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Hundreds march through Burford in first Levellers Day festival since pandemic

HUNDREDS of people gathered in the small Oxfordshire town of Burford yesterday for the first in-person celebration of Levellers Day since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

The annual gathering of commemoration, music and debates marks the execution of three soldiers in Burford churchyard on May 17 1649, during the English Civil War.

They belonged to a movement popularly known as the Levellers, which campaigned for civil rights and religious tolerance.

The theme at this year’s event was defending democracy and protest, as it took place amid a raft of authoritarian legislation from the Tories, including the new Police, Crime, Sentencing & Courts Act, the Elections Act, legislation to counter state threats — including an overhaul of the Official Secrets Act — and a Boundary Commission review of how Westminster constituencies are definded.

After the commemorative address by Canon Professor Mark Chapman, songs from the Sea Green Singers and the laying of posies in remembrance of the three executed soldiers and the late left Labour MP Tony Benn, there was a short march around the town to the sounds of performance poet and musician Attila the Stockbroker.

Throughout the day, radical historian Ciaran Walsh gave drop-in sessions on Oxfordshire’s radical past.

The first “conversation” was led by peace activist and writer John Rees, author of The Leveller Revolution, who reminded the packed hall that “we are here in defence of the right to protest and for free speech.”

Professor Anne Hughes of Keele University said that people needed to “recognise a more radical history” than the “cosy, complacent” version of the past being promoted by the government.

According to Prof Hughes, “print was critical at a time when more people were becoming literate” and women also played a central role in the Levellers’ organising activities, including the petitioning of Parliament.

The main Levellers debate heard from barrister John Briant, Siobhan Endean of the Unite union, black activist Chantelle Lunt and leading left MP Richard Burgon.

Mr Briant asked: “What is it going to take before people say enough?” And Ms Endean sent a powerful message to the Tory government that they will “never divide the trade union movement and we will never give up our human rights.”

Ms Lunt accused ministers of waging war against activists, adding that “we have to fight back.”

In a rousing speech in which he praised Benn’s legacy, Mr Burgon said: “The Tories know what they are doing and we need to be as class conscious as they are.”

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