Remembering the Putney Debates
By Jon Trickett
On this day in 1647, in the midst of civil war, the Putney Debates sought a new constitution for Britain – their arguments over the nature of freedom and democracy still resonate today.
Imagine! It’s October 28th today. In England, parliament is held in the lowest esteem ever. The political class is directionless having led the country to the verge of ruin after the recent crisis. The head of state is held under house arrest. The people are locked out of politics, too; not able to vote.
The only true power in the land is the British Army. But they are divided as to how to move the country forward. On the one hand there are the Grandees, the leading elements in the army. On the other hand, there are the elected representatives of the various battalions. We’ll call them the Agitators.
They decide to meet in a church hall outside of London to thrash out their differences. But in less than a year the most senior Agitator, Tom, is dead – assassinated – and the leading Grandee, Olly, is well on his way to becoming a dictator.
It’s rumoured that it was Olly who had arranged for Tom to be killed. Whether or not this is accurate, it’s clearly true that he eventually moves decisively to use military force to put down dissent within the army.
For the moment, though, the debates which continue for some days in Putney Church reveal profound differences of view within the army as to which direction the country should take. But the talks come to an abrupt end when the legal Head of the Government escapes – and, it is thought, prepares to muster an army.
Is this all a turbulent fantasy? The product of a fevered imagination? Not at all. It really happened. On this day in 1647. And it leaves unfinished business.
In an echo of today’s debates, there’s a lot of talk about ‘levelling up’ at Putney. So much so that many of the Agitators become known as the Levellers. They want to do away with the current Parliament and elect a completely new one. Every person in the country should have the right to elect the new House of Commons.
The Grandees are not too sure. They came up with an idea. Let every man vote – but only if they own property. Only those who own a part of the realm should have their voice heard.
Let’s listen to the debates for a moment. We have the transcripts. Here is Edward Sexby, rejecting the idea that only men of property should decide the future of the country.
“There are many thousands of us soldiers that have ventured our lives; we have had little property in this kingdom as to our estates, yet we had a birthright. But it seems now except a man hath a fixed estate in this kingdom, he hath no right in this kingdom. I wonder we were so much deceived.”
Here is the central argument of the Levellers: that everyone is born free and their birthright is to have a voice in the governance of our country. The soldiers had fought against the tyranny but the civilian population too had suffered through the civil war. All should have a vote.
The Grandees had a different idea. Henry Ireton is an example. No person, he argues, should have a say who does not have a ‘permanent fixed interest’ in the country, i.e. an estate.
He goes on to argue what might happen to the people of property, the wealthy, if those without property had a vote. This group – which is larger than the wealthy – might well decide to tackle wealth directly.
Universal suffrage – although, of course, we are only talking about men at this time – is ‘destructive of property.’ The right to wealth and property, he says, is a law of nature which no man-made constitution can overthrow.
These contending ideas of democracy have endured throughout our history. Although centuries later universal suffrage was achieved, it did not realise the ambition of these debates – a society of genuine equality.
Indeed, it is not possible to think about the Putney Debates without reflecting on the so-called war against the current pandemic. If any group in our country was entitled to demand a new settlement, it is the key workers, just as the New Model Army did in the Civil War.
This recent debates about the need for poor children to be fed while the schools are closed highlights the problem. But the underlying question is why so many millions of working families are living in poverty in the first place.
Although Putney is today a relatively affluent area, there are still huge inequalities. Over 6,000 Putney children are living in poverty – that’s almost a third of those living in the constituency. The local authority, Wandsworth, has seen funding cut by over £41 million since 2015. And the present crisis has doubled unemployment levels in the area.
Without truly radical political change, economic and social justice will not happen. Why is this? It is because, despite universal suffrage, wealth continues to hold its sway – the right to vote has, in fact, not been destructive of the power of property.
Wealth has such social, political and economic power over the British State that it seems unimaginable today that we could achieve a new settlement which would give reality to the dreams of the Agitators all those centuries ago. There has undoubtedly been progress, but how many of the same questions confront us?
And so we see the key workers, who have held our country together through the present crisis, subject to conditions of low pay, precarious employment, and lack of access to the essential services. Much the same conditions as prevailed before the pandemic arrived.
The tenacious grip of big corporations, the privileged and the wealthy will need to be ripped away from the levers of power in Britain. Our political institutions and culture need to be subject to change as radical in our time as the Levellers proposed in theirs.
This is a topic I intend to explore in the coming weeks, in articles that make the argument for a democratic revolution in Britain today – and explore what this might mean.
(Note that Olly is Oliver Cromwell and Tom is Thomas Rainsborough, the highest ranked Leveller at the debates, who was assassinated in Doncaster near where Primark now stands.)