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History The ideals of the Levellers are alive and well

NICK MATTHEWS recalls the founding of the annual Levellers Day and its stalwart supporters Dudley Edwards and Tony Benn

THE third Saturday in May is a great time for those on the left to pay a visit the Cotswolds, if only for a chance to disturb the quiet of its modern chocolate box image, and where better than Burford for Levellers Day. 

I find it hard to think of Levellers Day and not think of Tony Benn who was a regular attendee.

The beautiful Cotswolds churchyard of St John the Baptist is perhaps an unlikely spot for a socialist pilgrimage but in May 1649 it was the scene of historic events.

The final suppression of the Levellers in the New Model Army took place in the churchyard. Three of them, Cornet Thomson, Corporal Perkins and Private Church, were made examples of and executed in the churchyard.

The Levellers’ manifesto, the Agreement of the People, could have died with them if in 1972 the Oxford industrial branch of the WEA had not been formed. It was established to take the WEA back to its labour movement roots.

One of the organisers was Dudley Edwards who said he was often “asked to explain how a layman and active trade unionist who was a member of the Oxford district committee of the Amalgamated Engineering Union during and just after the second world war came to be interested in the doings of our Leveller forefathers 300 years previously.”

He wrote the pamphlet The Last Stand of the Levellers during 1947–8, and said “after the honeymoon with Stalinist Russia during the second world war, the mass media were once again portraying communism as everything that was alien to the ‘true spirit’ of the British nation – a purely foreign importation. As a passionate young follower of the history of British socialism I was convinced that the insinuation that the communist idea had no roots in our own history was essentially false.”

In 1975, members of the WEA Oxford industrial branch went to Burford to lay a wreath and reclaim a piece of history that seemed to be missing from the schoolbooks. Eighty members turned up and Dudley gave a talk about this important history in the church, hoping it would become an annual event.

It was the happenings the following year that cemented Levellers Day in the labour movement calendar. Tony Benn was the invited speaker.

Controversy reigned, with the local MP Douglas Hurd trying to get the WEA’s grant withdrawn and even the Archbishop of Canterbury being drawn into the debate. When Benn arrived in Burford early on the morning of the event, he found a distressed vicar in a plastic apron, scrubbing brush in hand, desperately trying to remove the words “Balls to Benn” from the side of the church.

Ever since then it has long been a day of celebration with the main street through the town closed to traffic, occupied instead by a diverse procession of banners, trade unionists, civil war re-enactors, peace campaigners, the always remarkably colourful Woodcraft Folk, communists, green anarchists, folk musicians and smiling families.

It’s not really a march, on a nice day it is a pleasant stroll around the village.

On reaching the churchyard, there is usually a radical cleric to say a few prayers, after all the Levellers were all God-fearing folk, then wreaths are laid in tribute to the three men, whose stand is today remembered as an early demand for our democratic freedoms.

Then it’s across to the gardens of Warwick Hall for an afternoon of music and politics.

This year post-Covid the activities are returning in all their delightful style. The Rev Prof Mark Chapman will do the churchyard honours. The march will be led off by Leveller stalwart Attila the Stockbroker. There will be a Levellers Conversation, with Ted Vallance and Professor Ann Hughes, John Rees facilitating.

Then there will be the Levellers Debate chaired by Roger McKenzie, featuring Siobhan Endean (Unite, national officer for equalities), Shami Chakrabarti, Chantelle Lunt (Merseyside Kill the Bill) and Richard Burgon MP.

With the massive attack on our democratic freedoms currently underway this all seems a totally contemporary debate.

The day is rounded off with a performance of Attila the Stockbroker and Barnstormer 1649.

If I have one small complaint it is that I would like to see established a permanent memorial to Dudley Edwards and Tony Benn at the church to join that of Levellers Thomson, Perkins and Church, in memory to their commitment the event, as they were indeed True Levellers. If the organisers where to establish a fund I would make the first contribution.

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