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Reclaiming part of our heritage

CIARAN WALSH on why the local labour movement and left will be commemorating the Oxford Levellers this week

THE Levellers Day Festival held in Burford, Oxfordshire, during May is a well known feature of the radical calendar. 

It commemorates the execution of three Leveller soldiers after Oliver Cromwell suppressed the threatening and popular Leveller mutiny in the New Model Army. 

The movement in the army was a direct challenge to the grandees in Parliament: to the unjust oppressive dispensation they intended to replace absolute monarchy with; to the proposed colonial war of suppression and appropriation in Ireland; and also a cry for popular democracy and equality.

Though there was always an understanding that the Leveller movement in its broadest terms was the foundation and ancestor of radical movements for social justice and, ultimately, the labour movement itself, the work of the Communist Party Historians Group, especially Christopher Hill, clarified the centrality of the movement to future developments. 

This awareness led to the founding of the festival in 1975 by Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) Oxford Industrial Branch which went to Burford to reclaim this radical history. 

It has provided the opportunity annually to link current struggles to the full continuum of struggles in the past.

Though the defeat at Burford delivered a fatal blow to the prospect of a democratic outcome of civil war and revolution, resistance continued as the Leveller movement in all its ramifications reacted to the betrayal and repression of the Grandees. 

This culminated in the last major attempt to reignite grassroots power within the New Model Army when the garrison at Oxford mutinied and demanded the adoption of the Leveller programme and suspension of the war in Ireland. 

After being suppressed on the orders of Cromwell by Col Lambert’s troops, two Leveller soldiers, Pvt Biggs and Pvt Piggen, were executed on September 18 1649 as an example and a signal of the final defeat of the Levellers in the New Model Army. 

A few years ago members of Oxford and District Trades Union Council decided that it was a serious ommision that these Levellers’ sacrifice was not commemorated by the local labour movement and left. 

It was decided to have a short memorial ceremony with speeches and singing annually, on the nearest convenient date: to raise consciousness of this important semi-submerged aspect of history and place the Levellers in proper context, reclaiming our heritage. 

The ceremony is held in Gloucester Green, where the mutineers were executed beneath the plaque erected by the WEA in their memory. This year it will take place on Wednesday September 15 at 6pm. 

It is particularly important to properly contextualise the Levellers at this moment in the face of the Cavalier charlatan Boris Johnson, who would distort and ideologically sully historical consciousness by appropriating the term to mask the truth of this elitist, arrogant government acting in the interests of its class and leading society towards a fascist path. 

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