Skip to main content

The legacy of the Levellers as pertinent as ever

LYNNE WALSH reports on this year's Levellers’ Day

THE annual commemoration marking Levellers’ Day had to be shifted into cyberspace this year, but the online event was passionate, inspiring and did a grand job in celebrating our revolutionary heroes.

There were rallying speeches, a moment of prayer and reflection, calls to action from contemporary campaigners, and music both rousing and melancholy.

The full day’s programme was curated by a group including the International Brigade Memorial Committee in Oxford and the TUC London East and South East.

The packed event brought together some 20 speakers and performers to mark the day, May 17 1649, when three soldiers were executed on Oliver Cromwell’s orders in Burford churchyard, Oxfordshire.

The Levellers stood up for civil rights and religious tolerance. Defying Cromwell’s arrogance, they were shot dead for their pains.

A plaque at Burford Church bears the names of the three: Private John Church, Corporal Perkins, and Cornet James Thompson.

In a moving address, the Reverend Canon Professor Mark Chapman, stood at the plaque, as posies were laid in honour of the martyrs.

He said: “Today we are once again remembering the witness of three revolutionaries who died in this churchyard for their refusal to obey orders. They stood against unbridled authority and an executive power which refused to be constrained by the will of the people. They lived in a world where lots of the old ideas had suddenly been challenged in what amounted to a revolution.”

In the febrile years after the English civil war, when Cromwell was effectively head of state after the execution of Charles I in January 1649, there was mutiny in the military. Soldiers who had followed Cromwell as liberator began to see him as dictator.

Chapman again: “...the Levellers were part of a movement which sought to resist the unbridled use of power, and that is not without resonances for us, as we see what unconstrained use of power by the executive can look like.

“To quote one of their early manifestos: ‘Power had to be taken away from all future governments, to prevent both kingly or parliamentary tyranny.’ That message seems as relevant today as it was in 1649.”

As the country struggles to rebuild after the pandemic, he called for a revival of the Levellers’ values: “When we have a prime minister who extols greed and avarice, we have to offer an alternative based on equality and co-operation and freedom. For that we need to keep the Levellers’ vision alive – we need to return to their vision of equality, justice and fairness where all can share in the common good, and all can enjoy freedom of religion and all can express their common humanity. Those seem such precarious values in our xenophobic and narrow-minded society, where the rich still get richer and the poor get poorer.”

It was a theme echoed throughout the event. Radical historian Ciaran Walsh took aim at Boris Johnson. “We have a charlatan cavalier in charge in this country……

“The Levellers were a movement of democracy, of equality, of sharing the commons. The cavaliers represented divine right, entitlement, elitism, selfishness and autocracy. We have a cavalier in charge now, who claims to be ‘levelling’, when he introduces Bills that will remove our right to protest. The Leveller movement was built on protest! [This] will remove our right to protest and resist, and will deny people the vote. This cavalier can do no levelling.

“The Levellers remain as topical as ever, in a year when the world has been turned upside down.”

Walsh, who runs radical history walking tours of Oxford, focused on the threads running through the Leveller movement, including the use and abuse of the military, where wars fought brought very little to the common people.

“And the business of slavery is developing at this time… Irish people have been enslaved, and people have been kidnapped, and spirited to Barbados to work in the fields alongside African slaves.”

Enclosure of the land, said Walsh, was inextricably linked to slavery in the minds of the Levellers. They were opposed to the domination of the land, and the people, by a small minority.

Cathy Augustine, from Oxfordshire Labour Representation Committee, said: “One of our current struggles is to oppose the Police Crime and Sentencing Bill in its entirety — we don’t want an amended or modified Bill – it’s all toxic. We have to fight to ‘kill the Bill’ in its entirety.

“It’s part of the same shameful thread that runs through domestic British history, with key events including the Peasants’ Revolt, the betrayal and execution of Leveller leaders, the crushing of the Luddite protests, the Peterloo massacre, transportation of the Tolpuddle martyrs – and then more recently of course, Orgreave, the Battle of the Beanfield, the aftermath of Hillsborough… This is the undisguised power of the state… it’s the naked face of state violence, when the mask slips.”

Woven into the day were short films, some from the archives, one showing the Diggers’ March on St George’s Hill, in 1999. Marking the day – 350 years before – when the area was first occupied, demonstrators erected a memorial to the Diggers, who had been known as the True Levellers. Led by Gerald Winstanley, they wanted to farm on common land, with their declared intent “to make the earth a common treasury for all.”

The film shows baffled residents and golfers at the area in Weybridge, Surrey, as 300 activists set up camp, in an exquisitely planned and orchestrated action.

Short films recorded in the week before showed the commemoration at Burford church, and wreath-laying at the International Brigade memorial in Oxford.

Megan Dobney, secretary of the International Brigade Memorial Trust, paid tribute to the volunteers who went to Spain to fight fascism. In a keynote speech which reminded all that “fascism must be fought every day”, she warned of the far right party Vox who wanted to remove memorials in Madrid. “Fascism is not dead, so we fight on.”

A debate on the theme “The world turned upside down” heard from speakers including Jabu Nala-Hartley of Mothers 4 Justice Ubuntu, which she set up to support families whose children became trapped in the criminal justice system.

“Neoliberalism will always have its hands on our throats,” she warned.

John Hendy QC demanded the reinstatement of collective bargaining, while Ellen Clifford from Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) – and author of The War on Disabled People – said things were getting harder for the working class.

“Things are becoming more desperate, and even more urgent, with the climate emergency, the global pandemic, the deepest global recession since the second world war, responded to by right-wing, populist leaders in ways that have let the bodies pile high.”

There were powerful musical interludes woven into the programme, with contributions from the Sea Green Singers, Seize the Day, Robb Johnson, and the Didcot Red Kites who sang the Internationale, and El pueblo unido, jamas sera vencido (The people united will never be defeated).

The proximity of comradeship may have been missing, but the spirit certainly wasn’t.

Some material from the day will be available at: levellersday.wordpress.com.

OWNED BY OUR READERS

We're a reader-owned co-operative, which means you can become part of the paper too by buying shares in the People’s Press Printing Society.

Become a supporter

Fighting fund

You've Raised:£ 11,195
We need:£ 6,805
12 Days remaining
Donate today