Wednesday, 30 May 2012

The English Civil War, Republicanism and Green Socialism

In these days of royal jubilee celebrations, my mind has turned towards thinking about republicanism in this country. We did have a de facto republic in England (and Scotland, Wales and Ireland) for ten years between 1649 and 1659, after the English Civil War(s) ended, and up until the Restoration of King Charles II in 1660. His father King Charles I was executed for high treason by Parliamentary forces in 1649 after years of dispute and then war with Parliamentary supporters.

These times must have been incredibly exciting politically with debates going on about the future governance of the country, the most famous of which were the Putney Debates at St Mary’s Church near Putney bridge in south west London. A group emerged who became known as The Levellers, with their support drawn mainly from rank and file soldiers in the Parliamentary army, although they had support amongst the people, particularly in the City of London where one of third of the population signed a petition supporting them.

They set out their demands in An Agreement of the People which espoused a republican and democratic agenda, calling for voting rights for most men and for Parliament to be elected every two years, for religious freedom, and for an end to imprisonment for debt. The heads of the army had other ideas though and wanted the King to approve of some improvements in social justice. In the end Leveller leaders were arrested and some executed by the ruling army elite.

One sub sect of the Leveller’s was the Diggers, or True Levellers, who not only called for an extension in the voting franchise and extended liberties, but who actually took pre figurative direct action in setting up collective communities on common land, ploughing the land to grow crops to share amongst the cooperative, hence the name Diggers. Like all thinking in those days, it was based upon the Bible, and a Quaker interpretation of the text.

The Diggers set up a small number of settlements on common land mainly in southern England, but probably numbered only a couple of thousand people in total. The most famous settlement was at St George’s Hill in Weybridge in Surrey. It was all pretty radical stuff at the time, but looking back their demands were typically English and conservative. At the time, over one third of the country was common land, and gave plenty of room for their experiment, of the other nearly two thirds of enclosed land, they were happy to leave with its ‘owners’. They also renounced all violence and petitioned Parliament to protect their communities.

Parliament didn’t pay much attention to the situation and local land owners, who must have feared that they wouldn’t be able to attract workers onto their land to work, used the local courts and armed thugs to evict the Diggers from their blossoming ecosocialist communities, and there the experiment ended.

The Restoration of Charles II saw the beginning of the wholesale enclosure of much of what was left of the common land, as the establishment could see the threat of allowing people to live communally like this would undermine their wealth and privilege.

And so it goes on today. I have met people in Tanzania who farm common land clearings in the forest illegally, and spoken to fishermen in Senegal, whose families have fished sustainably for centuries and are now threatened with starvation by factory fishing boats from Europe, Japan and Russia, over fishing their commons for profits at home and internationally.

So, whilst all this royalist rubbish is going on in the coming days, let’s instead reflect on our English radical tradition and how that interconnects with the political challenges we have today.

There is a republican protest by City Hall in London, where you can jeer the Queen as she sails up the Thames, if you should so wish. Details here.

The above video/song is ‘English Civil War’ by The Clash.

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