South of the River – English Civil War

Compass-SouthComment logo 2We face an important choice next Thursday. I don’t know about you, but I’ve found it a strange and frustrating election campaign.

The main parties have stampeded to what they perceive as the centre ground. Without knowing their records, it’s quite hard to distinguish Labour, Tory and LibDem policies. They’re all in favour of austerity and against immigration, just to different degrees. In terms of policies, I like what I hear from the parties led by women, the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Greens. I actually don’t trust any of them and I can’t vote for two of them.

I’m not going to tell you how to vote, but I am going to urge you to use your vote.

I’m down in that London at the moment to celebrate the end of my daughter’s degree (hashtag proud Dad).

Last night I went south of the river down here. Under the Thames to the South Bank and the National Theatre to see a play called Light Shining In Buckinghamshire. OK it’s not a very promising title, but it’s a very interesting play about a very interesting period in British history. The English Revolution, or the English Civil War as you probably heard it referred to in school.

In particular it looks at the radical movements that pushed Cromwell’s movement forward: the Levellers, the Ranters and the Diggers. These people challenged who should rule, not just against Kings, but men of property as well. Spoiler alert – in the end they lost, but along the way they took part in a debate that looked at the fundamental questions of democracy.

The Putney Debates were held between Leveller agitators, elected by the men of the regiments and the leadership of the New Model Army including Cromwell himself. There’s one quote that always stops me in my tracks:

“… the poorest he that is in England has 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…”

Forgive the Shakespearian language, that ’s the way they spoke back then. Read it out loud if it helps you get the sense of it. It’s an argument for universal suffrage, or votes for all. If we are governed by laws, we must have a say in how those laws are made.

The Levellers didn’t win universal suffrage. It would take over 200 years to win. The Chartist movement in the 1840s mobilised millions of working people. There were huge meetings held on Hunslet Moor and Holbeck Moor demanding the vote. The Chartists didn’t win their demands. As with the Levellers, our rulers judged that they would be thrown out on their ear if they gave ordinary people the vote in such turbulent times. The Suffragettes fought for votes for women. They succeeded in part winning the votes for middle class, property owning women. Universal suffrage for all men and all women, regardless of property only came in the late 1920s.

Do you remember the scenes in South Africa when they held their first election and made Nelson Mandela President? There were huge queues to vote, people were joyful, patient, delighted to have the chance to vote. Hold that thought.

It’s very easy to be cynical and say voting doesn’t change anything. It may not bring about the change that some of us want to see, but our forefathers and foremothers fought hard and long to win the right to vote. Please use it on Thursday and please think long and hard about what the candidate will do for ordinary people.

I’ll be back next week with more of my views from South of the River. You can follow me on Twitter: @BeestonJeremy.