It’s a shame that we don’t have a serviceable living story as a country any more. Although people might think of the British as being wedded to tradition and ceremony, this isn’t really true for the majority of us any more. History for most of us is a disconnected his-story: a few fragments of Henry VIII and Hitler. It’s not our story. Historian Simon Schama has said that modern history teaching is threatening “to cut the cord of our national memory”. Our historical psyche went into a kind of amnesia as a reaction to the aftermath of The Empire and never really recovered; and in the process, severing the connecting thread. We don’t have much sense of how we got here and what happened to help form our values, culture and identity. And we’re impoverished as a result, with effects on our view and judgement about national decisions. Having a living story has value.
Certainly there have been many dreadful episodes in our history as there have been throughout the history of humankind in general, but there are also key moments which have marked genuine progress. To give an example of such a historical event which is barely known to many of us, take the Putney Debates. This pivotal episode did much to help create our modern world today; so much more than the romance between Victoria and Albert winning the ratings war on ITV at the moment. The Putney Debates took place following The English Revolution of of the 1640s. It needs a bit of detail to bring it into relief. The dramatic change precipitated by the temporary abolishment of the monarchy opened the door to a dazzling variety of experiments, some whose influence can still be felt in our present times. The revolution unleashed forces in the flow of ideas which all the later conservatism couldn’t re-cork back in the bottle.
The Putney Debates etched themselves into my mind ever since I first heard about them and gave me a glimpse into that revolutionary world and the utopian possibilities which emerged. I never learned about this in history lessons at school. It’s an event which, while strangely not widely known today, nevertheless affects each of our lives today. It took place in 1647 in Putney, then a small town outside London, in the small fifteenth century church of St Mary the Virgin, on the banks of the Thames and has become known as the Putney Debates. Here’s what historian Paul Johnson said of the debates,
“The ideas flung across that communion table – then in all the exciting novelty of their pristine conception – had in the meantime (since the Putney debates) traveled around the world, hurled down thrones and subverted empires, and had become the common, everyday currency of political exchange. They are still with us. Every major political concept known to us today, all the assumptions which underlie the thoughts of men in the White House, or the Kremlin, or Downing Street, or in presidential mansions or senates or parliaments through five continents, were expressed or adumbrated in the little church of St Mary.”
In the church today, inscribed large and prominently on an inside wall where usually there might be scriptural verse, are these striking words,
‘For really I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he.’
Spoken by Colonel Thomas Rainsborough in the mid seventeenth century, these were radical words indeed, and doubly so, coming from a high ranking officer way back then. For it was here in this very church on the 28th October 1647 and for the following two weeks, that a group of men from the New Model Army plus civilian representatives, met together in debate. The choice of venue wasn’t significant – the army was camped nearby just outside London, and the church was convenient. Having destroyed the King’s armies in England’s First Civil War or English Revolution – depending on how you want to look at it – the future was now inconceivably wide open; an opening which had never before existed in history. What kind of England, what kind of society and constitution did they want to see?
The New Model Army was arguably one of the first armies in history to initiate democratic debates which included all its ranks. Fortunately we know about the debates in considerable detail since they were recorded verbatim. The forty or so participants in the debates were representative of all classes and included the full spectrum of opinion from right to left. There were distinguished generals like Oliver Cromwell and Henry Ireton; commanders like Colonel Thomas Rainsborough who were of humble birth but had risen in rank through the wars; there were ordinary soldiers such as Edward Sexby and farmers and small tradesmen who had never before had a voice; one attendee is only identified as ‘Buff-Coat.’ There were civilian political radicals, Levellers, on the radical left, who had come to help the soldiers state their case. Though today levellers would be seen as social democrats, back then they were extreme left radicals. Politics and religion can’t be separated in those times and nearly everyone in the debates was a Puritan – but a particular strain of Puritan who were known as ‘Independents’. They believed in freedom of conscience and in freedom of worship. No one, they felt, should be compelled to attend church or forced to conform to another person’s beliefs.
They had fought wars for a just cause, for high principles, sacrificed much, and eventually after great bloodshed, won. What now was to be the future of England? Why should voting be limited only to property owners as it always had been? What about universal suffrage? Should there even be a King or Lords? Would such radical democratic changes lead to anarchy? This historic gathering tackled these immense issues head on, and for the first time, common people had the opportunity to make their voices heard. Hard though it may be for us to understand today, it was taken for granted in those times that voting should be strictly limited to those who owned property; it seemed as obvious as day that only such property owners could be responsible citizens, those people of means who had a material stake in the kingdom.
The grandees such as Cromwell and Ireton could not defend by mere logic, the justness of this ancient order of voting rights based on ownership of property. They could only protest that the changes calling for universal suffrage were too radical and flatly would not be accepted by the general populace; they would result in anarchy and a return to the old monarchy which none of them wanted. The radicals maintained that the concept of the ‘freeborn’ was more important than the concept of the ‘freehold’. At one point the common soldier Edward Sexby famously spoke powerfully and bitterly after hearing the reluctance of the leaders to grant universal suffrage to all men.
“Do you not think it were a sad and miserable condition, that we have fought all this time for nothing? All here — both great and small — do think that we fought for something….. I think there are many that have not estates that in honesty have as much right in the freedom of their choice as any that have great estates…….It was the ground that we took up arms on, and it is the ground which we shall maintain.”
In the end, a fudgy English kind of compromise was reluctantly agreed upon whereby all those who had helped Parliament and fought in the revolution would have the vote but that it was not yet to be extended to the whole population. Nevertheless, the importance of the Putney debates is that they actually happened and the genie would never again be able to be fully put back in the bottle. This was a very significant advance in British democracy and constitutional reform and paved the way for many of our civil liberties we enjoy today (or we would enjoy if we realised how they had been fought for in the past and what a momentous struggle it had been).
An amazing story, isn’t it? And it’s part of our story.
Being British: Our Once & FutureSelves available: