Long before Thomas Jefferson, or John Locke, a pack of unlettered grunts took on the really big political questions.
On this very day, back in 1648, the people of what was then a riverside village within a few hours ride (or convenient boat trip) from London witnessed one of the most remarkable spectacles in world history.A victorious army, a gang of squaddies if you will, had laid aside their weapons and met inside a church in order to soberly discuss issues of republican constitutional polity.
Today in 1648, ordinary people who had served in the parliamentary forces met in Putney to debate what the English civil war ought to have accomplished. The war against arbitrary monarchism had been fought and won, but what had actually be achieved? The Rainsborough brothers represented a growing body of opinion that everyone in the country had a state in government and that the franchise should reflect this. The democrats were answered… by Cromwell and Ireton who were still wedded to the belief that land and wealth were needed to guarantee a “permanent interest” in the commonwealth.
Does power bubble down or trickle down? What is the relationship between power and property, and is it possible to offer universal voting rights without a measure of property redistribution? What is political “virtue”? What makes one person qualified to make decisions for others? What would Jesus do? Such are the questions that exercised a weary, puzzled, restless but imaginative soldiery on this day in 1648 and if people cared enough about history to respect their example, the anniversary might be set aside to debate these very questions on an annual basis.
Here’s a nugget of Rainsborough wisdom to ripple down the centuries…
For really 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 at all bound in a strict sense to that government that he hath not had a voice to put himself under…
The democrats did not succeed in getting the kind of republic that they felt they had been fighting for, but the Putney debates remain an exciting example, unprecedented for centuries in Europe, of ordinary people making the case for self government. It is impossible to read these debates without feeling a sense of profound compassion and pride. Successive governments in modern times, however, had decided that Brits don’t deserve to commemorate such inspirational history and prefer to spend millions that blandly commemorate dynastic longevity. When David Cameron proposed a constitutional review that rather heavily promotes “rights and responsibilities” rather than basic, universal and inalienable right, one cannot help but suggest that a return to various property qualifications are not so subtly on the agenda as a way of excluding certain people from full political participation.Proper Putney style debates have rarely seemed more urgent or relevant.