The Levellers and British identity

Interesting piece on Levellers Day from historian Tristram Hunt:

Yesterday, I joined Tony Benn and a large crowd in the Cotswolds to commemorate these martyrs to democracy. Organised by the Workers’ Educational Association, the Levellers’ Day festival remains one of the few living monuments to Britain’s hidden heritage of democracy. But why does Burford hold such a lonely place in our history calendar? Why are we still so shy of our radical past?

Last week saw a welter of commentary on Education Minister Bill Rammell’s call for teaching ‘British values’ in schools. The left took it as a cue for more historical self-flagellation; the right for cultural triumphalism. Yet, disappointingly, what Rammell had, in fact, urged was the anodyne incorporation of ‘modern British cultural and social history into the citizenship curriculum’. What he should have demanded is a vigorous exploration of our democratic heritage in schools and communities alike.

Democracy has many fathers, but in its modern, Western variety, the British contribution is marked. From the Magna Carta to the Levellers’ ‘Agreement of the People’ to the Chartists and Pan-African Conference, the British experience went on to influence democracy around the world. The US Declaration of Independence was partly born from the democratic ideals of the English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution. (Observer)

Fair Deal over at Slugger O’Toole has started a thread in response to this piece. I have extracted my two comments below:

The levellers still present a radical challenge to the British state of today. They argued for a written constitution which enshrined the sovereignty of the people, things which Britain still doesn’t have.
The glorious revolution avoided such dangerous ideas and simply replaced the Stuarts with a dynasty that would be more compliant towards the wishes of the whig oligarchy, notably the City of London.
In Walter Bagehot’s terms, the ‘dignified’ spectacle of the monarchy was designed to direct the attention of the common people away from the ‘efficient’ workings of the oligarchy that actually took the decisions.
This is why the whole idea of teaching children about citizenship and the constitution is more problematic, even subversive, in Britain, than in countries like the US with a constitutional tradition based on leveller ideas.

It’s important to remember that the Levellers were English, not British. What they represent is not so much an example of radical Britishness, as a radical alternative to Britishness, (which was always essentially the corporate brand of the post-1688 establishment) an English Commonwealth.

The Leveller event at Burford actually commemorates a mutiny by soldiers who Cromwell wanted to send to Ireland.

Their opponents accused them of sympathy with the Irish confederacy, although I have been unable to stand up claims that there is direct evidence of this.

Their real concern was to keep the New Model Army in England, as a popular force which could force Parliament to concede a proto-democratic constitution.

Their defeat meant the failure of the English Revolution, and opened the way for the Cromwellian invasion of Ireland.

However, the fact that so many radicals were sent to Ireland left its mark on history. They contributed to the Protestant republican tradition that would eventually feed into the United Irishmen.

The Levellers were great English patriots, but the values that the stood for pose a fundamental challenge to the British state in its present form.

By all means put Leveller values on the curriculum, but let’s put them into the constitution as well.



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2 responses to “The Levellers and British identity”

  1. EWI avatar

    However, the fact that so many radicals were sent to Ireland left its mark on history. They contributed to the Protestant republican tradition that would eventually feed into the United Irishmen.
    Indeed. If I remember my history right, several Quakers opposed Cromwell’s savagery here in Ireland and suffered the consequences of their opposition.

  2. William Gruff avatar

    There was nothing remotely ‘Br*tish’ about either Magna Carta or The Levellers, nor anything else English in between.
    Have the Br*tish so little of their own that is of significance in the world that they must constantly appropriate for themselves my country’s history and heritage?
    Only an English Parliament can represent the interests of the people of England and protect the English from this sort of cultural vandalism.

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