As the country gears up to an expensive celebration of sixty years of one monarch's reign, I would like to look back to an event that until recently was largely uncelebrated in our history yet which was absolutely crucial to the development of democracy in this country. I'm talking about the Putney debates.
They happened at St Mary's Church in Putney, between the 28th October and the 9th of November 1647 - Charles I was still alive at this time - when soldiers from the New Model Army, which was fighting for Parliament, joined together with civilians to debate the future shape of England. This came about because of pressure from radicals in the ranks of the Army - Oliver Cromwell had been trying to negotiate a settlement still fundamentally based on monarchy and privilege - but there were multitudes of others, in England at that time, who had other ideas.
Radical, crazy visions. Like giving every man in England the right to elect members of Parliament. There were even activists who believed women should have the vote, though they were something of a minority. This was, after all, a time - inevitable, really, given the fact that the translation of the Bible into English had given ordinary people the ability to read it for themselves - when previous ideas of religious and social hierarchy had been seriously questioned. The Civil War itself was a challenge to the concept of the Divine Right of Kings - the idea that Kings, being set in their places by God, were answerable only to God and that the common people had a duty to obey them, no matter what they did.
I haven't room here to enumerate all the ideas that fermented in England then - and there are plenty of websites that give a detailed account of them - but to me there are two phrases which sum them up. One is Colonel Rainsborough's rallying call for universal manhood suffrage. 'For really I think that the poorest hee that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest hee; and therefore truly, Sr, I think itt clear, that every Man that is to live under a Government ought first by his own Consent to put himself under that Government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not at all bound in a strict sense to that Government that he hath not had a voice to put Himself under.' (I'd want to add Woman and shee - but hey..)
The discrepancy between the Windsors' status and that of their 'subjects' - which under the present arrangement every British national is deemed to be - iconises the inequality which turns many parts of our country into hell-holes. I am thinking of the recent Guardian report on accommodation, for example. People crammed into one sordid room, with inadequate heating or food. Or the parts of the country where - for the profits of shareholders - employment is simply no longer on offer and there are generations who haven't worked. It's convenient and easy to say that this is their fault. But if you shove people to the bottom of the heap, you can't expect them to be bright, motivated, and optimistic. Their hopes and faculties decay.
At a time when misfortune, illness, and disability, or simple poverty, are being seen as a crime, and when the obscenely wealthy are cosseted and rewarded, it seems to me more vital than ever to stand up for the concept of fundamental human worth divorced from wealth or status. The radicals of Putney wanted to remake England and they seemed like crazy visionaries to many of their contemporaries, who preferred what they saw as sensible pragmatism. Yet their ideas have born fruit, though they never lived to see it. Let's continue to pursue that vision of equality, especially at times like the present where it's under attack by the forces of cynicism, greed, callousness and despair.