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The Levellers: People Power

Philip Baker considers the lasting impact of the Levellers’ famous efforts to reform the English state in the aftermath of the Civil Wars by means of written agreements guaranteeing the sovereignty of the people.

Sir Thomas Fairfax presiding over the Council of the Army, 1647In November 2012 members of a number of protest groups, including Occupy London, gathered in the capital to discuss a proposed written constitution for the UK. Although the emotive name of their document, the Agreement of the People, was entirely consonant with the stated aim of developing a ‘people’s constitution’, it was also a conscious appeal to history, having first been used in somewhat similar circumstances 365 years earlier.

Between 1647 and 1649, at the height of the English Revolution, the London-based petitioner movement known as the Levellers, officers and common soldiers of the parliamentarian New Model Army, together with national political figures, produced a series of draft written constitutions under the title of Agreements of the People. These represented an attempt to rebuild the post-Civil War English state through the device of a written agreement between the people and their representatives that would settle immutable fundamentals of governance, often referred to as the ‘foundations of freedom’. As such, the Agreements would have legitimated new constitutional structures guaranteeing the sovereignty of the people by stripping the monarchy and the House of Lords of all political power and separating the legislative and executive arms of government. Moreover the people were to retain a number of ‘reserved powers’ on the grounds that particular native rights were so inherent to individual freedom that it was beyond the function of government to interfere with them. These included freedom of religious conscience, freedom from impressment and legal equality before the law.

As the earliest attempts to produce a written constitution in the English-speaking world, the Agreements of the People are awarded a significant position in the history of liberal democracy and political commentators and historians have cited their influence on the French and American Revolutions and home-grown movements, like the Chartists.

In the autumn of 1647 it was the appearance of the first Agreement of the People that prompted the famous debates in British history in St Mary’s Church, Putney, between the New Model Army and civilian Levellers regarding the prospective settlement of the nation. Among the issues fiercely debated by men such as Oliver Cromwell and John Wildman were the place of the monarchy and House of Lords in a settlement, whether Charles I had any future as the nation’s king and the right of all men to have the vote. And it was during the arguments over the latter subject that Colonel Thomas Rainborough delivered his celebrated exhortation, now commemorated by a plaque in St Mary’s Church:

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.

The 17th-century Putney debaters and authors of the Agreements were seeking to redefine the balance of power in the relationship between the people and their representatives and their 21st-century equivalents share the same goal. Perhaps, as those modern protest groups suggest, parallels can be drawn between the present and the context in which the original Agreements were written: periods of war, economic crisis and minority disenchantment with Westminster politicians and their practices; times when the threat to civil liberties, freedom of the press and freedom of expression is a relevant issue. Nevertheless, whatever their resonance with later periods, the original Agreements of the People were very much the product of their own time and were designed to address a specific problem: that of finding a viable constitutional settlement in the aftermath of a protracted and bloody civil war.

Although the Agreements have long been lauded for their influence on modern constitutionalist debate, recent research has sought to relocate them within their immediate historical context. The result has been to shed important new light on their origins and influences, such as the way in which the everyday contemporary practice of oath swearing provided an important model for the attempt to reformulate the social contract through a literal agreement of the entire adult population. Meanwhile, the common perception of the Agreements as, in some sense, ‘forward-looking’ has been challenged on the grounds that it ignores the extent to which their authors were arguing for constitutional reformation and the restoration of historic, native birthright.

Closer study of the documents themselves also has much to tell us about contemporary perceptions of political life. For example, their desire to ensure greater political accountability can be related to the new freedom surrounding the reporting of parliamentary debates and investigative journalism and their revealing of corruption and factionalism. Similarly, their demand for the devolution of power to local communities was a clear reaction against the increasing centralisation and growth of ‘big government’ that was an intrinsic feature of the Civil War period but can be traced back to earlier decades, too. The corollary of decentralisation was the notion of political participation and active citizenship that lay at the heart of the Agreements. This was clearly seen as being central to political life, both in terms of the duty incumbent on the individual to serve in local office and the need for the collective and continuous oversight of those holding public positions of trust. In this fashion the Agreements combined successfully the language of civic responsibilities and duties with that of popular rights and liberties.

Recent events confirm that they continue to inspire political action, with the organisations behind the ‘New Agreement of the People’ also staging the ‘New Putney Debates’ in November 2012 at St Mary’s, Putney. The campaign for a ‘New Agreement of the People’ may be under way but the original versions of these extraordinary documents still have much to reveal concerning what our forebears regarded as the ‘foundations of freedom’.

Philip Baker is co-editor of The Agreements of the People, the Levellers and the Constitutional Crisis of the English Revolution (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).

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