Wednesday, 23 May 2012

A Vision of True Equality by Leslie Wilson


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 other was the cry of George Fox, one of the founders of the Society of Friends (Quakers) - still probably one of the most radical religious groups in Britain. 'There is one, even Jesus Christ, that can speak to your condition.' After years of agonised searching for salvation and inner peace, Fox had realised that God could speak directly to ordinary people, without the permission or control of priests. Given that the monarch was the head of the Church of England, this conviction was considered to pose a drastic threat to the fabric of society - as was the Quaker practice of sending out women to travel 'in the ministry.'



The concomitant passionate belief in equality - everyone is equal in the eyes of God, and it's important to live in God's way now, rather than wait for Heaven to make everything OK - led Quakers to refuse to take their hats off to so-called social superiors, and to call everyone 'thou' - which then, in England, was the familiar form, like 'tu' in French, and to call them, moreover, by their first and last names only, leaving off all titles. If a ploughboy spoke to the monarch, he still spoke as human being to fellow human being.

The visions of ordinary men and women in England at that time prefigured our modern ideas of a good society - of fundamental British values, indeed - and many of those courageous and far-seeing people suffered for them. Quakers certainly did. And yet our schoolchildren aren't taught about the English Revolution. Why not? Have we ever had Jubilee celebrations for the Putney Debates, country-wide? Why not? Instead, at a time when people are beginning to question the idea of an unelected Second Chamber of Parliament, the institution of unelected monarchy remains largely unchallenged - to a point where, when a member of the Royal Family made a mess of his ambassadorial role recently, Parliament was instructed that the Royal Family were not to be criticised. Incidentally, until the Human Rights Act was passed, it would have been illegal for me to write this blog piece, as it was a felony (I think that's the correct term) for anyone to advocate in writing the abolition of the Monarchy.

I'm sure that Elizabeth Windsor has worked very hard, in her way, during her years as monarch. But I doubt if she's worked any harder than any nurse, foster-parent, social worker, or other professional who works for the public good - and she certainly has never worked for peanuts. She is one of the world's super-rich. And it is deemed, in this country, that she and her family, by an accident of birth, deserve unconditional respect from the rest of us. Yet the rich, the aristocracy, and the monarch and her family are, simply, human beings, and thus deserve no less and no more respect or honour than any other human being in this country.

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.

16 comments:

H.M. Castor said...

Leslie, what a fantastic post - & an inspiring & timely rallying cry! I am ashamed to say I had never before heard about the Putney debates. How much difference might it make to turnout at elections, I wonder, if everyone had learnt about the struggle for democracy at school?

Sue Purkiss said...

Very thought-provoking, Leslie - I had never heard of the Putney debates either. Thank you.

alberridge said...

Terrific post, Leslie! I don't know why we hide so much history of which we should be proud - like the Glorious Revolution of 1688, for instance. There are people who still believe the US War of Independence was fought against an 'absolute monarchy' instead of a democracy who kept a monarchy 'by consent'.

Personally I'm still a monarchist, if only because the polarising of party politics creates the need for a constant and unifying figure, but I should hate to live in a country where we had no choice about it. Vive la difference - and vive the Putney debates too!

Jane Borodale said...

Great post Leslie - am starting to suspect that the reason this period of history is not taught in schools is because it might provoke 'too much' debate, raise our children with 'too many' questions in their developing minds... I like the sound of Colonel Rainsborough.

adele said...

I, too, hadn't heard of the Putney Debates. Thanks for a most fascinating post, Leslie.

Lydia Syson said...

I couldn't agree more...does an alternative 'Our Island Story' for children exist? I'd love a book for my children that traced our democratic roots through key events like this...and the Glorious Revolution..and Peterloo... and so on - a riposte to Govian school history. Meanwhile, anyone for calf's head next January?!

Ms. said...

Bravo History Girls! The same applies world wide. Now that we are officially, and inexorably a global economy, every nation, and every corporation shares the shame and is the key to the cure. But it all comes down to human nature. Limited goals will always produce limited results. There are no half way measures to a truly compassionate way of living where every creature counts. It is a long range vision that's needed, not a view to short term gains or quick fixes.

Ann Turnbull said...

What an inspiring post, Leslie! I am one who DID know about the Putney Debates - but only because this has been my research period for my last few novels. It's true that there is very little awareness of all this. There was an excellent serial on TV a couple of years ago, unfortunately titled The Devil's Whore. It was much better than that sounds! There was a lot about Thomas Rainsborough, and also about John Lilburne - and his wife (who should not be overlooked.) It might be available online.

And Peterloo - the only reason I know about that is because I read a novel about it by Howard Spring. Where would we be without historical novels?

Leslie Wilson said...

I was taught English Civil War at school but nothing about the Levellers and I only heard about Putney in Christopher Hill's The World Turned Upside Down. I was quite grown up then.

Lydia Syson said...

Yes, Christopher Hill was my way into that world...I think when I was 'doing' Milton as a student! Such a memorable read.

Marie-Louise Jensen said...

Brilliant, Leslie! Well said.

jongleuse said...

Wonderful and thought-provoking. i love the idea of an alternative 'Our Island Story' Lydia! Maybe we could crowd-source one from you fabulous History Girls!

Ann Turnbull said...

I love the alternative Our Island Story idea too!

Lydia Syson said...

Perhaps we should think about making a plan? A co-operative venture would be in the spirit of the undertaking.

Book Maven said...

We are ahead of you, as I would have said earlier, had I had Internet access the last two days.

A sub-group of History Girls is in negotiation with a children's publisher to write an anthology of stories inspired by the history of Great Britain.

Watch this space!

Thanks for this post, Leslie.

Emma Barnes said...

I have certainly heard of the Putney debates - and did study the English Civil at school, and found it absolutely fascinating.

I wonder if one of the problems is that the academic historians themselves have turned against the idea of the English Civil War as being about rights, and the spread of democracy, and the radicalisation of the lower orders (all that wonderful stuff that Christopher Hill wrote about!) ? Instead, the "revisionist" historians have tried to turn it into a purely "religious" dispute, or else stressed the role of "localism" or of aristocratic elites. The old approach has been condemned as "whig history" and a gross simplification [they say].

The trouble is that the new revisionist approach is not very appealing and rather bitty and confusing to anyone studying the period (or so I found at university) and doesn't make for good school history lessons, I would think. I do think, though, the pendulum is beginning to swing back again!

I agree with you, Leslie, that the Civil War should definitely be on the curriculum, and makes a great way into thinking about all kinds of issues: religious liberty, equality, democracy, political authority... It's scandalous, really, that it has been so forgotten.