found their way back to Britain - via Lenin. The young communist John Strachey's left-wing ardour led him back to the ideas his elderly liberal fellow-countryman - even as he was doing his best to preach the last rites for liberal Britain.

With: Vladimir Buldakov, Professor Peter Cain, Dr Shruti Kapila, Professor Anthony Webster, Professor Christoper Read, Professor Noel Thompson

PRESENTER: Tristram Hunt MP

PRODUCER: Phil Tinline.