Skip to main content


England’s new civil war

Richard Harris in the 1970 film Cromwell

Robert Harris’s latest bestseller, Act of Oblivion, explores the English Civil War and puritanism. It’s a period we tend to “shy away from”, says Esther Walker in the I newspaper. As a country, we’re obsessed with history books about the Tudors and the Second World War: times our nation was “relatively harmonious, singing Greensleeves or ‘Digging for Victory’”. We’re less keen to remember the times we “grassed on each other for various made-up thought crimes” and slaughtered our neighbours. We find the era’s lack of religious tolerance “just plain embarrassing”.

So why has Harris set his book in this “unfashionable age”? Because of the striking parallels with our present culture. Back then they had witch trials; today online vigilantes expose “modern heresies”, from “dog whistle racism” to “failing to check your privilege”. Like puritans obsessed with Papists, our mood has turned “sour against all privilege”: on dating apps, being a “Tory” has become the ultimate insult. Battle lines are drawn in all sorts of debates, from Brexit and refugees to “that ultimate divisive topic”: whether to take your shoes off when visiting someone’s home. Those on the “other side” of all these issues aren’t just wrong: they’re “actively evil”. Act of Oblivion serves as the perfect “cautionary tale” about the “queasy cycle of attack and retribution” that could come of our conflict-ridden identity politics.