Last March (2016) I visited the Houses of Parliament for the launch of the We The People campaign for a Citizens Constitutional Convention. Like most visitors I entered through the Cromwell Gate right past the statue of the man himself. It was a moment of reflection, with Levellers Day approaching (on 14th May 2016, more here) and the issue of democracy and accountability which it inevitably raises.
There is much popular misunderstanding about Oliver Cromwell and people are often confused about his place in history, asking whether he should be viewed in a positive or negative light. The unhelpful answer is both, depending on which aspect of his career is under consideration. As a reformer of the English Civil War Parliamentary forces during the creation of the New Model Army he was invaluable. In particular his organisation of the cavalry wing, the Ironsides was a crucial development in the eventual triumph of Parliament. But increasingly after 1648 he behaved in an autocratic manner, crushing tolerant and democratic forces (such as commemorated at Levellers Day) and culminating in the replacement of the Commonwealth by the Protectorate.
The increasingly repressive methods of Cromwell and his associates such as son-in-law Henry Ireton can be illustrated clearly in one event, which also serves as a warning to us. On March 28th 1649 four Levellers, John Lilburne, Richard Overton, Thomas Prince and William Walwyn were arrested for publishing (on February 26th 1649) a pamphlet called England’s New Chains Discovered (you can read a transcript here). It was a clear and unambiguous criticism of Cromwell and outlined the dangers to liberty of the military government. A crucial worry for the Levellers was the status of the so-called Council of State, the body set up to replace the Privy Council following the execution of the King and declaration of a Commonwealth in 1649. Set up by the Rump Parliament (you can view a transcript of the Act here), its 41 members were appointed rather than elected and Cromwell was its first Chairman. The dangers of such an arrangement were clearly laid out and included the ability of the Council to dissolve Parliament (then consisting of just the House of Commons, the Lords having been abolished) without the necessity to immediately call the next. Another grievance involved the ability of the Commons to create or abolish Law Courts and so subvert the jury system which was regarded as the bedrock of justice. Likewise, the ability of MPs to be the ‘highest final judgement’ was viewed as particularly heinous as it placed them beyond the control of the laws they were enacting. That lawmakers should be subject to the laws they enact is regarded as a vital brake on any system of representative government. Central to all of this was the way in which senior army officers could sit in the Commons thus supporting military rule.
England’s New Chains was condemned as “false, scandalous, and reproachful” as well as “highly seditious” and the four Levellers were imprisoned. A campaign was fought for Lilburne’s release which at one point involved an all-women signed petition to Parliament. Nevertheless, Lilburne was tried for treason but acquitted and the four Levellers were released from the Tower of London on 8th November 1649. The concerns of the Levellers were confirmed when, following a dysfunctional Parliament, Cromwell was sworn in as Lord Protector in December 1653 effectively ending the English Commonwealth. The power given to the Lord protector was exercised by Cromwell to dispense with Parliament completely in 1655, replacing it with a full military administration. His powers allowed him to act as a tyrant every bit as bad as the executed King.
It is important to note that the Council of State was itself replaced by a reconstituted Privy Council following the death of Cromwell and the restoration of the King (in the person of Charles II) in 1660. The Privy Council of course still exists which means that there is an almost unbroken line of bodies with a measure of autocratic rule stretching back to the Norman Monarchs. It is important to note that this is the body which has authorised the Press Regulatory body, supposedly to place it beyond political control. Much of the power of the Privy Council today is exercised by the Prime Minister and Cabinet and, as a 2007 report concedes, the power wielded by the Government on the basis of the prerogative is anachronistic and lacks significant accountability. Moreover, a later investigation by MPs discovered that Government ministers did not know the full extent of their prerogative powers and could give no report of the number of times they have been exercised. But the Leveller concerns with arbitrary justice should also worry us with the notorious Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. The Investor-State Dispute Settlement (shortened to ISDS) allows for a multi-national Corporate to take a national government to a secret court over actions prejudicial to their investments!
The British establishment has a grudging admiration for Oliver Cromwell as evidenced by his statue outside Parliament. As a contrast, try finding prominent London memorials to, for example, Leveller John Lilburne or a Suffragette such as Emily Wilding Davison. The reason I suspect is simple. Although Cromwell has a revolutionary, playing a leading part in the trial and execution of Charles I, it was his ultimate destiny to wield power as the leader of a ruling elite. We laud people who oppose tyranny so why not the Levellers and why do we support Cromwell? The reason is that since the British establishment controls the historical narrative it can effectively conceal past radicals and determine just how that opposition is viewed. Ultimately the actions of Oliver Cromwell and the Council of State should serve as a warning to us.