He concedes there have been various "revolutionary moments" when radical change was a distinct possibility but the participants "failed to deliver the knock-out blow".
This holds true of many of the events McLynn discusses but what about 1649, when a king was executed and a non-monarchical regime was established? It comes down to definitions and, goodness knows, people have been arguing about the hallmarks of a genuine revolution for a very long time. McLynn would presumably argue that the aftermath of the English Civil War simply represented a changing of the guard within the existing system. I'd suggest regicide and a significant alteration of the political landscape smacks of authentic revolution.
This grumble aside, McLynn's book is thoroughly entertaining. It provides vivid accounts of a series of perilous periods in British history including the 14th-century Peasants' Revolt, the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536, the Civil War, the Jacobite Risings, Chartist stirrings in the 19th century and the 1926 General Strike.
McLynn has worked hard at synthesising the existing literature, though it's a shame he sometimes gets carried away by his gusto. His account of the Pilgrimage of Grace is the most conspicuous example. It is broadly reliable in terms of reporting events but some extraordinary words are written about Henry VIII. Henry could be ferocious but describing him as "the most bloodthirsty and vengeful sovereign imaginable" is a bit strong. According to McLynn he was prone to "sociopathic rage" and ended life as the "most horrendous of psychopaths". Henry killed lots of people and was perceived as a tyrant by some of his subjects but can we really suggest that "on some indices he was the most despicable human being who ever lived"?
Such lapses distract from the many virtues of McLynn's book. He has taken on a huge subject and ventured into some treacherous interpretative terrain. How, for instance, are we supposed to account for revolutions? Some thinkers have sought to descry universal trends and processes, to establish models of revolution; others regard this as bunkum and stress the uniqueness and contingency of individual revolutionary events.
McLynn steers a middle course and this is eminently sensible. He does not dismiss overarching theorising but sees merit in stressing the importance of specific circumstances. He also recognises that, when it comes to analysing revolutions, mighty socio-economic trends and the unpredictable human element both play their part.
This strategy works very well when tackling the British experience. There are many competing explanations of the British habit of approaching the abyss then stepping back. Some point to the fact we are an island and thus relatively immune from revolutionary "contagion" or the invasions that routinely disturb the status quo. Some make a lot of the fact a sizeable chunk of our military has been based at sea and that it is hard for a navy to mount a coup d'etat. Other, somewhat absurd candidates include the weather and the allegedly deferential, placid British character. McLynn has the decency to take such notions seriously but, for the most part, he is rightly suspicious of essentialist talk of "Britishness".
Perhaps we have just been lucky – or unfortunate. Any adjudication rests on whether you regard revolutions as useful stable-cleansing exercises or unmitigated political disasters. One thing is clear. Britain has had more than its share of rebellions and protests but, over the past thousand years, only one authentic revolution. Even when the rest of Europe was addicted to revolutionary excess and even when Britain was a potential powder-keg (the late-18th to mid-19th centuries, for example) we stopped short of outright, world-changing insurrection.
Our rulers, as McLynn points out, have been very good at defusing or, when push came to shove, stomping on revolutionary tendencies but that doesn't fully explain the puzzling historical record. McLynn's book has its curious moments but it has the good sense to recognise that there are no easy answers.
The Road Not Taken: How Britain Narrowly Missed A Revolution
Frank McLynn, Bodley Head, £25