Tuesday, 17 March 2009

John Lambert & The Instrument Of Government

Another significant anniversary – on this day in 1653 the monarchy was formally abolished.

This lead to the adoption of the world’s first (and England’s only) written constitution – The Instrument Of Government. This was essentially a patrician republican, not a democratic constitution, but it did establish:

• A president for life – under the title of Lord Protector – as an elected rather than a hereditary position.

• The executive (the Lord Protector) answerable to an elected Council Of State

• Parliament to be the supreme legislature, with the Lord Protector having the right to delay but not veto legislation

• Joint control of the armed forces by parliament and the Lord Protector

• A parliament consisting of a single elected house

• A guaranteed term for parliaments of three years with sessions of a minimum of five months

• Electoral boundaries that reflected the shifting population and the growth of urban areas

• Freedom of worship and assembly for all except Roman Catholics

It wasn’t the system envisioned by the Levellers or the other radicals and it wasn’t even the system that lasted for any period of time – the instability of continuing civil wars led to the proto-military rule of the Major Generals, the inherited Protectorate of Richard Cromwell and ultimately to the restoration of the monarchy.

The Instrument was the work of General John Lambert – one of the ‘army grandees’ who represented the narrow but powerful social base of the radicalised upper middle classes – prepared to break with the old order but wanting strong and stable government and above all reluctant to allow the masses onto the political stage. Tellingly the reforms to the electoral boundaries were geared to enfranchise the growing urban middle class and end the domination of the gentry. But with the property qualification set at £200 it certainly did not include the ‘honest freeborn artisans’ that the radicals drew on for their support.

Nonetheless it does represent a milestone in the struggle for democracy and like so many of the achievements of the English Revolution, is still in some respects to be equaled.

Lambert is an ambiguous character: Having been the architect of Cromwell’s Protectorate he later fell out with him. He plotted at various times in a confusing succession of twists and turns with just about all the parliamentary factions. To some extent this reflected the narrow base on which his power rested. However he did lead the opposition that ended the Protectorate of Richard Cromwell and helped replace it with a short-lived revival of the Republic. And he did try to prevent the Restoration of the monarchy at the very last minute by staging a military uprising , symbolically raising his standard at Edgehill, the site of the first battle of the civil war.

Isolated from many of his former allies, he was easily defeated and arrested. Under the restored monarchy he escaped execution, partly because he had been campaigning in the North at the time of the king’s trial, and partly because many of the parliamentarian turncoats who stage-managed the Restoration had been implicated themselves at some point in Lambert’s various machinations.

He spent the remaining twenty four years of his life in various prisons and in the process went insane. A sad footnote to a largely forgotten episode in the history of our struggle for democracy.

1 comment:

paulm said...

'Lambert is an ambiguous character'

I totally agree, but fascinating none the less. If you've not read Phillipa Gregory's two excellent novels about the Tradescants and the English Revolution try them Lambert is a significant figure, portrayed, I think convincingly in the second, Virgin Soil.