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Why the spirit of the Levellers lives on in today’s struggles

SAM GURNEY marks Levellers Day by paying tribute to the 17th-century radicals

EVERY year people gather in Burford in Oxfordshire to celebrate the ideas and the influence of the Levellers. 

On May 17 1649 over 300 Leveller soldiers were imprisoned in the church at Burford. Their immediate grievances centred on a failure to receive pay and the prospect of being forced to serve in Ireland, but for many in the parliamentary leadership their real “offence” was to continue to organise and campaign for radical ideas, for the principles of the “English revolution.” 

Leveller agitators saw themselves as taking a stand against what they saw as the replacement of an absolutist monarchy by a broader, but still undemocratic, clique. 

The Levellers discussed concepts of democracy, religious freedom, equality before the law and people’s rights. 
For this they suffered repression, including the summary execution of three of their leaders in the churchyard in Burford.

Many of those held in Burford church had served throughout the bloody civil wars that had raged across Britain and Ireland. 

They had welcomed the deposing of King Charles, and then his trial and execution in January 1649. But was that, they asked, the end of that moment of revolutionary change, or might a revolution based on deeper principles continue? 

Within the regiments of Cromwell’s New Model Army there were radical thinkers who were deeply committed to a more progressive politics, based on rights for individuals, accountable government by consent, extended suffrage and even annual elections to a parliament. 

The Levellers were not a coherent group. Rather they were thinkers and activists who were “rowing in the same direction” of radical change. 

But they were organised and their influence and legitimacy was recognised, or at least tolerated, by Cromwell. Soldiers elected “agitators” from each regiment to represent them and these agitators and had a seat on the general council of the New Model Army. 

The Levellers was the name given to them by their critics, rather than one they chose themselves. But they did organise and educate, and they were keen pamphleteers; their writings including the groundbreaking Agreement of the People. 

Activists were aware of the power of image and often identified themselves by wearing sea-green ribbons on their clothing and small bunches of rosemary on their hats. 
The execution of Levellers Cornet James Thompson, Corporal Perkins and John Church in the churchyard in Burford was part of a wider sequence of killings. 

Opposition to the values and style of governance by Cromwell and the parliamentarian “grandees” was successfully neutered by those in power. 

By 1650 the Levellers were no longer a serious threat to the established order. But the ideas they had developed, articulated and codified remained important and have continued to inform progressive and radical thinkers up to the present day.

This is why as trade unionists in the 21st century we continue to mark Levellers Day. 

The Levellers were clear about their principles; they were bold and confident, their method was to “educate, agitate and organise,” they articulated a clear set of demands and sought to win those demands via negotiation, debate and action.

So we are proud to help to organise the annual commemoration of the commitment and sacrifice that the Levellers made. It gives us an opportunity to reflect on the power, principle and saliency of the ideas they professed and practised. 

It is also an opportunity for us to reflect on our ideas and values. And to recommit ourselves as activists to education, progressive politics, campaigning and organising, as the pathways to a better world founded upon equality and rights and respect for all. 

Sam Gurney is the regional secretary of TUC: London, East and South East of England.

The commemoration today starts at 2pm and will be led by the Reverend Giles Fraser. The Sea Green Singers choir will perform at the beginning and end of the commemoration in the churchyard, and perform a recital in the church and there will be a conversation between Rev Fraser and John Rees at 3pm about Religion and the English Revolution, followed by discussion with the audience. Rev Fraser was formerly the team rector at St Mary the Virgin, Putney, which was the location of the Putney Debates in 1647. John Rees wrote The Leveller Revolution: Radical Political Organisation in England, 1640-1650, which was published in 2016 and received excellent reviews. The event will be held at St John the Baptist Church, Church Green, Burford OX18 4RY.

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