“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 bound in a strict sense to that government that he hath not had a voice to put himself under…” – Colonel Thomas Rainsborough at the Putney Debates, London, 1647.
Thomas Rainsborough‘s famous – and then highly radical – call for a form of representative democracy still rings true, even in these days of universal suffrage. At the time of his comments at the Putney Debates, Britain was still reeling from the effects of the first of the complex Civil Wars that were to completely change the way Britain was governed and would eventually create the modern parliamentary system.
In fact, the Debates were called in order to discuss a new constitution – an issue never entirely resolved and that still remains a political hot potato to this day, in that Britain does not have a formally codified written constitution.
Rainsborough himself was a supporter of the Levellers (OK, who started singing One Way at the back there? Not those Levellers, I’m afraid, although the band did take their name and much inspiration from this group of 17th century radicals), and was also an MP and a colonel in the New Model Army (same goes for that band too).
His ideas were not new, but the changes which resulted from the radical events of this period, including the Putney Debates, were probably more far-reaching than the impact of any previous attempt at rebellion against the state had been, before or since.
Back in the 21st century, and unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last week or so, you’ll be aware that the latest general election campaign is already picking up steam at a steady rate and the now-traditional battle for the votes of the British electorate is well and truly underway.
Although the changes in the political infrastructure and the gradual extension of the franchise that allowed our current electoral system to exist only came about in concrete form in the centuries following Rainsborough’s speech and the later Cromwellian Protectorate, the impassioned words of this Leveller colonel still have a relevance today.
We live in a society where our hard-won rights and freedoms are being eroded more and more rapidly by an increasingly sinister state. In my view, the current British government (and those who may or may not soon replace them) all need a history lesson. If they continue to ignore the simple, unquestioned facts of justice and democracy, and the basic truth, evident even in the 17th century, that “the poorest he… hath a life to live as the greatest he”, they will eventually find themselves on the receiving end of the latest in a long, long line of British political and social rebellions…