Monday, 25 October 2010

Soldiers and radicals.

The anniversary this week  (28th Oct to 9th Nov) of one of the most extraordinary and significant episodes in English history - the Putney debates of 1647. 

With the First Civil War effectively over, Charles Stuart in prison, and the ranks of the New Model Army in radical ferment, the leaders of the parliamentary armies - the Grandees -  under pressure of their own troops on the verge of mutiny, convened a week of meetings with the rank-and-file, essentially to discuss  'what kind of victory' ?

The debates have been much recorded and analysed - with on one hand  the position of the Grandees, favouring some sort of constitutional compromise with a monarchy controlled by 'godly' men of property,  summed up by Ireton:  'no man hath a right to an interest or share in the disposing of the affairs of the kingdom... that hath not a permanent fixed interest in this kingdom.' 

 And on the other, that of the Leveller-influenced  'Agitators' - famously articulated by Rainsborough: 'the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he ... 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 at all bound in a strict sense to that government that he hath not had a voice to put himself under'.

A few days later the debates ended when the king escaped from captivity - and in the end,  following the regicide,  a brief  republican interlude, the repression of the Levellers, and two more subsequent civil wars, it could be said that it was a version of Ireton's vision that triumphed. 

But perhaps what was most extraordinary was that the debates happened at all:  The army leaders would have been happy to have had a loyal army defeat the royalists militarily, then be paid-off  and go home - thereby permitting  a negotiated constitutional settlement.  But in five years of civil war they had come to rely on forces they couldn't control and so - in an early example of proto-Permanent Revolution - the masses had entered on to the stage to push the process of change far beyond the realms of what was initially envisaged. 

As a footnote -  it is impossible to avoid drawing a parallel with the 'Soldiers' Parlaiment' convened in 1944 in Cairo by the British Eighth Army: Some of these troops had been posted overseas for three or four years and they had been radicalised by their involvement with liberation movements in Greece, Italy and the Balkans. 

Their 'mock' parliament again debated 'what kind of victory?' - and in answer elected a  Socialist/Communist coalition 'governement' and passed 'legislation' nationalising the heights of the economy - actually going beyond Labour's platform  in the landslide 1945 election.

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