British Levellers’ history from Cameron’s constituency

This video from Britain says about itself:

Levellers, True Levellers, and The Diggers of 1649

The Levellers were a relatively loose alliance of radicals and freethinkers who came to prominence during the period of instability that characterized the English Civil War of 1642 – 1649.

What bound these people together was the general belief that all men were equal; since this was the case, then a government could only have legitimacy if it was elected by the people. The Leveller demands were for a secular republic, abolition of the House of Lords, equality before the law, the right to vote for all, free trade, the abolition of censorship, freedom of speech, the abolition of tithes and tolls, and the absolute right for people to worship whatever religion they chose, or none at all. This program was published as “The Agreement of the People“.

The Levellers argued that since God had created all men as equals, the land belonged to all the people as a right. Their program was, then, essentially an attempt to restore the situation that they believed had existed previous to the Norman Conquest in 1099; they wanted to establish a ‘commonwealth’ in which the common people would be in control of their own destiny without the intervention of a King, a House of Lords and other potential oppressors.

It is hardly surprising, given this program of demands, that the rich and powerful felt threatened by the Levellers. This is particularly so, given that some of the Leveller demands, almost 400 years on, have still not been met!

In 1649 Gerrard Winstanley and fourteen others published a pamphlet in which they called themselves the “True Levellers” to distinguish their more radical ideas from the Levellers. Once they put their ideas into practice and started to cultivate common land, they became known as “Diggers” by both opponents and supporters. The Diggers’ beliefs encompassed a worldview that envisioned an ecological interrelationship between humans and nature, acknowledging the inherent connections between people and their surroundings.

Winstanley would advocate a new democratic society of the “common man” as opposed to the current society based on privilege and wealth. Many of the political, economic and social reforms advocated would dramatically impact the social order.

Winstanley was concerned by the plight of the people at the lower rungs of English Society, the overlooked or forgotten man. The poor, the sick, the hungry, and the destitute who often did not scrape by or were left to die.

The Digger movement at St George’s Hill (Surrey) provided an ideal venue for testing Winstanleys’ new social experiment. Winstanley rejected the concept of private ownership of all land, and called for a peaceful return of all public lands to the People. Some have even characterized the Surrey Diggers’ as a primitive Millennium movement. Later generations have called the social experiment an early form of communism or even anarchism.

After repeated attacks and destruction of their commune and crops by local landowners (particularly by hired thugs and ill-informed peasants) and fines from the high authorities, the Diggers soon faded away.

But, as with the Levellers, Winstanley and the Surrey Diggers struck a blow at the halls of wealth and power of 17th century English society. Their efforts and their philosophy were not wasted on later generations seeking the same spirit of liberty and freedom in a more democratic social structure.

By Trish Lavelle in Britain:

The Levellers’ unfinished fight for democracy

Saturday 17th May 2014

TRISH LAVELLE asks what can we learn from a historic struggle remembered today in David Cameron’s Oxfordshire constituency

Last year comedian Russell Brand told BBC Newsnight that he has never voted, and he never will, as Britain’s political system has created a “disenfranchised, disillusioned underclass. It is not that I am not voting out of apathy.

“I am not voting out of absolute indifference and weariness and exhaustion from the lies, treachery and deceit of the political class that has been going on for generations,” he added.

Brand is apparently not alone in these views. Research carried out for the Electoral Reform Society earlier this year revealed that as many as 800,000 18–21-year-olds are not registered to vote.

In all, they estimate that 8.5 million people were missing from the parliamentary electoral register in April 2011. Many of these will be younger, working-class voters. It seems our political elite is quite happy with this mass disenfranchisement.

Each year in May people gather in Oxfordshire to celebrate and commemorate the ideas of the Levellers. On May 17 1649, three soldiers were executed on Oliver Cromwell’s orders in Burford churchyard. They belonged to a popular movement with beliefs in representative government, civil rights and religious tolerance.

During the civil war, the Levellers fought on Parliament’s side, at first seeing Cromwell as a liberator, but by 1649 they viewed him as an oppressor. They were prepared to fight against him for their ideals and he was determined to crush them. Over 300 of them were captured by Cromwell’s troops and locked up in Burford church. Three were led out into the churchyard to be shot as ringleaders.

The ideas of the Levellers were influential in the development of democracy, equality and civil rights and are every bit as relevant today as they were then. They were certainly seen as a threat to the rich and the powerful of that era, which explains why they were so brutally suppressed. The Levellers called for a system of fair representation of the people and an end to corruption and abuses of power.

And of course we are just days away voting from the elections for the European Parliament in Britain and Northern Ireland. The racist and reactionary interests represented by Ukip have high expectations of electoral success.

Many people have not registered to vote or will choose not to use their vote. In less than a year, if these voting patterns continue, we could see a Tory/Ukip coalition beaming out at us from the rose garden.

So in a timely debate this weekend in the heart of David Cameron’s West Oxfordshire constituency, we will be considering why apathy and cynicism about mainstream politics seem to be at an all-time high and how we must increase participation and engagement in the political system.

Speakers from trade unions, Operation Black Vote and Class will discuss what we can do to make representative politics truly representative and how we can turn single-issue activism into broader political activism. And of course, we will discuss how the values and aspirations of the Levellers continue to inform and inspire this debate.

This year will see a special tribute to Tony Benn who was a magnificent supporter of our event for many years. We will place flowers for him on the spot where the Levellers were executed and remember a great “Leveller” of our times.

Levellers’ Day takes place today at The Recreation Ground, Tanners Lane, Burford, Oxfordshire from 10.30am–3.30pm.

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13 thoughts on “British Levellers’ history from Cameron’s constituency

  1. Now I know where the title of the UK’s biggest community/alternative living website comes from – Diggersand Dreamers it is called and I always wondered why it had Diggers at the front – thanks – really interesting – I had not heard of The Digggers or Levellers or Winstanley.


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