England’s New Chains Discovered: A Moment in History, A Warning To Us

Englands New Chains (1)
England’s New Chains Discovered

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.

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Thomas Jefferson: A Fatally Flawed Radical

Thomas Jefferson was a leader of the American Revolution, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States and a principal author of the 1776 Declaration of Independence. He became the second Vice-President (under John Adams) and the third President. He was a significant thinker and proponent of democracy and republicanism and there are many quotes expounding his ideas of liberty which resonate with us today. One I find significant is:

All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression.

Something which we can also identify with is Jefferson’s warning of the dangers of corporatism, which was sadly ignored:

I hope we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations which dare already to challenge our government to a trial by strength, and bid defiance to the laws of our country.

But the practical working out of his republicanism had a flaw which limited its application as the United States developed through the 19th Century. He was at heart an agrarian and influenced by the Country Party tradition of British politics. He saw society working best when it was a free collection of planters, small traders and smallholders which in many ways was a regressive concept harking back to a perceived agrarian golden era. Lest this be considered a criticism based on hindsight we can compare his ideas with his great friend and contemporary, Thomas Paine. Paine was an urbanite and correctly perceived that in the future land would be used for many purposes other than agriculture. Moreover republican theory would have to deal with the fast emerging capitalist culture. Paine’s solutions were very different and included, for example, the introduction of a Universal Basic Income to compensate the majority of citizens alienated from land ownership.

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Karl Marx: Earning a Living or Slaving Away?

Over the past two centuries one political philosopher has divided people more than any other: Karl Marx died today in 1883. You either love him or you hate him. But to simply reject or accept en bloc the ideas of this great man is to do him (and yourself) a disservice.  Although I am not a disciple of Marx, there are occasions where I find his ideas are right, or at least enlightening.  I’d like to take just one, wage slavery; as a Civic Republican anything which deals with slavery attracts my immediate attention!

Although Marx used it as a fundamental plank in his theory, the comparison between wage earners and slavery is an old one, being mentioned by the great Roman Republican theorist Cicero. In his De Officils he says:

…vulgar are the means of livelihood of all hired workmen whom we pay for mere manual labor, not for artistic skill; for in their case the very wage they receive is a pledge of their slavery.

Cicero’s view that wage earners were dominated by their masters was also common in Seventeenth Century England where many radicals (including Levellers) regarded them as having foregone their freeborn status and thus to be disenfranchised. In their defence, this was long before the industrial revolution changed the sheer scale and nature of earning a wage.  Later, Tom Paine took a more collective approach to try and eliminate the problem of wage slavery by support through state funds.

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William Cobbett and the Remains of Thomas Paine

On March 9th 1763 the journalist and politician William Cobbett was born. To describe him as a political radical would be misleading, but for much of his life he took a fiercely anti-authoritarian stance. Serving as a soldier in the British Army his early views were formed as a reaction to the corruption he witnessed amongst the officers while the enlisted men endured harsh treatment. Fearing persecution for his outspoken views he fled to France in 1792, where he found the revolutionary environment to be antithetical to his conservative approach. He immediately left for the nascent United States where he wrote pamphlets and articles supporting the British position.

Returning to Britain in 1800 he was offered the editorship of a Government newspaper which he declined in favour of his own publication The Porcupine which carried the motto ‘Fear God, Honour the King’. His next project The Political Register was launched in 1802 and initially took an anti-radical stance before drifting into increasingly virulent attacks against the Government of William Pitt for financial mismanagement and cronyism. The Register started to gain traction with the working classes and he was imprisoned for libel and, fearing a further prosecution for seditious writing, he returned to the United States in 1817.  While in the United States, Cobbett hatched audacious plan to return the remains to Britain of the great republican, revolutionary pamphleteer and political philosopher Tomas Paine, who died in 1809. Alas the plan to give Paine a granf reburial on home soil not come to fruition and Paine’s remains were found with Cobbett’s effects after his death in 1835, whereupon they were sadly lost to us.

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Tom Paine: More times that try men’s souls

In December 1776 the American War of Independence was going badly for the rebel Continental Army. Led by a seemingly incompetent commander (George Washington) and in apparently endless retreat, morale was fast draining away. To raise spirits for the struggle ahead the leadership turned to one of the greatest political pamphleteers in history. Tomas Paine published his work The Crisis (or The American Crisis as it came to be known) on 16th December and it was read aloud to the assembled soldiers of the Continental Army on 23rd December. It commences with one of the most famous lines in the history of political activism:

These are the times that try men’s souls

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Remembering Dora Marsden: Suffragette Anarchist

A few weeks ago I wrote a short post about Constance Markievicz, suffragette and the first woman to be elected to the House of Commons (though she never actually took her seat). But there are some people for whom the passion for change burns so strongly that it brings them into conflict even with the cause they espouse.  Such was the case with Dora Marsden who died today (13th December) in 1960.  Marsden operated from Manchester and occupied a position on the radical activist wing of the suffragette movement, frequently engaging in illegal activities. From 1909 she accepted a post in the Pankhursts Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) but her assertive campaigning style resulted in frequent conflict with the organization hierarchy.

Splitting with the WSPU in 1911 she pursued a  literary path, founding the Freewoman, the New FreeWoman and Egoist journals. She gave voice to many radical authors who challenged accepted notions of society such as the role of marriage. It would be fascinating to know how she would have viewed same-sex marriage! Another important radical thinker who must NOT be eclipsed by the establishment historical narrative.