A proposition - 358 years on1
The Leveller document, "An Agreement of the Free People of England" of 1649 and others provided source material for the English Bill of Rights of 1689. The Bill of Rights has provided a basis for the defence of freedom of millions of people in those countries integrating the Bill of Rights as a central tenet of their constitutions or basic law.
Commitment to common sense
In the way the Levellers expressed themselves in their constitutional writings one detects a sharp sense of commitment to the cause of freedom. This was not a group enjoying the benefits of a well-paid lecture circuit supported by a think tank or writing their pieces to meet broadsheet deadlines in exchange for payment. For many of these people, such as John Lilburne, this was a life long mission causing them to endure a less comfortable existence than those they sought to free. The authorities feared people like John Lilburne and considered them to be seditious, constantly circulating ideas calling into question their arbitrary hold on power. His expression, and the sense it made to the people who read his pamphlets, was so appealing that on the two occasions John Lilburne was on trial for his life the sheer size of the crowds attempting to hear the case, and the obvious popularity of the individual, caused judges, and all others, to back down from committing him to death.
Freedom as common sense
When one reads the Leveller's pamphlets and documents one is struck by the clear rationality of their argument and an absence of propaganda. They went straight to the heart of the matter and thereby to the hearts of those who read their work.
Freedom as a timeless message
It is dangerous and foolish to discount the views of people from all walks of life who many years ago enthused over such propositions. Although of another time such English people sought freedom recognizing its value in terms of upholding their culture of expectations, of what is normal, that code of practice deeply ingrained in the soul of each person; unwritten but understood by all through time and space.
No class struggle, no bloody revolution
For whereas the government exercised power in an arbitrary manner people could see that there was a better way for society to be organized. This vision was not some awful bloody revolutionary theory promoting the removal of some class but an appeal to logic and a peaceful means of social transition. Indeed, John Lilburne opposed the execution of Charles I and also fell out with Cromwell over his insistence in invading Ireland which, although in response to a massacre of Protestants in that country, Lilburne considered to be a mission largely flamed by religious bigotry and which would result in the deaths of defenseless and innocent people.
In addition the Levellers' concepts were entirely free of the motivations founded on jealousy and prejudice commonly associated with the more recent post-1917 horrific collectivist movements arising in Europe under Communism, the Nazis or the Fascists. No, here was a movement genuinely promoting the wellbeing of all founded in peace and without religious intolerance. It was a movement avoiding any diversion into emotive concepts of class struggle but was inclusive of the poor as well as the rich, seeking to raise the wellbeing of all in the English Commonwealth (15). The popular appeal was also grounded in the fact that such a system was so evidently feasible and, therefore, inspirational and one able to transform society by bringing about a state which could enjoy a popular support of a population living under a Parliament which upheld their free will.
What went wrong?
Some 358 years after "An Agreement of the Free People of England" was penned out in the Tower of London we, so far, have not reached this happy state of affairs. It behoves us to look more carefully at what aspects of the Leveller's advice the political classes of the day failed to take onboard, with intent or through carelessness.
The abuse of power
Most of the ills facing Britain today relate to the massive concentration of power in the hands of political parties run by professional politicians. The Levellers had sought to avoid the formation of factions and political parties for they realized this would lead to corruption and a diversion of Parliamentary power from the people. They had also sought to avoid the existence of professional politicians since they were also seen to represent a threat to the freedom of the people of England. British experience since then shows that the Levellers were justified to have such concerns.
Open operation of factions & political parties
By not introducing the constitutional control they suggested, we have ended up with a system whereby political parties openly participate in elections promoting their own professional politicians who, as the Levellers feared, make use of their power in a way that does not serve the free will of the people. We are nowhere near that visionary and transparent simplicity of a free and happy people graced by a government whose actions reflect the free will of the people.
Those who should be distanced from power, control it
The Levellers and many people in England desired universal suffrage and a Parliament of faithful representatives of each community to represent their free will. But what has happened is the very identifiable elements, judged to be the potential cause of the corruption of this expression of the free will of the people, have taken control. This control is used to secure power at the expense of reflecting the true preferences of the voters and therefore suppresses freedom of expression.
The inmates run the institution in their own interests whereas those, for whom the institutions exist and who pay the inmates' incomes, are ignored.
Thisarticle is based on Chapter 12, "A Proposition - 358 years on"
in "The Briton's Quest from Freedom - Our unfinished journey
" (HPC, Portsmouth, 20 07, 418 pages) a book written by Hector McNeill, the British constitutional economist. It provides a description of the decadence in the handling of constitutional propositions leading to provisions that corrupted the concept of a Parliament of the will of the people and weakening of the functioning of a participatory democracy and economy leading to increasing differentiation within the social and economic constituencies.