24th May 2002
Last Saturday a large crowd of people gathered in Burford,
to remember three Leveller Soldiers: Cornet Thompson, Corporal
Perkins and Private Church who refused to serve in Ireland
and were shot in the churchyard on the orders of Oliver Cromwell.
For the last twenty seven years the Oxford WEA has been
organizing these events and inviting speakers down, parading
with bands and banners through the town, followed by the laying
of a wreath in the churchyard with their names inscribed on
it, the whole event enlivened by Morris Dancers and men and
women dressed up as Cromwellian soldiers, wearing the Green
that was the colour they adopted.
This year it was raining but the people who had come were
content to ignore the weather and listen to the speakers including
Lindis Percy, a woman twelve times imprisoned for her courageous
and imaginative campaign against Star Wars, who argued with
knowledge and passion, followed by two other women and Bruce
Listening to them was most inspiring and outside were stands
put up by Amnesty, OXFAM, Greenpeace and a host of other progressive
organizations that keep the flame of hope alive at a time
when it is so easy to get depressed and feel that there is
nothing we can do to reverse the trend to disaster which so
often seems to overwhelm us.
During the English Revolution some important debates about
democracy took place in Putney Church and next Tuesday, on
BBC Radio 4, these are being re-enacted together with a discussion
about their relevance today, for the issues raised, which
were hotly argued over at the time sound very contemporary
to this generation, since both King Charles 1st, and Cromwell,
role as Lord Protector, both believed that they had a divine
right to rule and would not tolerate dissent.
The older I get the more persuaded I have become that no-one
in power ever wants to share it and that even progressive
regimes that have got control, whether by revolution or election,
soon succeed in persuading themselves that all criticism is
disruptive or disloyal, caused by extremists or wreckers who
must - in the public interest - be restrained or removed.
Kings, Queens and Dictators have always taken that view
and so did the Bishops in the days when the churches had real
power being quite happy to burn heretics who undermined their
authority, and unhappily, Stalin's Russia did the same in
the name of defending the working class from their class enemies,
suppressing dissent which denied them the base in public support
for Socialism that it needed to survive.
The archives of the Labour Movement, which chronicle the
work and faith of a succession of progressive people in this
country who fought for human rights, trade unionism, democracy
and peace are to be found in the Public Record Office in Kew
and occasionally they put them on display so that we can appreciate
how much effort and sacrifice went into the task of winning
us such rights as we now have.
But if you ask where and how such a supreme collection came
to be assembled they will tell you that they all came from
the Home Office - i.e. the Police Records meticulously collected
so that 'subversive activities' could be carefully monitored,
and they include leaflets, posters, pamphlets and notes of
speeches made to the crowd by 'agitators'.
On a recent visit there, speaking at the annual meeting
of the PCS, I was shown the Court Judgment of the Kings Bench
Division in the case of Joseph Wilkinson, a textile worker,
who, in 1724, was imprisoned for taking part in a strike which
was then an offence because it was in restraint of trade and
the evidence which was the basis of his conviction was that
he was a member of a friendly society which was the forerunner
of the modern trade union.
Today that process of surveillance goes on but even more
intensely using the most modern technology that allows the
security services to use CCTV, bug anyone they wish to bug
and intercept emails letters and all communication for the
purpose of controlling us in the interests of those in power,
justifying it all in the interests of 'national security'.
All this makes it so necessary for us to study our history
so that we come to understand the reasons why, over the centuries,
rich and powerful people want to control us and keep us in
our place so that we cannot challenge their privileges by
demanding representation and democracy and the knowledge that
we are not the first generation to have experienced this pressure
from above should give us the confidence to carry on.
The Levellers declared that 'the Earth is a Common Treasury
and it is a crime to buy and sell the Earth for private gain'
which was the forerunner of the modern environmental movement
and they were punished for for saying that, just as Joseph
Wilkinson was sent to gaol for going on strike and Lindis
Percy, also imprisoned for campaigning against Star Wars.
But just as the authorities have more sophisticated ways
of watching us we have the experience of centuries of work
behind us and the internet allows us to internationalize the
struggles so that we do not feel isolated any more.
History is a real and powerful resource, available for us
today and we must make the effort to learn it and use it to
get our case across to a people who are waiting to hear from
us how they can best make use of their own own experience
to meet their own needs and realize their dreams by working
with others to safeguard their democratic rights that global
capital would like to take away.