A New Agreement of the People

Given that this blog takes it’s name from the sea-green ribbon of the Levellers, I ought to note that we are currently going through the 360th anniversary of the Putney Debates.

Gordon Brown’s speech on liberty gave a brief mention to the Seventeenth Century radical tradition, but passed over this first attempt to give England a democratic constitution. Surely, a Government which is seeking to start its own debate about a written constitution should embrace this precedent? One way to do that would be to give a written constitution the title that the Levellers used, An Agreement of the People.

Tristram Hunt had a good article on the debates in the Guardian on Friday, although he made one crucial mistake. The Levellers did not advocate a sovereign Parliament. The whole point of a written constitution was to control the power of the parliamentary oligarchy, and enable a sovereign people. It is because they were defeated that we have parliamentary sovereignty.

It has been suggested that Gordon Brown’s proposed constitution will enshrine the sovereignty of the people. Whether that is true in substance will depend on who has the power to amend that constitution.If a referendum is required, then the people might get the power to vote on future European treaties, for example.

The anniversary is being marked by the opening of a new exhibition at St Mary’s Church in Putney and by a new edition of The Putney Debates by Geoffrey Robertson.



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