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War, revolution and a dead king

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Issue 1749

How parliament was born

War, revolution and a dead king

By Helen Shooter

BRITAIN’S PARLIAMENT is the result of a revolution. Of course, you will not hear mainstream politicians mention this during the election campaign for that parliament. For mainstream politicians, big changes in society are no longer possible. They say that if you try to turn the existing order upside down the result is chaos, or worse.

But a revolution of the most immense proportions was what happened in Britain in the 1640s. Charles I, king of England and Scotland through divine right and the will of god, had his head severed from his body while a crowd watched. He was the first monarch in European history to be executed by his subjects. The king’s demise was a powerful symbol of the complete break with the previous society and its conventions.

Before that, the king’s word was law and he was in a special relationship with god. People believed the sick could be cured by touching him. Nine years of upheaval, war and bitter division swept away this old order. Everything that had been “common sense” was up for question. Fixed ideas dissolved. Brother was set against brother and father against son.

The English Revolution laid the foundations for the country’s transformation into the first industrial nation. A new class entrenched itself at the top of society. It tore open the way for capitalism, with all its incredible dynamism and potential, as well as its inequality and denial of that potential. It was an event of world importance, not just national importance. The man who led the destruction of the king’s rule now has a statue outside parliament. He was Oliver Cromwell.

Those who now sit in parliament are in some sense his heirs. But they are very nervous about admitting that they are part of this family. Cromwell is part of the British heritage, part of the pageantry and the “age old” traditions. But he was a revolutionary. It is hard for Britain’s rulers to admit that their system required a bloody revolution and a revolutionary leader. Simon Schama’s recent TV programme about Cromwell presented him as power hungry, driven by religious devotion to pull down the king and become ruler. This does not explain how every aspect of British society was turned upside down.

OLIVER CROMWELL was born in 1599 into a period of great social and political turbulence. There was a growing clash between the old feudal order of landowning aristocrats, church and king, and those who looked to the increasing importance of trade and money. Cromwell was an MP when the king reconvened parliament for the first time in 11 years to demand a rise in taxes.

This debate over relative powers of parliament versus the king seemed a relatively small matter. But, because it came at a time when there were clashes in the deep structures of society, it escalated into a conflict that went on for years. “Peaceful” England had armies in the field and civil war. Even then no one at that stage thought it would end in the king being executed. Britain was split down the middle between king and parliament. But the parliamentary leaders were fighting a half hearted war because they were divided over how far to go in their opposition to the king.

Some feared the examples of popular discontent against the king would grow into a bigger movement. Cromwell was one of the MPs in the radical Independents grouping in parliament who argued there had to be a decisive escalation and clear victory in the war. He argued for building an army that junked all the old methods. His New Model Army recruited from the “middle layer” who did not have the wealth and power of the large landowners.

He chose these men of lesser status instead of the usual gentleman officers. “I had rather have a plain russet-coated captain that knows what he fights for and loves what he knows than that which you call a gentleman and is nothing else,” said Cromwell. Cromwell also argued for alliances with smaller tradesmen, apprentices and artisans.

He was prepared to side with these radicals and dissident religious groups who were emerging as part of the general questioning of society. Because religion was the dominant idea in society, many of the social questions were reflected through religious debate.

One of the radical preachers who travelled with Cromwell’s troops was Hugh Peter. He spoke about a “just social order characterised by decent care for the sick and the poor, and an improved legal system” and argued “imprisonment for debt abolished”. Cromwell knew his New Model Army would only keep on fighting if people were allowed to express unconventional ideas. So pamphlets and news-sheets circulated freely, and ordinary soldiers organised numerous religious and political discussion groups.

Once the New Model Army was set up it delivered the killer blow in the war. It finished off the king’s forces in a decisive battle outside Charles’s headquarters in Oxford.

THE PARLIAMENT forces were pleased that Cromwell’s army had delivered a victory. But the conservative Presbyterian grouping wanted the New Model Army disbanded and the dissident religious revolutionary groups to be banned. They wanted to come to some sort of compromise with the king to re-establish order. However, the king refused any such compromise.

The soldiers also resisted the threat to their organisation. Each of the regiments elected representatives, known as agitators, to argue their case. They opposed being disbanded without pay, proposed annually elected parliaments and criticised the Presbyterians.

These agitators began to organise the rank and file of the army. Radical groups like the Levellers grew. The debates in Putney in 1647 between Cromwell’s army leaders and the Levellers showed the Levellers wanted to go much further in their demands than Cromwell. One of the radicals, Rainborowe, argued, “I think that the poorest he that is in England has a life to live as the greatest he.” There was a group even further to the left of the Levellers, the Diggers, who were the early forerunners of socialist ideas.

They argued against private property and challenged the role of religion altogether. One of the Diggers, Gerrard Winstanley, said, “This divine spiritual doctrine is a cheat. “For while men are gazing up to heaven imagining after a happiness, their eyes are put out.”

CROMWELL KNEW he needed the army to prevent the king from regrouping and seizing power once again. He forced the king’s execution through to win the war. But then he faced the question of how to stabilise the new regime. He moved to crush the radical forces to his left who wanted to push further than he was prepared to tolerate. “I tell you, sir, you have no other way to deal with these men but to break them or they will break you,” he told his parliamentary allies.

Cromwell sent the Leveller leaders to the Tower of London just months after Charles’s execution, and broke up an army mutiny in Oxfordshire by killing the leaders. But Cromwell also faced constant battles with the reactionaries who wanted to go back to the old regime and unravel all the achievements.

This meant he was forced to rely on an increasingly narrow base of support. He ruled virtually as a dictator until his death in 1658. Although the monarchy was restored in 1660, Cromwell had opened the way for a transformation in Britain that could not be reversed. Politicians would like to bury this history.

But as the Digger Gerrard Winstanley put it, “If either one king rules or many rule by king’s principles much murmuring, grudges, trouble and quarrels may and will arise among the oppressed people on every gained opportunity.” Those words echo through the ages.

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