A Life to Live; Thomas Rainborough’s Quote is of Profound Importance Today

In 1647 Leveller Thomas Rainborough (1610-1648) made this statement:

…I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he; and therefore truly, Sir, I think it’s clear, that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not bound in a strict sense to that government that he hath not had a voice to put himself under.

I consider it one of the most profound statements on political philosophy uttered in the English language. Here’s why.

Rainborough was a Colonel in the Parliamentarian army during the English Civil Wars. As a leading member of the radical Levellers group he took part in the momentous 1647 Putney Debates, a series of discussions, sometimes stormy, between the grandees of the New Model Army and the Levellers regarding a new constitution for England.

Although often discussed in terms of wealth inequality, Rainborough’s choice of the phrase life to live has far greater scope and is fundamentally important today. When international bankers such as Goldman Sachs or JP Morgan can invite Theresa May or Hillary Clinton to their events or Charles Windsor as heir to the throne can simply invite the Prime Minister of the day around for tea, ir represents an influence which the poorest he cannot even contemplate bringing to bear on the UK Government. It is true that we must beware of ascribing too much of a modern interpretation to Rainbrough’s. statement. the possibility of votes for women (poorest she!), for example, would not even have been considered at that time.

Yet as a claim for an inclusive society where decisions of the powerful can be contested his quote is as powerful as ever and entails what political thinker Philip Pettit calls the ‘eyeball’ and ‘straight talk’ tests. The eyeball test means all members of a society should be able to look each other directly in the eye as equals while the straight talk test means that we can all express our reasonable opinions to those in power without fear of recrimination. Sadly many western societies are failing these tests.

Consider, for example, the current political upheavals which politicians such as Bernie Sanders in the US attribute to the rise of oligarchical power. It has been noted that contrary to popular opinion oligarchies often control governments without the direct use of money, although they are closely connected. What initially starts as unequal wealth slowly morphs into the subtle means of control characteristic of a class system. Money buys the children of the wealthy smart new clothes, a childhood in fine homes, access to exclusive education where networks can be formed and travel across the world. This breeds confidence and slowly the class structure emerges as exists in Britain, has emerged in the United States and is now emerging in Russia. An expectation, frequently granted, of political and economic influence flows from this added confidence.

So Rainborough was absolutely correct. A life to live involves more than simply wealth inequality no matter how significant that may be.

Levellers Day; Radical Politics, Sunshine & Extreme Morris Dancing!

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The sun always shines on Levellers Day. Look, I am as big a fan as anyone of Tom Paine’s The Age of Reason, but I have empirical evidence! Just in case you are new to my blog and require a little orientation as to the 17th Century Leveller movement, the Levellers Day site briefly explains what it is all about. For more details you can download a book from this site and I covered some aspects of the events of 1649 and their relevance to today in a recent blog post.

For me the day always starts with a lovely drive down from the Midlands along the Fosse Way and through the Cotswolds to Burford. I was delighted to be a ceremonial pikeman again this year so following a quick chat to my fellow Republicans it was away to the main tent to don my repro Civil War uniform.  Walking down to the Church from the Recreation field is always an amusing experience with smiles mixed with some bemused looks from tourists who are unaware of the significance of the day.

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At the Church I meet up with my fellow Pikeman and Pikewoman to a welcome from the Sea Green Singers who open the proceedings splendidly with songs about the fight for tolerance and civil liberties covering over three centuries! Predictably, I loved their one about William Cobbett trying to repatriate Tom Paine’s bones (Cobbett was a truly fascinating character – learn a little more here).The address by Reverend Mark Chapman was as thought provoking and inclusive as always, managing to nail the common ground between people of many faiths and no faiths. This is followed by the laying of commemorative posies, a minute silence and a prayer from the Reverend.

Then we form up for the start of the procession – everyone is friendly, relaxed and in good spirits while we wait for the road to be closed. Once again we are marching up the hill all the way to the Recreation Ground.  With my fellow Pikeman, along with Rev Chapman and the Levellers Day banner bearers we closely follow the leading Morris dancers and marvel as they manage to keep going up the long drag. Extreme Morris Dancing for sure!

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At the ground, a huge variety of groups are represented; Communists, Socialists, NHS supporters, Veterans for Peace, Trade Unions, the Woodcraft Folk to name but a few.  This year the Republic stall was even more popular than last year and I forewent the debate to help persuade more folk of the need to end inherited privilege.  This year the theme was (Un) Civil Liberties covering free speech and human rights. Friends tell me the debate was well up to the usual standard and I expected nothing less from the speakers involved! You cannot possibly agree with everyone and that is partly the point! But there is no doubt that the enthusiasm and commitment of others who have a passion for a different form of society, however they conceive it, is wonderful. There is an energy you can draw from this to recharge batteries for the campaigns in the year ahead. I am always grateful to Trish and her colleagues for the immense amount of work put into the day. A gorgeous time is finished off for me with a lovely drive back along the Fosse Way.

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The inspiration from the day will last for a long time and it has already sparked fresh ideas and plans from the Republic Birmingham crew! If you’ve not experienced Levellers Day do come along to Burford next year. Its on the 20th May – put it in your calendar.