Brexiteers: hold your nerve

Robert Henderson

Recent polls are overall veering towards   but not decisively towards a remain  win in the referendum.  It is important that those wanting  leave the EU should not get downhearted. There are still the TV debates to come which will expose the often hypocritical and always vacuous positions those advocating  a vote to remain will of necessity have to put forward because  they have no hard facts to support their position and  can offer only a catalogue of ever more wondrously improbable disasters they claim will happen if Brexit occurs, everything from the collapse of the world economy to World War III  The only things they have  not predicted are a giant  meteorite hitting Earth and wiping out the  human race or, to entice the religious inclined vote, the coming of the end of days.

There are other signs which should hearten the leave camp. There appears little doubt that those who intend to vote to leave  will on average be more likely to turn out to vote than those who  want to remain.. This is partly because older voters  favour Brexit more than younger voters and older voters are much more likely to turn out and actually vote.  But there is also the question of what people are voting for.  Leaving  to become masters in our own house is a positive message. There is nothing  positive about the remain  side’s blandishments.  A positive message is always likely to energise people to act than a negative one. Moreover, what the remain side are saying directly or by implication is that at best they have no confidence in their own country and at worst they want Britain to be in the EU to ensure that it is emasculated as a nation state because they disapprove of nation states.  Such a stance will make even those tending towards voting to remain to perhaps either not vote or to switch to voting leave.

What should we make of the polls?

What should we make of the polls?  Leaving aside the question of how accurate they are, it is interesting that the polls which are showing strongest for a vote to remain are the telephone polls. Those conducted online tend to produce a close result, often half and half on either side.  Some have the Leave side ahead. On the face of things this is rather odd because traditional polling wisdom has it that online polls will tend to favour younger people for the obvious reason that the young are much more likely be comfortable living their lives online than  older people.  Even if online polls are chosen to represent a balanced sample including age composition the fact that older people are generally not so computer savvy means that any sample used with older people is unlikely to represent older generally whereas  the part of the polling audience which is young can be made to represent  the  younger part of the population  because  almost all of the young use digital technology without thinking.

It is likely that the older people who contribute to online polls are richer and  better educated on average than the old as a group. But that  brings its own problem for the remain side because another article of faith amongst pollsters is that the better educated and richer you are the more likely you are to vote to remain  in the EU.  Moreover, if the samples are properly selected for both online and  phone polls why should there be such a difference?   Frankly, I have my doubts about  samples being  properly selected because  there are severe practical problems when it comes to  identifying the people who will make a representative sample.  Polling companies also weight their  results which must at the least introduce an element of subjectivity. Then there is also the panel effect where pollsters use panels made up of people they have vetted and  decided are panel material.  Pollsters admit all these difficulties.  You can find the pollster YouGov’s  defence of such practices and how they supposedly overcome their  difficulties here.

The performance of pollsters in recent years has been underwhelming.  It could be that their polling on the referendum is  badly  wrong.  That could be down to the problems detailed in the previous paragraph, but it could also be how human beings respond to different forms of polling.  Pollsters have been caught out by the “silent Tory” phenomenon  whereby voters are unwilling to say they intend to vote Tory much more often than voters for other parties such  as Labour and the LibDems  are unwilling to admit they will be voting for those parties.   It could be that there  are “silent Brexiteer”  voters who  refuse to admit to wanting to vote  to leave the  EU,  while there are  no  or very few corresponding  “silent remain” voters.  This could explain why Internet polls show more Brexit voters than phone or face-to-face  polls.  If a voter is speaking to a pollster, especially if they are in the physical company of the pollster, the person will feel they are being judged by the person asking the questions.  If they think their way of voting is likely to be disapproved of by the questioner  because it is not the “right view”,   the person being questioned may well feel embarrassed if they say they are supporting  a view which goes against what  is promoted every day in the mainstream media as the “right view” .  The fact that the person asking the questions is also likely  to come from the same general class as those who dominate the mainstream media  heightens the likelihood of embarrassment on the part of those being questioned.

The “embarrassment factor”  is a phenomenon  which  can be seen in the polling on contentious subjects  generally. Take  immigration  as an example. People are terrified of being labelled as a racist. At the same time they are quite reasonably very anxious  about the effects of mass immigration.  They  try to square the circle of their real beliefs with their fear of being labelled a racist – and it takes precious little for the cry of racist to go up these days – by seizing  on reasons to object to mass immigration which they believe have been sanctioned as safe by those with power  and influence such  as saying that they are not  against immigrants but they  think that illegal immigrants should be sent home or that the numbers of immigrants should be much reduced because of the pressure on schools, jobs, hospitals and housing . What they dare not say is  that they object to immigration full stop because it changes the nature of their society.

There is an element of the fear of being called a racist  in Brexit because a main, probably the primary issue for  most of those wanting to vote to leave  in the referendum is the control of borders. This means that   saying you are for Brexit raises in the person’s mind a worry that this will be interpreted as racist at worst and “little Englanderish” at best.

There is a secondary reason why  those being interviewed are nervous. The poll they are contributing to will not be just a single question, such  as how do you intend to vote in the European referendum?  There will be  a range of questions which are designed to show things such as propensity to vote or which issues are the most important. Saying immigration control raises the problem of fear of being  classified as  racist, but there will be other issues which are nothing like as contentious on which the person being polled really does not have a coherent   opinion.  They will then feel a fear of being thought ignorant or stupid if they cannot explain lucidly why they feel this or that policy is important.

That leaves the question of why online polls show more for Brexit and phone or face-to-face-polls.  I suggest this. Answering a poll online is impersonal. There is no sense of being immediately judged by another.  The psychology is akin to going into a ballot booth  and voting.  This results in more honesty  about voting to leave.

The referendum  is just the beginning of the  war

Whatever the result of the referendum that will not be the end of matters. There is a gaping  hole in the referendum debate . There has been no commitment  by  any politician to what exactly  they would be asking for from  the EU if the vote is to leave and what they would definitely not accept.   Should that happen we must do our best ensure that those undertaking the negotiations on Britain’s behalf do not surreptitiously  attempt to subvert the vote by stitching Britain back into the EU by negotiating a treaty which obligates Britain to  such things as free movement of people  between Britain and the EU and a  hefty payment each year to the EU (a modern form of Danegeld).   A vote to leave must give Britain back her sovereignty  utterly  and that means Westminster being able to  pass any laws it wants  and that these   will supersede any  existing  obligations to foreign states and institutions, having absolute control of Britain’s borders, being able to protect strategic British  industries and giving preference to British companies where public contracts are offered to  private business.

It there is a  vote to remain  that does not mean the question of  Britain leaving is closed for a generation  any more than the vote of Scottish independence sealed the matter for twenty years or more.  For another referendum  to be ruled out for several decades would be both dangerous and profoundly undemocratic.

Imagine that Britain  having voted to remain the EU decides to push through legislation to bring about the United States of Europe which many of the most senior Eurocrats and pro-EU politicians have made no bones about wanting,  the EU  wants Turkey  to be given membership,  immigration from and via the EU continues to run out of hand  or  the EU adopts regulations for  financial services which gravely  damage the City of London.  Are we to honestly say that no future referendum cannot be held?

Of course on some issues such as the admission of new members  Britain still has a veto  but can we be certain that it would used to stop Turkey joining?  David Cameron has made it all too  clear that he supports  Turkey’s accession and the ongoing immigrant crisis in the Middle East has already wrung the considerable concession of visa-free travel in the Schengen Area from the EU without the Cameron government offering any complaint. Instead all that Cameron does is bleat that Britain still has border controls which allow Britain to refuse entry to and deport those from outside the EU and the European Economic Area.  However, this is the same government which has been reducing Britain’s border force and has deported by force very few people.

You may  think that if new members are admitted to the EU a referendum would automatically be held under the European Union Act of 2011. Not so, viz: .

4 Cases where treaty or Article 48(6) decision attracts a referendum

(4)A treaty or Article 48(6) decision does not fall within this section merely because it involves one or more of the following—

(a)the codification of practice under TEU or TFEU in relation to the previous exercise of an existing competence;

(b)the making of any provision that applies only to member States other than the United Kingdom;

(c)in the case of a treaty, the accession of a new member State.

In practice it would be up to the government of the day to decide whether a referendum should be held.  The  circumstances where the Act requires a referendum are to do with changes to the powers and duties of EU members. The simple  accession of a new member does not fall under those heads.Nor does the Act provide for a referendum where there is no change to existing EU treaties or massive changes are made  without a Treaty being involved, for example,  Britain has had no referendum on Turkey  being given visa free movement within  the Schengen Area.

Make sure you vote

Regardless of what the Polls say make sure you vote The bigger the victory for the OUT side the less the Europhiles will be able to do to subvert what happens after the vote.   If the vote is to stay  the closer it is the less traction it gives the -Europhiles .  Either way, the vote on the 23 June is merely the first battle in a war, not the end of the war.

Posted in Immigration, Nationhood | Tagged , | 3 Comments

The uglification of cricket

Robert Henderson

I started watching English  first class  cricket in the mid-1950s. At the time  limited overs  games did not exist. There were three day matches for   teams below Test level and five day matches for Tests.  Players wore white (or cream) clothing with no numbers on their backs to identify them.  For  spectators unfamiliar with them, the players were identified from the scorecard number  shown on the scoreboards for both batsmen and fielders when they fielded the ball.  The combination of white-clad players and green cricket field gave a natural and elegant  look to the game recalling its origins in country fields.

Batsmen  wore a minimum of protective equipment. They had  pads , rudimentary gloves, a box and possibly a single thigh pad for the leading leg, the last often consisting of  no more than a towel thrust  down the trousers.  Despite  this meagre protection players were rarely hit seriously because they were not so encumbered  that their mobility was seriously restricted and the automatically developed skill in moving out of the way of balls which constituted a threat.   They batted bareheaded or with a cap. Batsmen were recognisable human beings

Today batsmen come to the crease looking like Michelin men  with their bumper bras, arm guards, massive thigh pads which go round each thigh plus helmets caging their faces with unsightly bars  which are worn regardless of the threat a bowler carries.   All  this gear makes batsmen look ugly at best and ridiculous at worst.  They are much less mobile and  because of the supposed safety provided by helmets  are frequently tempted to  play hooks and pulls recklessly and inexpertly.   This often ends up with them being hit on the head.  I also suspect that helmets restrict a batsman’s vision at worst and at best have a deleterious psychological effect. Generally, the considerable extra protective equipment worn today must make batsmen feel uncomfortable and be  liable to be a distraction.  The same objection applies to the growing fashion for wicket keepers to wear  helmets when standing up.

50 or 60 years ago pitches were prepared as individual counties  and other authorities such as Oxford and Cambridge  clubs wanted. There were no pitch inspectors. If a county side went to play Derbyshire away they knew they  would be playing on a pitch favourable to seam bowling; a visit to Gloucestershire would mean a spinning pitch. Batsmen had to master very varied and often demanding conditions.  In addition to whatever human design went into an individual pitch,  Nature was given her way by refusing to cover pitches and runups.  This meant that  anyone playing county cricket  regularly  could expect to encounter rain damaged pitches several times a season at least. This further improved the skills of serious batsmen. Bowlers also had to learn to bowl at their most effective in helpful conditions.

The consequence  of demanding pitches meant that batsmen had to develop a seriously good technique to survive.  This meant  having an orthodox  stance  with the bat not waving about (bar perhaps a thump or two of the bat as the bowler ran in)  and most importantly, keeping the head still. A good example of this stillness and neatness can be seen in this extended video of the 1963 Lords Test against the West Indies.  There  were few oddities like Jim Yardley of Worcestershire with awkward stances but they were very much the exception.

Demanding pitches also gave the bowler a much greater incentive to bowl straight and to bowl consistently, something bowlers of today routinely fail to do.   It is a common mistake to imagine that having pitches doing something means a bowler has to do little more than pitch a ball up and let the pitch do the rest. In fact, bowlers need to learn how to bowl in helpful conditions top make the most of them.   Taking 5-60 on a pitch where 5-20  could reasonably be expected is poor not good bowling.

Today batsmen  are increasingly at sea whenever they encounter conditions which allow the bowlers to swing, seam or spin the ball. This is partly because of the covering of pitches, the existence of pitch inspectors who take fright at pitches which help the bowler resulting in points being deducted  and the fact that much less first class cricket  (where good technique is developed)  is played today., But it is  also because batsmen are increasingly adjusting their techniques  to  play  T20 cricket where the real money is to be made.

Batsmen, almost universally amongst the young players,  are  adopting one a  stance which has the bat raised , either  locked in an awkward  stillness or waving about with the head moving as well as the body. Some add to this ungainly position by leaning forward with their weight on the front foot and the bat slanted forward. This cannot be the optimum method of waiting for the bowler because the batsman will be concentrating on holding the bat up or moving about the  crease. In the case of the bat slanted forward that virtually commits the batsman to a front foot shot and at best means the batsman has to waste precious microseconds if he has to play off the back foot.

The  growing eminence of T20 is resulting in the taking into first class cricket these  defective techniques  together with the T20 mentality of needing to score quickly regardless of the conditions and situation of the game.  To these batting sins must be added the toleration of switch hits such as the reverse sweep, shots which are the batsman’s equivalent of a bowler being able to go over or round the wicket at will without advising the batsman in advance and consequently should be banned. They are also very ugly shots.

The emphasis on limited overs cricket generally and T20 in particular is also having a malign effect on bowlers who strive to contain rather than take wickets.  Ironically this often results in bowlers being slogged unmercifully because their bowling ends up as  both inconsistent and poorly executed  as they strive for ever greater variation,  with frequent and radical changes of pace which are generally poorly disguised, slow bouncers and attempted Yorkers which more often than not end up as low full tosses.  This species of bowling is also encouraged by the lack of close catchers in limited overs cricket and the frequent reduction of wicket keepers to little more than glorified longstops.  It is also probably no coincidence that today there is barely a fast bowler worthy of the name and spin bowling is  dying on its feet.  This can be plausibly attributed to bowlers adapting themselves to T20. Because the decline of pace bowlers and spinners has coincided with the advent of  the format.     Genuine pace can be expensive in terms of  runs scored off edges  and fast bowlers are rarely as accurate as fast medium ones, while spin bowlers in  bowl flat most of the time and are found out in  the first class game where more than  flat barely turning deliveries are  needed to dismiss batsmen with a great deal of time for to play themselves in.

In fact, T20  is a game barely recognisable as cricket.   The present T20 world cup has  batsmen displaying stances which must by their very nature leave a batsman unable to react in the most efficient fashion, batsmen dancing about the crease before the bowler bowls,  batsmen playing  strokes,  many of which are wild slogs, which they could never play safely in a first class match. As for bowlers, they have largely served as helpless cannon fodder, something they have  been complicit in by inconsistent bowling which has included  an embarrassing number of  full tosses , many of which have gone for six. Close catching has been rare if not  non-existent.  Add in the coloured clothing and numbers on a player’s back and it might almost be baseball.

The danger for professional  cricket is twofold: that the skills necessary to play first class cricket in general and Test cricket in particular will be lost and that T20 will prove to lack staying power because it has a decided one-dimensional quality, regardless of the many close finishes which occur.  The problem is that exiting cricket does not equal good cricket and that is true with knobs on when a match only lasts 40 overs.  Sooner or later boredom will set in and the lack of quality will matter.

T20 is terribly  vulnerable to  being a shortish term fad. Who honestly remembers the results of  international T20 games or even ODIs as the results of Test matches and series are commonly  remembered?  In my experience few  cricket followers could tell you the winners of  ODI series   or recall even the winners of  T20 World Cups.  The same applies to individual performances.  Bowlers restricted to ten overs in ODIs  or four in T20 cannot produce great feats.  A batsman scoring 50 in a T20 match will have done well,  but it is scarcely likely to be an innings which remains in the memory, not least because so much of the strokeplay is ugly to watch. Who can take pleasure in watching low full tosses hit for six with what are essentially baseball shots?.

If T20 does lose its current popularity in, say, twenty years time there will be a generation of professional cricketers who will have  developed their games to play  T20 and in all probability will have little first class experience. It is even possible that first class  cricket may have died completely.  If first class cricket has been seriously diminished  and  T20 falls out of fashion it is all too possible that cricket itself will die or at the least cease to be a serious international sport.

Posted in Sport | Tagged | 3 Comments

The EU refuses to answer questions about post-Article 50 activation by the UK

I emailed the EU with two questions;
1. What will be the position of UK MEPs after Article 50 is activated?
2. What will be position regarding the UK’s payments to  the EU after Article 50 is activated?
The EU’s non-reply suggests that the position on both matters and anything else relating to post-Article 50 activation is not set in stone. In other words what happens after Article 50 is activated will be pure politics not legal rights and duties.
The other interesting point  about their reply is the endorsement of Cameron’s claim for his “concessions” is  that they are legally enforceable. This  could either mean that the EU is happy to cynically promise what they would never grant in practice or that the “concessions” are so minor the EU does not think them of any consequence. Here is their reply in full:
Dear Robert Henderson,

Thank you for your message. 
The Europe Direct (EDCC) service is unable to comment on present policies or future developments regarding the role of the UK in the EU. Neither EDCC nor The Commission can speculate on hypothetical situations. However we thank you for your comment.
At a historic meeting of the European Council on 18 – 19 February 2016, Heads of State or Government reached agreement on a ‘New Settlement for the United Kingdom within the European Union’. This agreement will permit Prime Minister Cameron to campaign for the United Kingdom to stay in the European Union in the upcoming referendum on 23 June 2016. 
The set of arrangements is a legally binding agreement, which addresses the concerns of the United Kingdom and safeguards the values of the Union.
Following the European Council, European Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, welcomed the agreement at a press conference: “The deal we have agreed now is a fair one, a fair one for Britain, a fair one for the other Member States, a fair one for the European Union. It is fair, it is also legally sound. The deal responds to all the concerns of the United Kingdom, and respects the basic principles of our Union. At the same time it safeguards the integrity of the single market and the cohesion of the Eurozone. This deal does not deepen cracks in our Union but builds bridges.”
You can find more information about the UK-EU settlement at:
Please make sure you check the European Council conclusions, 18-19 February 2016, as well.
We hope you find this information useful.

With kind regards, 
EUROPE DIRECT Contact Centre 
Posted in Nationhood | Tagged | Leave a comment

Article 50 is a poisoned chalice – Don’t drink from it

Robert Henderson

Those who think that British Europhile politicians   will  play fair if Britain votes to leave the EU in June will be horribly disappointed. The public may think that if the British people have voted to leave the EU and that is an end of it regardless of the wishes of the Government.   Sadly, there is every reason to expect that Brexit will be anything but a clean break from the EU.

To begin with there has been no commitment by Cameron to stand down as PM if the vote goes against him.  Quite the opposite for he  has publicly stated several  times that  he will stay on and many  Tory MPs, including some of those in favour of leaving like Chris Grayling ,  have said that he must remain in No 10 whatever the outcome of the referendum .

If Cameron stays on as PM after a vote to leave Britain would be in the absurd position of having a man in charge of  Britain’s withdrawal who has shown his all too eager  commitment to the EU by the feebleness of   the demands he made during  his “renegotiation” and his regularly repeated statement before the conclusion of the “renegotiation”  that he was sure he would get new terms which would allow him to campaign for Britain to remain within the EU.   

A post-referendum   Cameron  government entrusted with negotiating Britain’s departure from the EU would mean that not only the  PM  but  the majority of his  cabinet and ministers below  cabinet  level  will  be  drawn from the same pro-EU personnel as he has today.  In those circumstances Cameron and his fellow Europhiles would almost certainly try to stitch Britain back into the EU with a deal such as that granted to  Norway and Switzerland. If that happened Britain could end up with the most important issue in the British  public’s mind –  free movement  of not only labour but free movement of anyone with the right to permanent residence in the EU – untouched .

But if Cameron leaves  of his own accord soon after a vote to leave Britain could still end up with a Europhile  Prime Minister and Cabinet.  Why? By  far the most likely person to succeed him  is Boris Johnson. If he  does become  PM there is every reason to believe that he will also do his level best to enmesh Britain back into  the EU.  Ever since Johnson  became the Telegraph’s  Brussels correspondent in the 1990s he has been deriding the EU, but until coming out as a supporter of voting to leave in the past week he has never advocated Britain’s withdrawal.  Johnson also gave a very strong hint  in the  Daily Telegraph article in which he announced his support for leaving the EU that his support for Britain leaving the EU was no more than  a ploy to persuade the EU to offer  more significant concessions than those offered to Cameron. Johnson has also been a regular advocate of the value of immigration.

The scenario of Cameron or Johnson deliberately subverting the intention of a referendum vote  to leave are all too plausible. There has been no public discussion let alone  agreement by leading  politicians over what the British government may or may not negotiate in the event of a vote to leave.   Nor has there been any suggestion by any British politician or party  that whatever the terms offered by the EU the British public will have the right to vote on them in a referendum.  Britain could be left  with  an agreement decided by the British Government and the EU which might do nothing of what  the British public most wants and  has voted for, namely, the return of sovereignty and  the control of Britain’s borders.

Then  there is Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty.  Both Cameron and Johnson are committed to doing so within the terms of the Lisbon Treaty of  2009.  Far from a vote to leave in the referendum putting Britain in the position of a  sovereign nation engaging in a negotiation for a treaty with the EU  it traps  Britain into an extended period of negotiation whose outcome is dependent on the agreement or non-agreement of  the 27 other EU member states and the  EU Parliament.  Let me quote  the Article in  full:

Article 50

  1. Any Member State may decide to withdraw from the Union in accordance with its own constitutional requirements.
  2. A Member State which decides to withdraw shall notify the European Council of its intention. In the light of the guidelines provided by the European Council, the Union shall negotiate and conclude an agreement with that State, setting out the arrangements for its withdrawal, taking account of the framework for its future relationship with the Union. That agreement shall be negotiated in accordance with Article 218(3) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. It shall be concluded on behalf of the Union by the Council, acting by a qualified majority, after obtaining the consent of the European Parliament.
  3. The Treaties shall cease to apply to the State in question from the date of entry into force of the withdrawal agreement or, failing that, two years after the notification referred to in paragraph 2, unless the European Council, in agreement with the Member State concerned, unanimously decides to extend this period.
  4. For the purposes of paragraphs 2 and 3, the member of the European Council or of the Council representing the withdrawing Member State shall not participate in the discussions of the European Council or Council or in decisions concerning it.

A qualified majority shall be defined in accordance with Article 238(3)(b) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union.

  1. If a State which has withdrawn from the Union asks to rejoin, its request shall be subject to the procedure referred to in Article 49. (

Article 50  means that Britain could spend two years negotiating and get no treaty because the Council of Ministers could veto it through Qualified Majority Voting (QMV) or the European Parliament reject it. Britain would then have the option of either asking for an extension (which could be indefinite because there is no limit mentioned in the Article) or leaving without a treaty.  There is also the further complication that if a treaty was agreed by the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament it would still have to be agreed by 27 EU member states,  either through Parliamentary vote or  in the case of a few including France, a referendum.  Moreover,  even if a treaty is agreed and accepted by all EU member states, this would leave  Britain up in the air for what could be a considerable time as each of the 27 members goes through the process of getting  the agreement of their Parliament or electorate.

The OUT camp must make it clear that  it would be both damaging and unnecessary for the UK to abide by this Treaty requirement. It  would allow the EU to inflict considerable damage on the UK both during the period prior to formally  leaving and afterwards if  the price of leaving with the EU’s agreement was  for  UK to sign up to various obligations, for example, to continue paying a large annual sum to the EU for ten years . It would also give  the Europhile UK political elite  ample opportunity to keep the UK attached to the EU in the manner that Norway and Switzerland are attached by arguing that it is the best deal Britain  can get.  If there was no second  referendum on the  terms  negotiated for Britain leaving the government of the day could simply pass the matter into law without the British voters having a say.

The Gordian knot of Article 50 can be cut simply repealing the European Communities Act and asserting the sovereignty of Parliament.   No major UK party could  object to this on principle because all three have, at one time or another,  declared that Parliament remains supreme and can repudiate anything the EU does if it so chooses.

If the stay-in camp argue that would be illegal because of the  treaty obligation, the OUT camp should simply emphasise  (1) that international law is no law because there is never any means of enforcing it within its jurisdiction is a state rejects it and (2) that treaties which do not allow for contracting parties to simply withdraw are profoundly undemocratic because they bind future governments. There is also the fact that the EU and its predecessor the EEC has constantly breached its own rules, spectacularly so in the case of the Eurozone.  Hence, for the EU treaties are anything but sacrosanct.

Posted in Culture, Economics, Immigration, Nationhood | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Grassroots Out (GO) public meeting of 19th February 2016 at the QE II Convention Hall in Westminster

A recording of the meeting can be found here

Speakers: David Campbell Bannerman (Tory MEP),  Gerard Batton (Ukip  MEP)  Cllr Helen Harrison (Nation coordinator of GO), Bill Cash (Tory MP),  Ruth Lea (Economist ) John Boyd (Campaign against Euro-federalism – CAEF   ),  Tom Pursglove (Tory MP) , Kate Hoey (Labour MP), David Davis (Tory MP),  Nigel Farage (Ukip Leader) , George Galloway  (Respect)

The meeting was chaired by Peter Bone (Tory MP)

Report by Robert Henderson

The  meeting was  encouraging for those who hope for a vote to leave the EU.  2,000 odd people crammed themselves into an arena which could probably  only seat  1,500 so that hundreds were left standing. Despite this very few left during the  better part of two and a half hours of speeches.

It was a strong hand of speakers. The various speakers  gave the  audience a good spread of personality: David Davis, who was relaxed, witty and authoritative. Bill Cash unusually animated – for some reason he seemed to be in a rage – Ruth Lea calm, Nigel Farage forthright, Kate Hoey energetic   and  George Galloway booming.

They  pressed hard on the important issues which Cameron had left untouched during his “renegotiation” : national sovereignty, democracy and control of our borders, but several of the speakers  also raised issues which have  long been kept under wraps by the Left, namely, namely, the undercutting of wages by mass immigration from Europe, the pressure on public services , housing, and schools from immigration.

Perhaps the most interesting speech came from John Boyd of the  Campaign against Euro-federalism. Interesting because  CAEF was “ founded in 1992 to address the labour and trade union movement and win that movement back to the anti-EU position it held from the 1960’s until 1988.”   Labour against the EU will seem an oddity to many, especially the young, but until  the  Party threw down its traditional aims  in despair after  being out of office  for so long  after 1979, it was natural  for  Labour to object to the EU as being both undemocratic and a capitalist club. Long before Britain joined  what was then the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1972 the labour movement including the trade unions had been opposed to mass immigration because it undercut wages, embraced protectionism and saw the nationalisation of industries such as the public utilities, railways and coal mines as simple national common sense.   Nor was patriotism a dirty word for Labour then. Men such as Attlee and Ernie Bevan were deep-rooted and natural patriots.

All those ideas and ideals fit quite naturally into the psyche of the working man and woman. It would not be a massive emotional shift for the Labour Party and the unions to come out for Brexit on the grounds that whilst Britain is within the EU immigrants will compete for jobs and reduce wages in Britain (the free movement of labour), vital  industries cannot be preserved (the ban on state aid,  and  the single Market) and   pay and conditions be protected  by law (the free movement of labour and trade agreements made by the EU). In his speech Boyd pointed to the dangers of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Treaty (TTIP) currently being negotiated by the EU with the USA which bids fair to reduce the pay and conditions of workers and upend the NHS.  Boyd was also very firmly against the free movement of labour.

Galloway undoubtedly brings baggage with him, not least over financial matters  – there have been questions over various charities he has run  and recently   a limited company of his has liquidated owing HMRC a reported £100,000 in tax  –  but in a campaign such as this which is centred on a single  issue and one of the   of the greatest moment,  those who would be strange bedfellows in most circumstances  can sleep together without undue difficulty. He  is indubitably a  gifted public  speaker  who will appeal to not just Muslims  (as long as Galloway persuades them to vote OUT  it  doesn’t matter),  but to  working-class people  generally, a huge constituency which has been more or less ignored by mainstream politicians in the past  quarter century.  He might even sway a substantial number of  those in Scotland.

The important thing to fix firmly upon is that what matters here is beautifully simple: it is to win the referendum. How it is won is irrelevant in terms of why people vote to leave the EU.  It does not matter  a jot  if people seek different things from a Britain freed from  the EU.  There are free traders  and laissez faire disciples who see Britain’s departure from the EU as a freeing  of Britain from the bonds of EU regulation and restriction,  there are those who simply want to resurrect British sovereignty by leaving,   there are those on the Left who see the EU  as a capitalist club. More generally, a large majority of the British people want an end to unlimited immigration from the EU.  These varying ends can be fought over after a vote to leave is obtained.

Will GO play a large role in the referendum campaign? Can it persuade the Electoral Commission to designate it as  the lead organisation for the OUT campaign?  It has got three things going for it.

1.It can reasonably claim to have the broadest political range amongst its leading members of the various OUT organisations.

2. Nigel Farage committed Ukip, the oldest and largest anti-EU in Britain, wholeheartedly to Grassroots Out at the meeting.

3. As yet GO has not fallen prey to the type of internecine squabbling and argument which has afflicted the other groups advocating Brexit.

Posted in Immigration, Nationhood | Tagged , | 2 Comments




Have hours of fun building  the bridge then  watch it collapse just when you think it’s finished.


The game is played with a pack of 52 cards. 51 of the cards are marked  NO REFRENDUM, one marked REFERENDUM.

WARNING  SNP supporters may find the game unbearably frustrating.


Astonishingly lifelike.  Is equipped with the  latest digital technology which allows it to make any number of improbable statements such as “It’s our oil and it will make us rich”;  “Scotland pays more in tax to Westminster than we get back”; “An independent Scotland would be welcomed by the EU”.  Hours of hilarity guaranteed.

Can be linked with the Alec Salmond Jock-in-a-Box (see below)   which attempts to  control the Sturgeon  doll invariably with  hilarious unintended results.


The board is similar to an ordinary monopoly board but has squares marked with political and  public service positions such as First Minister and   Head of Police   and buildings such as Holyrood . Instead of houses being built on squares players buy SNP supporters.

All players represent   the SNP.  Players have to compete  to take as many squares as they can.   The winner   is the player who controls most of the political and public service positions  and the infrastructure of Scotland by the time the game ends.

Every time a player passes GO they collect £200 of English taxpayers’ money.


Design your own SNP approved independent Scotland channel.

Put together a schedule full of classic Scots  favourites such as The White Heather Club and The Stanley Baxter show  and even more classic recordings  of Harry Lauder and Will Fyfe performing, together with  educational programmes such as Why you should vote SNP forever, The Labour Party is fascist and Tories are the new Nazis.

See what the future for broadcasting in an independent Scotland could be.


Consists of a giant Saltire duvet cover and an instruction manual  with phrases for every   occasion when anti-SNP statements are made.   Players can have unlimited fun shouting or posting “Tory scum”, “Red Tories”, “Nazis”, “Traitors”  at anyone who  does not uncritically support SNP policies.


There is no end of money which can be got from the magic money tree. The money is monopoly cash,  but you can build everything from Castles in the Air to an Independent Scotland with it.   A tremendous fantasy toy which will be irresistible to SNP supporters.


Players write down their estimate of the tax derived from the Oil and Gas on the 1st of January and the person closest to the actual figure on the 31st December wins.

Tip to players: the lower you bet the more likely you are to win



Alec Salmond figure  pops up just as reliably as it did in previous years  with an uncannily lifelike whine.


Posted in Devolution, Nationhood | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

 How England became the mother of modern politics

English exceptionalism – The political success of the English – Why was England so different? – The treatment of foreigners -The Free-Born Englishman – Equality and privilege -The mediaeval elite ideology -The Peasants’ Revolt -Anti-clericism -The Black Death -The limits of state power – The mediaeval good times end  -The way to political success –Parliament -A corrupted Parliament -The question of the franchise – The English civil war, Commonwealth and Protectorate -Democracy, the revolutionary idea -The Levellers – The Levellers and the franchise -Constitutional restraint – Other radicals -Exporting Representative Government

Robert Henderson

English exceptionalism

I was tempted to entitle this essay “England – the mother of modern democracy”, for the political structures of any  state which calls itself democratic today owe their general  shape to the English example. In addition, many modern dictatorships have considered it expedient to maintain the  form of representative democracy without the content.

But democracy is a slippery word and what we call by that  name is very far removed from what the Greeks knew as  democracy. The Greeks would probably have described our system as oligarchy – rule by the few. Many modern academics   would agree, for they tend to describe representative  government as elective oligarchy, a system by which the  electorate is permitted to select between competing parts of the political elite every few years, but which has little other direct say in how they are governed.

If democracy today is a debatable concept, the very  widespread modern institution of elected representative government is an objective fact. It is the foundations and evolution of this institution that I shall examine here to the point at which modern “democratic” politics emerged  during the English Civil Wars of the 1640s.

Elected representative government is an institution of the first importance, for it is a truism that the more power is shared the less abusive the holders of the power will be.  Imperfect as it may often be as a reflector of the will and interests of the masses, representative government is still by far the most efficient means of controlling the naturally abusive tendencies of elites and of advancing the interests of the ordinary man or woman, by imposing limits on what those with power may do, either through legal restraints in the form of constitutional law which is superior to that of the legislature, or through fear of losing office in an election. Indeed, no other system of government other than elected representative government manages that even in principle, for no other political arrangements place meaningful restraints on an elite. Whether democratic or not in the Greek sense, representative government is undoubtedly the only reliable and non-violent means by which the democratic will may gain at least some purchase on the behaviour of an elite.

Yet however much utility it has an organising political idea, the fact that we have representative government today  is something of a fluke, certainly a very long shot, for had it not developed in England we should probably not have it all. In the non-European world nothing of its nature ever developed before the Western model was imported. Elsewhere in Europe the many nascent parliaments of the later Middle Ages either never went beyond its embryonic form or were crushed by autocratic rulers. In England we have had continuous parliamentary development for the better part of eight centuries.

Why did the English alone developed such a political system? It was a mixture of such traits and circumstances  as the democratic spirit, egalitarianism, individualism and  royal weakness. But before examining the detail of those traits, consider first the utterly abnormal political success of the English.

The political success of the English

The first genius of the Anglo-Saxon may be reasonably said to be political. Above all peoples they have learned best to live without communal violence and tyranny. Set against any other country the political success of the English throughout history is simply astonishing. Compare England’s political history with that of any other country of any size and it is a miracle of restraint. No English government has been altered by unconstitutional means since 1688. No Englishman has killed an English politician for  domestic English political reasons since the  assassination of Spencer Percival in 1811, and that was an assassination born of a personal grudge, probably aggravated by mental illness, rather than political principle. (The assassin, John Bellingham, believed he had been unreasonably deserted by the British Government when imprisoned in Russia  and ruined by the economic circumstances of the war with  Napoleon. He killed Percival after unsuccessfully attempting  for a long time to get financial redress from the British Government).

Compare that with the experience of the other major states of the world. In the twentieth century Germany fell prey to  Nazism, Italy to Fascism, Russia to Communism. France, is on its fifth republic in a couple of centuries. The United States fought a dreadful civil war in the 1860s and assassinated a president as recently as 1963. China remains the cruel tyranny as it has always been and India, which advertises itself as the “largest democracy in the world”,  is home to regular outbreaks of serious ethnic violence, not least during elections which are palpably fraudulent in many parts of the country, especially the rural areas.

Why was England so different?

Why is England so different? Perhaps the immediate answer lies in the fact that she has been wonderfully adept in dealing with the central problem of human life – how to live together peaceably. A Canadian academic, Elliott Leyton, has made a study of English murder through the centuries in his book Men of Blood. Leyton finds that the rate of English (as opposed to British murder) is phenomenally low for a country of her size and industrial development, both now and for centuries past. This strikes Elliott as so singular that he said in a recent  interview “The English have an antipathy to murder which borders on eccentricity; it is one of the great cultural oddities of the modern age.” (Sunday Telegraph 4 12 1994).

This restraint extends to warfare and social disorder. That is not to say England has been without violence, but rather that at any point in her history the level of violence was substantially lower than in any other comparable society. For example, the English Civil War in the 17th Century was,  apart from the odd inhumane blemish, startlingly free of the gross violence common on the continent of the time during the 30 Years War, where the sacking and pillage of towns and cities was the norm. A particularly notable thing, for civil wars are notorious for their brutality.

The way that England responded to the Reformation is instructive. She did not suffer the savage wars of religion which traumatised the continent and brought human calamities such as the St Bartholomew Day’s Massacre in France in 1572, when thousands of French Protestants were massacred at the instigation of the French king.  It was not that the English did not care deeply about their religion, rather that they have been, when left to their own devices, generally loth to fight their fellow countrymen  over anything. English civil wars have always been essentially political affairs in which the ordinary person has little say, for the struggles were either dynastic or a clash between Parliamentary ambition and the monarch.

Even the persecution of the Lollards in the late  fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and the persecution of  Protestants under Mary I had a highly political aspect. The former was a vastly disturbing challenge to the established social order with men being told, in so many words, that  they could find their own way to salvation and the latter an attempt to re-establish not merely the Catholic order in England, which had been overturned since the time of Henry VIII’s breach with Rome, but also what amounted to a new royal dynasty with Mary’s marriage to Philip of Spain.

Even the prohibitions on Catholics and non-Conformists after the Reformation had a fundamental political basis to them, namely, they were predicated on the question of whether such people be trusted to give their first loyalty to the crown.

The treatment of foreigners

Compared with other peoples, the English have been noticeably restrained in their treatment of other peoples residing within England. A few massacres of Jews occurred  before their expulsion from England in 1290, but from that  time there has not been great slaughter of a minority living within England. Since 1290 there have been  occasional outbreaks of anti-foreigner violence. During the Peasants’ Revolt London-based Flemings were murdered. In  later times an anti-Spanish “No Popery” mob was frequently  got up in London and the influx of Jews and Huguenots in the 17th and 18th centuries caused riots, one so serious in 1753 that it caused the repeal of a law naturalising Jews and Huguenots. But these riots did not result in great numbers of dead, let alone in systematic genocidal persecutions of any particular group. Most notably, the English fonts of authority, whether the crown, church or parliament, have  not incited let alone ordered the persecution of a particular  racial or ethnic group since the expulsion of the Jews. They have persecuted Christian groups, but that was a matter of religion not ethnicity, the Christians persecuted being  English in the main. The only discrimination the English elite have formally sanctioned against an ethnic group for more than half a millennium was the inclusion of Jews within the general prohibitions passed in the half century or so after the Restoration in 1660 which banned those who were not members of the Church of England from holding a crown appointment such as an MP or election to public offices such as that of MP.

Peaceableness and constitutional development  Is this comparative lack of violence a consequence of England’s political arrangements, or are the political  arrangements the consequence of the comparative lack of  violence in the English character? Probably the answer is  that one fed the other. But there must have been an initial exceptional tendency towards reasonableness which started the  long climb towards settling disputes without violence.

Perhaps the fundamental answer to English peaceableness lies in the fact that the English enjoyed a level of racial cultural homogeneity from very early on. Long before the English kingdom existed Bede wrote of the English as a single people. The English have never killed one another in any great quantity simply because one part of the population thought another part was in some way not English. That is  the best possible starting point for the establishment of a coherent community.

The favoured liberal view of England is that it is the mongrel nation par excellence. In fact, this is the exact opposite of the truth. The general facts of immigration into England are these. The English and England were of course created by the immigration of Germanic peoples. The British monk, Gildas, writing in the sixth century,  attributed the bulk of the Saxon settlement to the  practice of British leaders employing Saxons to protect  the Britons from Barbarian attacks after Rome withdrew around  410 A.D. The English monk Bede (who was born in A.D. 673)  attributed the origins of the English to the Angles, Saxons  and Jutes who came to England in the century following the  withdrawal of the Romans at the request of British war  leaders.

Archaeological evidence suggests that substantial Germanic  settlement in England had a longer history and dated from  the Roman centuries, perhaps from as early as the third  century. What is certain is that in her formative centuries  following the exit of Rome, the various invaders and  settlers were drawn from peoples with much in common. They  were the same physical type, there was a considerable  similarity of general culture, their languages flowed from a  common linguistic well.

When the Norsemen came they too brought a Teutonic mentality  and origin. Even the Normans were Vikings at one remove who,  if frenchified, were not physically different from the  English nor one imagines utterly without vestiges of the  Norse mentality. Moreover, the number of Normans who settled  in England immediately after the Conquest was small, perhaps  as few as 5000.

After the Conquest, the only significant immigration into  England for many centuries were the Jews. They were expelled  from England in 1290. There was then no  large scale  and sudden immigration from outside the British Isles until  the flight of the Huguenots after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes (which granted limited toleration to the Huguenots  within France) in 1684 by Louis X1V.

There was other immigration in the period 1066-1650, but it  was small and highly selective. Craftsmen of talent were  encouraged particularly in the Tudor period. Italian families  with trading and banking expertise (such as it was in those  days) appeared after the expulsion of the Jews. Foreign  merchants were permitted, but for much of the period on  sufferance and subject to restrictions such as forced  residence within specially designated foreign quarters.

The upshot of all this is that for six centuries after the Conquest England was an unusually homogeneous country, both racially and culturally. This is reflected in the absence  since the Norman Conquest of any serious regional separatist movement within the heart of English territory.

There has been meaningful resistance at the periphery – Cornwall, the Welsh marches and the far north, but even that has been effectively dead since the  sixteenth century. Englishmen have fought but not to create  separate nations.

The Free-Born Englishman

It may have taken until 1928 for full adult suffrage of English men and women to arrive, but the essential  sentiments which feed the idea of democracy – that human beings are morally equal and enjoy autonomy as individuals and a natural resentment of privilege and inequality – are ancient in England.

If there is one outstanding trait in English political history it is probably the desire for personal freedom. This might seem odd to the modern Englishman who sees the large majority of his country men and women consistently welcoming the idea of the most intrusive forms of ID cards and who stand by dumbly as many of the age-old and ineffably hard-won rights which protect the individual, such as the abridgement  of jury trial and the right to silence, being swept away by modern governments. But it was not always so and that “always so” was not so long ago. The great Austrian political and economic thinker Friedrich Hayek put it  forcefully during the Second World War:

 It is scarcely an exaggeration to say that only in  English society, and those societies deriving from it, is the notion of individual liberty built into the  social fabric. The English have been free not  primarily because of legal rights, but because it is  their evolved social nature. They accept liberty because it seems natural to them. (The road to Serfdom – chapter  Material conditions and ideal ends)

In short, individual liberty has been and is part of being  English and part of England. It would be going too far to  claim that the English masses have ever had any highly  developed sense of liberal with a small ‘l’ sentiments,  but throughout English history there has been both a widespread resentment of interference, either public or private, in the private life of English men and women and an acute awareness that privilege was more often than not unearned and frequently cruelly used to oppress the poor.

Most importantly, over the centuries the elite gradually adopted the ideal of personal freedom into their ideology.  Here is the elder Pitt speaking on the notion that the idea that an Englishman’s home:

The poorest man may in his cottage bid defiance to  all the forces of the Crown. It may be frail – its  roof may shake – the wind may blow though it – the  storm may enter – the rain may enter – but the King  of England cannot enter! – All his force dares not  cross the threshold of the ruined tenement! (Quoted in Lord Brougham’s Statesmen in the time of George III)

The desire for liberty and a freeman’s due is seen in the  constant demand by mediaeval towns for charters which would  free them from aspects of royal control, most particularly  taxation. In some respects it helped fuel the barons’ demand   for Magna Carta. It drove the Peasant’s Revolt. It  provided the emotional engine for the decline of serfdom  once circumstances were propitious after the Black Death.

The Levellers made it their ideological centrepiece in the 1640s, their leader, John Lilburne, revelling in the  name of “Freeborn John”. “Wilkes and Liberty” was the mob’s popular cry in that most aristocratic of centuries,   the eighteenth. The Chartists held tight to the ideal in  the nineteenth.

Equality and privilege

Intertwined with the desire for personal freedom was a  strain of those seeking material equality and opportunity. It also had its expression in the organisation of society, most notably in the widespread use of common fields which were a natural source of egalitarian feeling. These were a form of agricultural organisation whereby a group of farmers worked strips on a large common plot of land, with the strips being rotated regularly to ensure that no one had the best land permanently.

Prime examples of the egalitarian mentality are found in the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381 (which I shall deal with shortly in some detail), the sixteenth century has Thomas More’s Utopia, while the Digger Gerrard Winstanley writing in the  17th century spoke of “The cheat of men buying and selling” (The Law of Freedom 1652).

We also have the literary evidence. The English who people  the pages of Langland and Chaucer show a mediaeval England where commoners would not as a matter of course  willingly touch their forelock or allow their lives to be circumscribed by those with social status. Later,  Shakespeare’s lowlifes and the characters in Ben Johnson’s Bartholomew Fair often show a rumbustious lack of deference for their social betters. It is improbable in the extreme that the worlds depicted by these authors would not have reflected the societies in which they lived. Traits were exaggerated for dramatic effect doubtless, but the cultural story they told was fundamentally rooted in the England in which they wrote.

Langland’s Piers Ploughman is especially interesting because  the work begins with a catalogue of the people who  inhabited the world he knew (Prologue – The plain full of  people). Here are the worldly and the devout, the high and the low. The cleric and the noble jostle with minstrels, tramps, beggars, merchants, tradesmen, and the honest ploughman who tills “the soil for the common good”.

Langland’s clerics are often corrupt, the nobles capricious, the merchants avaricious, the workmen shoddy and cheating in their work, the beggars dishonest and the minstrels bawdy, but they are balanced by honest men in their various callings. In other words, it is a world not so different in terms of human personality to that we inhabit.

The mediaeval elite ideology

There was also in the mediaeval world the idea that although men were unequal in material wealth or social status, nonetheless society was a co-operative enterprise, that all had a place and that all were entitled to that place, which was what God had called them to. Not  egalitarianism but a recognition that men whatever their status had a right to life. The ideal was of course frequently breached but it nonetheless had a basis in both the attitude of the elite, especially in the Church, and in the organisation of society.

The ideas that men should just be left to buy and sell as they chose or that economic activity should be the lodestone of a man’s life was admirable or moral, were alien concepts. Usury was officially banned for many centuries and the example of the poverty of the early Christians was given fresh focus by the Friars of SS Francis and Dominic. More mundanely, there was also the concept of the just price, the price of staple foods such as bread, being fixed by magistrates. As a matter of social course it was accepted that the rich and great, and especially the Church, had moral and material obligations to the less fortunate. Noblesse  oblige was not an empty letter.

Turning men out of their homes and off the land for profit  crashed through this mediaeval moral standard. That was what  the grazing of sheep in particular accomplished, for it denuded the countryside of the need for agricultural workers. By the early years of the 16th century the problem

of landless men was becoming acute.

Some members of the elite rebelled against the cruelty of  leaving thousands of men and their families without a means  to live honestly and the alarming disruption of the  mediaeval social order. Thomas More addressed the question most famously in his satire Utopia (1516). More complained

that it was now thought moral to “buy abroad very cheap and  sell again exceeding dear”. He wrote of the mania for sheep  as that which “consume, destroy and devour whole fields,  houses and cities.” More also asked of those who turned men  and women off the land to feed sheep “What other thing do  you do than make thieves and punish them?” and castigated  the rich for a “strange and proud new fangleness in their  apparel and too much prodigal riot and sumptuous fare at  their table” while the poor starved or turned to crime or begging.

The Peasants’ Revolt

Nothing demonstrates the Englishman’s lack of deference and  desire to be his own man better than the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381. General resentment of privilege and particular  hostility to the imposition of a tax (the Poll Tax)  considered to be both unreasonable and illegitimate, was  given unambiguous voice. For a brief period the fog of  obscurity which ordinarily covers the masses in the mediaeval world clears. A remarkable scene meets the eye for we find not a cowed and servile people but a robust cast  of rebels who far from showing respect for their betters  display a mixture of contempt and hatred for everyone in authority bar the boy-king Richard II.

Perhaps most surprising to the modern reader is the extreme social radicalism of their demands which might, without too much exaggeration, be described as a demand for a classless society. The Revolt may have had its origins in the hated Poll Tax but it soon developed into a series of general political demands. One of the revolt’s leaders, the  hedge-priest John Ball, reputedly preached  “Things cannot go right in England and never will until goods are held in common and there are no more villeins and gentlefolk but we are all one and the same”, and the anonymous and revolutionary couplet “When Adam delved and Eve span/who was  then the gentleman?” was in men’s mouths.

The mediaeval  chronicler Jean Froissart has Ball preaching:  Are we not descended from the same parents, Adam and Eve? And what can they sow or what reason can they give why they should be more masters than ourselves? They are clothed in velvet and rich stuffs ornamented in ermine and other furs while we are forced to wear poor clothing. They have wines and fine bread while we have only rye and refuse of straw and when we drink it must be water. They have handsome manors…while we must have the wind and rain in our labours in the field and it is by our labours that they…support their pomp. We are called slaves and if we do perform our services we are beaten and we have no sovereign to whom we can complain…let us go to the King and remonstrate with him; he is young and from him we may obtain a favourable answer, and if not we must seek to amend our conditions ourselves. (Simon Schama A History of Britain p 248)

Whether or not these words bore any resemblance to Ball’s actual words, whether or not they were black propaganda (on behalf of the elite) by Froissart to show the dangers society faced from the Revolt, we may note that the sentiments are compatible with the demands made by the rebels in 1381.

When the Kentish men led by Wat Tyler, an Essex man, met the 14-year-old king Richard at Mile End on 14 June, they demanded an end to serfdom and a flat rent of 4 pence an acre. The king granted the plea. When the king met the  rebels a second time Tyler shook the king’s hand and called him “brother”. Tyler demanded a new Magna Carta for the common people which would have ended serfdom, pardoned all outlaws, liquidated all church property and declared that all men below the king were equal, in effect abolishing the peerage and gentry. Richard, much to the rebels’ surprise, accepted the demands, although cunningly qualifying the acceptance “saving only the regality of the crown”. A few minutes later Tyler was mortally wounded, supposedly  after he had attempted to attack a young esquire in the royal party who had called him a thief. His death signalled the beginning of the end of the revolt for without Tyler the Revolt lost direction and those who remained willing to resist were pacified in the next few weeks.

During the Revolt the rebels did not run riot, but acted in a controlled manner. There was no general riot but rather the , attacking the property of tax collectors, other important royal servants and any property belonging to the king’s uncle, John of Gaunt. Any identifiable Exchequer document was ripe for destruction.

The revolt began in Essex when the commissioners attempting to collect the Poll Tax were surrounded by a hostile crowd on 30 May 1381. Physical threats were made against one of the commissioners, and the commissioners  retreated from the immediate task of attempting to collect the tax. This brought in the Chief Justice of the Court of Common Pleas to restore order. He was captured by an even larger crowd and made to swear on oath that no further attempt would be made to collect the tax the area. The names of informers who had provided names to the commissioners was discovered and the culprits beheaded.

The spirit of rebellion soon spread. By 2 June a crowd in the village of Bocking had sworn that they would “have no law in England except only as they themselves moved to be ordained.” The rebellion had infected Kent by the end of the first week in June. By the time Wat Tyler, an Essex man by birth, had been elected to lead the Kentish men the demand was for the heads of the king’s uncle John of Gaunt, the Archbishop of Canterbury Simon Sudbury and the Treasurer Sir Robert Hales.  After Tyler’s first meeting with Richard, Sudbury and Hales were captured and beheaded by the rebels. No deference or want of ambition there.

The extent to which the Revolt frightened the crown and nobility can be seen in the violence of Richard’s words when he addressed another group of rebels at Walthamstow on 22 June, by which time the danger was felt to have largely passed:  You wretches, detestable on land and sea ; you who seek equality with lords are unworthy to live. Give this message to your colleagues. Rustics you were and rustics you are still: you will remain in bondage not as before  but incomparably harsher. For as long as we live we will strive to suppress you , and your misery will be an example in the eyes of posterity . How ever, we will spare your lives if you remain faithful. Choose now which you want to follow . (Simon Schama A History of Britain p 254 )

Anti clericism

There were two great sources of general authority in mediaeval England. The Crown was one, the other was the Church. Yet, before the Reformation the English were renowned throughout Europe for their anticlericism – a good example of this attitude was the response to Sudbury’s warning to Wat Tyler’s rebels that England would be put under an interdict by the Pope if he was harmed. This was met by hearty laughter followed by the grisly dispatch of the unfortunate cleric soon afterwards, whose head to did not part from his shoulders until a goodly number of blows had been struck.

The contempt in which many of the servants of the Church were held can be seen in both John Wycliffe’s complaints against clerical abuse in the latter half of the 14th century and in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and William Langland’s Piers Plowman, both written in the same century in which the Peasants’ Revolt took place. Both works are full of jibes at fat illiterate priests and cheating pardoners who peddled absolution from sins with their indulgences sold for money.

Wycliffe’s doctrine contained the fundamental ideas which  were later realised internationally in the Reformation. He questioned the reality of transubstantiation (the Catholic belief that the bread and wine at Communion turn literally into the body and blood of Christ), he attacked the authority of the pope, he railed against the abuses of simony and indulgences. He advocated a bible in English  and either he or his followers, the Lollards,  produced a complete translation before the end of  the fourteenth century.

Implicit within Wycliffe’s thought was the democratic spirit, because it is a short intellectual step from the  belief that each man could be his own mediator with God to the idea that he should have a say in his earthly life.

The Black Death

The Peasant’s Revolt  was  set in the context of the dramatic social changes wrought by the plague. When the Black Death came to England in 1349 it was a source of both immediate misery and future opportunity for those who survived. Estimates of the numbers who died range from a quarter to a half of the population, but whatever the true proportion it had the most dramatic effect on the organisation of society. The immediate result was a widespread transfer of property and consolidation of wealth  as the lucky survivors inherited. This consolidation aided people a long way down the social scale, for a man inheriting  no more than a couple of oxen and a plough was considerably better off than a man with none.

Most importantly, the country went from being one with an oversupply of labour – England prior to the Black Death was probably as well populated as it was in any time before 1700 – to a country where labour was scarce. Landowners were suddenly faced with a new economic world. They had either lost many of their workers through death or were faced with serfs who were no longer obedient and frequently  absconded, often lured to work as free men by other landowners, or drawn to the anonymity of the towns. Landowners had to employ free men who demanded what were considered extortionate wages. The Statute of Labourers of 1351 was a forlorn attempt to keep things as they had been before the Black Death by restricting wages but, like all attempts to buck fundamental economic forces, it failed.

It is probably not overly sanguine to see English society in the late medieval period after the Black Death as a golden age for the common man. Not only was labour scarce and land plentiful, but the great enclosure movement was still in the future and a very large proportion of the population were,  to a large extent, their own masters as they worked their  land. Even where labour services were still performed, they were not crushing, being commonly forty  days work in a year.  Moreover, agricultural work is seasonal, especially the arable, and for substantial parts of the year there is relatively little to do on a farm.

Beyond agriculture, many people had a large degree of control over their daily lives. This was the time before industrialisation, before the wage-slave and the factory.  Skilled craftsmen were often their own masters, and even those who worked for a master will have organised their own time because they worked from their homes. Indeed, most  English men and women today almost certainly have far less control of their time than the average mediaeval inhabitant of England.

The limits of state power

The hand of the state was also light by modern standards, especially so during the century long struggle of the  houses of Lancaster and York and partly because mediaeval kingship was of necessity very limited in what it could do administratively because of a lack of funds, the power of the peerage, primitive technology, poor communications, administrative naivety and a radically different view of what government and society should be – apart from looking after his own privileges and estates, kings were expected to  defend the land, put down rebellions, provide legal redress through the royal courts, maintain the position of the church and lead in war against other rulers. And that was about  it.

But there was also a further check on the monarch. Perhaps the most important practical adjunct of this desire  for freedom, has been that the English long hated and  mistrusted the idea of a standing army as the creature of  tyrants. The English were eventually content to have the strongest navy in the world because it could not be used against them, but a substantial army was not accepted as reasonable until the experiences of the Great War accustomed men to the idea. Soldiers were held in contempt before then. “Gone for a soldier” was little better than “taken for a thief”. The needs of Empire produced more ambivalence into the English view of soldiers as Kipling’s poem “Tommy” shows: “Oh, it’s Tommy this an’  Tommy that, and chuck him out the brute! But it’s ‘Saviour of ‘is country’ when the guns begin to shoot.” But the old resentment, fear and contempt remained until the stark democracy of experience in the trenches during the Great War  tempered the English mind to tolerance of the soldier.

Because of a lack of a large standing army, English kings  were ever been dependent on the will of others, be it their  nobles, parliament or the gentry. Even the most practically tyrannical of English kings, Henry VIII, was most careful to use Parliament to sanction his acts.

The consequences of this weakness was that power was localised. Incredible as it may see today, the practical governance of day-to-day life in England until well into the nineteenth century lay largely in the hands of  private gentlemen occupying the post of JP, whose powers were much greater than they are today. Indeed, the central state impinged very little on the ordinary Englishman before 1914. George Bowling, the hero of George Orwell’s “Coming up for air” reflecting on how the arms of the state touched an honest citizen before the Great War  could think only of the registration of births, deaths and marriages and the General Post Office.

By keeping the king dependent upon the will of others, the  English ensured that a despot such as Louis X1V could  not arise in England and in so doing underwrote their  general liberties. Without that, it is improbable that parliamentary government (as opposed to a parliament) would have arisen. England would almost certainly have been involved in many debilitating wars for the aggrandisement of the king. In those circumstances it is unlikely that England as a modern state would have arisen.

The mediaeval good times end

But the comparatively good times for the poor of the post-Black Death world did not last forever. The  enclosure movement began in earnest in the fifteenth century. Men were driven off the land and their place taken by graziers of sheep. The Tudors put an end to serious dynastic strife and expanded the power of the state.  Gradually the population recovered. Trade grew and towns thrived, but it was also, by mediaeval standards, a time of high inflation caused by a mixture of a debased currency under Henry VIII, the economic consequences of the Dissolution of the Monasteries, population growth and the influx of gold and silver from the recently discovered New World.

The way to political success

Whatever its cause, England’s political development is unparalleled. If political success lies in the general  tenor of English society, the institutions through which it was achieved were cultivated from the thirteenth century  The start of the long climb towards representative government and the neutering of monarchy may reasonably  be set in the reign of John. In 1215 he was forced by many of his barons to sign a charter which granted rights to all the free men of the kingdom. This charter, the  Magna Carta, was of immense significance because it  formally restricted the power of the king in an unprecedented way. The pope of the day thought it  such an abomination he granted John absolution for its repudiation. Perhaps for the first time since the  end of the classical world, a king had been forced to acknowledge unequivocally that there could be legal limits to his power.

Long regarded as a revolutionary document by historians, the fashion amongst them in recent times has been to treat the charter as little more than as an attempt to preserve and enhance the position of the barons or to restate existing English law and custom. Of course it did that but it did much more. Had it done nothing beyond circumscribing the power of the king it would have been revolutionary, but it went far beyond that by explicitly extending rights that we consider fundamental to a free society to all free men.  Perhaps its two most famous clauses show its importance in the development of the future sharing of political power:

 Clause 39 No free man shall be seized or  imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or  possessions, or outlawed or exiled or deprived of  his standing in any other way , nor will we proceed  with force against him or send others to do so,  except by judgement of his equals or by the law of  the land.

 Clause 40 To no one will we sell, to no one will we  deny or delay right or justice.

Until the security of a man and his property are secured, there can be no sustained spreading of power, for if a king may imprison and dispossess at will no man is safe. All merely live at the will of the monarch. By providing both, Magna Carta created the necessary legal and ideological infrastructure for the political development which culminated in parliamentary government.

Perhaps the most intriguing clause of Magna Carta was number  61, which gave a committee of 25 Barons legal authority and practical power over the king. It is long  clause but worth quoting in full:

Clause 61. Since, moreover, for God and the amendment  of our kingdom and for the better allaying of the discord that has arisen between us and our barons we have granted all these things aforesaid, wishing them to enjoy the use of them unimpaired and unshaken for ever, we give and grant them the underwritten security, namely, that the barons shall choose any twenty-five barons of the kingdom they wish, who must with all their might observe, hold and cause to be observed, the peace and liberties which we have granted and confirmed to them by this present charter of ours, so that if we, or our justiciar, or our bailiffs or any one of our  servants offend in any way against any one or transgress any of the articles of the peace or the security and the offence be notified to four of the aforesaid twenty-five barons, those four barons shall  come to us, or to our justiciar if we are out of the kingdom, and, laying the transgression before us, shall petition us to have that transgression corrected without delay. And if we do not correct the transgression, or if we are out of the kingdom, if our justiciar does not correct it, within forty days,  reckoning from the time it was brought to our notice or to that of our justiciar if we were out of the  kingdom, the aforesaid four barons shall refer that case to the rest of the twenty-five barons and those twenty-five barons together with the Community of the whole land shall distrain and distress us in every  way they can, namely, by seizing castles, lands, possessions, and in such other ways as they can, saving our person and the persons of our queen and our children, until, in their opinion, amends have been made; and when amends have been made, they shall obey us as they did before. And let anyone in the country who wishes to do so take an oath to obey the orders of the said twenty-five barons for the execution of all the aforesaid matters, and with them to distress us as much as he can, and we publicly and freely give anyone leave  to take the oath who wishes to take it and we will never prohibit anyone from taking it. Indeed, all those in the land who are unwilling of themselves and of their  own accord to take an oath to the twenty-five barons to help them to distrain and distress us, we will make  them take the oath as aforesaid at our command.  And if any of the twenty-five barons dies or leaves the country or is in any other way prevented from  carrying out the things aforesaid, the remainder of the aforesaid twenty-five barons shall choose as they think fit another one in his place, and he shall take the oath like the rest. In all matters the execution  of which is committed to these twenty-five barons,  if it should happen that these twenty-five are present  yet disagree among themselves about anything, or if some  of those summoned will not or cannot be present,  that shall be held as fixed and established which  the majority of those present ordained or commanded, exactly as if all the twenty-five had consented to it; and the said twenty-five shall swear that they will faithfully observe all the things aforesaid and will do all they can to get them observed. And we will procure nothing from anyone, either personally or through any one else, whereby any of these concessions and liberties might be revoked or diminished; and if any such thing be procured let it be void and null, and we will never use it either personally or through another, And we have fully remitted and pardoned to everyone all the  ill-will, anger and rancour that have arisen between us and our men, clergy and laity, from the time of the quarrel. Furthermore, we have fully remitted to all,  clergy and laity, and as far as pertains to us have completely forgiven all trespasses occasioned by the  same quarrel between Easter in the sixteenth year of our reign and the restoration of peace. And, besides,  we have caused to be made for them letten testimonial patent of the lord Stephen archbishop of Canterbury, the lord Henry archbishop of Dublin and of the aforementioned bishops.

The extreme nature of the concessions the king made – he gave permission for his subjects to act with force to remedy any Royal failure to observe the charter – is a graphic example of the inherent weakness of the mediaeval monarch. King he might be, but not a tyrant because he did not have the resources to dominate utterly.

This committee was never actually formed, but the clause has great interest. Once such a council of nobles to  restrict the behaviour of the king is accepted as  reasonable and possible, it is not such a great leap to the  idea of a larger assembly which might do the same.  That idea was realised before the century was out in a Parliament.

Magna Carta is not as is commonly said the first formal  restriction on the powers of a monarch. The coronation oaths  of mediaeval kings regularly contained promises to observe  the laws and customary freedoms of England, but there was no means of enforcing the oaths other than rebellion. There was even a previous occasion when Ethelred was forced to  agree to formal restrictions on his powers in 1014, but that had no practical effect because of his death and the Danish conquest in 1016.

Magna Carta unlike coronation oaths was both specific enough to usefully form the basis  of law and in 1215 England did not fall under foreign rule.  Instead, in modified form, it quickly became part of the  statute books which developed in the thirteenth  century. More importantly it acquired a mythological quality which lasts to this day. Every important English rebellion and political movement from 1215 until the Chartists in the 1840s has cited Magna Carta in their defence and derived their programme from it. The Levellers in the 1640s made constantly cited it. It was a benchmark which allowed the powers of the king to be progressively whittled away. Never again could an English king convincingly claim that such restrictions on the prerogative were unthinkable or unprecedented.


The distinction of the English parliament is not that it is  the oldest such assembly in the world (although it is one of  the oldest), nor that it was unusual at its inception for  parliaments were widespread in mediaeval Europe. The English parliament’s distinction lies in its truly national nature – it was a national not federal assembly – its longevity  and the nature of its development. No other parliament in a country of any size was meaningfully maintained by regular meeting through seven or eight centuries, its only competitors for endurance being the tiny Icelandic assembly and the federal arrangements of the Swiss. Most importantly, before England created such an institution to act as a model, no other Parliament in the world developed into an fully fledged executive as well as a legislature. The English parliament made a very gradual progression to the place we know today. It began as an advising and  petitioning body in the 13th century and before the end of the 14th century had come to exercise considerable power over any taxation which was considered over and above the king’s normal and rightful dues, such as the excise. Gradually, this power transmuted into what was effectively a veto over most taxation. Parliament also added the power to propose and pass laws subject to their acceptance by the monarch. These developments meant that executive  power gradually drained from the King. From this came cabinet government as the monarch was more and more forced to take the advice of his ministers and by the end of the 18th century the struggle between Crown and Parliament for supremacy had been emphatically decided.

As the Parliament gained power, the Lords gradually  diminished in importance and the Commons became by the 19th century, if not before, the dominant House. The final act in the play was a century long extension of the franchise  culminating in a government dominated by an assembly elected under full adult suffrage from 1928 onwards.

A corrupted Parliament

By 1600 Parliament had become important enough to the governing of the country for Guy Fawkes and his fellow plotters to think it necessary to blow up Parliament rather than simply killing the king and his ministers. In any other major European country of the time, the idea of destroying Parliamentary representatives rather than just the monarch and his more powerful friends would have seemed rather odd, either because a parliament did not exist or was considered of little account because European monarchs had been generally very successful in abolishing or curtailing the powers of mediaeval assemblies and preventing their political development.

But Parliament, although growing in power and ambition, was  suffering the ills of any ancient institution. There were accretions of privilege and it had failed to keep pace with the changing times. In 1600 it neither represented the country as it was nor satisfied the growing wish of its members, especially the elected ones, to have a greater say in the management of England. At the heart of the  dissatisfaction lay the unsatisfactory nature of the Commons’ franchise. I shall examine this question in some detail because it will demonstrate the historical political backdrop against which the democratic radicals of the 1640s  acted.

The question of the franchise

Serious disquiet with the Commons’ electoral  qualifications, provisions and practices began in Elizabeth’s reign and reached its highest pitch, prior to the 1640s, during the years 1621 to 1623. The discontent was provoked primarily by the situation in  the boroughs rather than the counties, Since 1430,  the county electorate had been restricted to the  forty shilling freeholder, which qualification had become  almost sacrosanct by the end of the sixteenth century –  only one proposal before the 1640s (in 1621) was  made to raise or lower it. Tudor inflation had  greatly lowered the barrier it represented (40 shillings in 1600 was worth perhaps 15 shillings at 1430 values) and it is reasonable to suppose this  considerably increased the rural electorate. Also,  there is evidence to suggest that the qualification was not always enforced and some county electorates may have had a very broad manhood franchise indeed prior to 1640.

Borough franchises were anything but uniform. In some  the whole ‘commonalty’ (all householders) or even  all ‘potwallers’ (men with their own hearths)  voted. In others the vote was restricted to all taxpayers  (‘scot and lot’), freemen of the town, or those  in possession of burgage property. In extreme cases the vote might be restricted to the ruling corporation. Such discrepancies of representation were aggravated by a distribution of borough seats which took insufficient  account of the demographic changes of the past two centuries, during which time England’s population increased very substantially, especially during the 16th century, perhaps by as much as a third. These facts prepared a well mulched  political soil for agitation for more equal borough representation, both in terms of the breadth of the franchise and in the number of seats.

Tudor monarchs, not unnaturally, did not favour larger electorates. The existence of ‘rotten boroughs’ was a  source of patronage and, if the monarch could control  the oligarchies who returned the MP, a means of reducing  opposition to the Crown. As there was a significant number of such boroughs, this was no small advantage to the monarch.  The attitude of Parliament to the franchise was mixed. The Lords had a similar interest to the Crown in distrusting broad franchises. The peers often effectively controlled seats in the Commons. They also had a natural inclination to deny the ‘commonality’ any voice in the affairs of the kingdom. Conversely, it was obviously in the Commons’  interest to increase electorates, where such increases reduced the Monarch’s’ and the Lord’s opportunities for patronage.

There is particular evidence that the Puritans favoured larger electorates, at least in so far as it suited their own purposes. At Warwick in 1586 Job Throckmorton was elected after he threatened to invoke the right of the ‘commonality to vote. In 1587 John Field remarked to  colleague ‘seeing we cannot compass these things by suit or dispute, it is the multitude and people that must  bring the discipline to pass which we desire.’ (J.H, Plumb. The Growth of the electorate 1600-1715). As Puritans displaced many court nominees and the creatures of  aristocrats, this is significant in view of the attitude of the Commons towards electoral qualifications  between 1621 and 1628.

By 1621, the Commons had gained the right to decide  disputed elections and to revive lapsed borough seats and  even make new creations, The tendency until 1628 was to  decide in favour of wider franchise and to allow  all the ‘commonality’ to vote. At Bletchingly (1624)  and Lewes (1628) ‘all the inhabitants ,’ were to be  electors’, and at Cirencester (1624) all ‘resients:’.

In the case of Pontefract in 1624 a general principle  was formulated: ‘There being no certain custom nor prescription, who  should be the electors and who not, we must have  recourse to common right which, to this purpose was held to be, that more than the freeholders only ought  to have voices in the election, namely all  men, inhabitants, householders resient within the borough.’ (J.H, Plunb. The Growth of the electorate 1600-1715).

Further, in the case of Boston (1628) it was asserted that  the election of burgesses belonged by common right to the  commoners and only prescription or ‘a constant usage  beyond all memory’ could rob them of this. (K. Thomas, The Levellers and the Franchise p.62).

It is true that when the Commons revived or created  borough seats, they concentrated, as the Tudors had done, on small towns to promote their own advantage.  But, even so, they granted ‘scot and lot’  franchises in every case (except Weobley) which meant  that even small towns such as Great Marlow or Hilbourne Port had electorate of around 200.

Bills were introduced to regulate elections  and standardise,the franchise in 1621, 1623, 1625, 1628 and 1640, The 1621 Bill is of particular interest  because it proposed that the 40/- freeholder qualification  be increased to œ4 and to admit œ10 copyholders by  inheritance. The borough proposals add no more than the various decisions on individual cases (in fact even less), for electors were to be freemen except where they  numbered less than twenty-four, in which case all  inhabitants not in receipt of alms were to be included,

In 1640 the franchise was raised again by Sir Simonds  D’Ewes. It was he who first uttered the idea later made famous by Rainsborough ‘that the poorest man in England ought to have a voice, that it was the birthright of  the subjects of England and all had voices in the  election of Knights etc. previously.’ (K. Thomas, The Levellers and the Franchise p.63).

In 1641 a bill had reached second reading but was then  lost. D’Ewes favoured its contents except that he  ‘desired that whereas it was provided in the bill that  none that took alms should have voices in elections, which I well allowed, we would likewise provide  that no more monopolizing elections might be in cities and boroughs, that all men resients might have voices.’  (K. Thomas, The Levellers and the Franchise p.64)

It is also noteworthy, both for its own sake and  the part it played in Leveller literature, that many  believed that the Statute of 1430 had disenfranchised  people. William May, in 1621, said ‘Anciently, all the  commonality had voice, but because such a multitude made the  election tumultuous, it was after reduced to freeholders’.  The religious radical William Prynne put it even more plainly, ‘Before this Petition and Act every  inhabitant and commoner in each county had voice in the election of Knights, whether he were a freeholder or  not, or had a freehold only of one penny, six pence or twelve pence by the year as they now claim of  late in most cities and boroughs where popular  elections are admitted’ (K. Thomas, The Levellers and the Franchise p.64). It is a sobering thought that if the Statute of 1430 did disenfranchise large numbers of county electors, the county franchise may have been wider in medieval England than it was to be again before the end of the nineteenth century and conceivably wider than the Franchise before the 1918 Representation of the People Act.

What of the position of those deemed to be dependents:  the servants, wage-earners and almstakers? Resident  household servants were generally considered beyond  the electoral pale, although ‘servants’ were said to  have voted in the Worcestershire county election of 1604.

Wage-earners certainly did so, for those in the ‘potwaller’  and ‘scot and lot’ constituencies were granted the  right to vote. Almstakers were excluded in the 1621  and 1640 bills, yet at Great Marlow in 1604 77 of the 245 voters were said to be almstakers, nine of them  inmates of the almshouse. In 1640 the right of the  Bember inmates to vote was said to have been sustained  and in 1662 the St. Albans almsmen were said to have ‘had  voices time out of mind’.

It is clear from all this that those who promoted theradical or democratic cause in the 1640s, most particularly the Levellers, did not enter untilled ground. There are also three points of particular interest. First, the Commons, or at least an influential part of it,  was not unduly disturbed by the prospect of an  enlarged electorate. Second, those deemed to be dependent such as servants and almstakers – were included on occasion in the franchise long before the Civil War. Third, that there existed even gentlemen (such as Sir Simonds D’Ewes) who had an active and unambiguous democratic spirit.

The latter point is particularly pertinent because the chief Leveller, John Lilburne, was also of gentle-birth, albeit “small gentry”, a fact he never ceased to emphasise. Clearly, democratic ideas and feeling were not foreign political bodies suddenly introduced by the Levellers and others in the 1640s.

The English civil war, Commonwealth and Protectorate

Stuart society was a world on the physical, economic and intellectual move and waiting to move faster if the right engine appeared. The civil wars of the 1640s was that machine.

Representative government is one thing, democracy quite another. That did not come to England in its formal form of a full adult franchise until the twentieth century. But for a brief period in the 1640s a franchise for the House of Commons broader than any used before the late nineteenth century was more than a pipe dream.

The Civil War and its republican aftermath, the Commonwealth and Protectorate, changed English politics  utterly. It brought the end of claims by the English crown

to Divine Right and absolute monarchy. It promoted the political interests of the aristocracy and gentry as a class. It forced those on the Parliamentary side to exercise power on their own responsibility. It created a political class which saw politics as something they could control rather than merely be part of as an adjunct to the crown. It raised the idea that there should be a law superior to that which even a parliament could pass. It began the constitutional process which resulted in cabinet government.  It laid the foundations for the formation of political parties as we know them. In short, it planted the seeds of  modern representative government.

Into this new world were cast men whose political philosophies ranged from acceptance of the divine right of kings to unyielding communists. In the middle were those, such as Cromwell, who though socially conservative, realised that power and political interest had shifted not merely  from the king to Parliament, but also in some sense to an appreciably broader circle of people than before. Such people were willing to extend the franchise to a degree, although still restricting it to those with property for fear that the poor would dispossess the haves if they had the power to elect and that those with no material stake in the country would have no sense of responsibility and duty.

But that was insufficient from many, especially those who fought on the Parliamentary side in the wars, and something else occurred which was to be even more momentous in the long run. The belief that men generally should only be ruled by those they had themselves elected became a serious political idea. That the idea should find expression as a serious political idea in the 1640s was, of course, partly a consequence of the disruption of society by civil war, but that was more an opportunity rather than a reason. Innumerable civil wars  all over the world have come and gone without the democratic spirit being given rein. What made the England of the time unusual was the long-existing ideal of individual freedom which had reached a high degree of sophistication, including the notion that free debate, the sine qua no of democracy,  was of value in itself. Here are two passages which give a taste of the way minds were working in the 1640s. First,

John Milton writing in the Areogapitica in the 1640s:

 And though all the winds of doctrine were let  loose upon the earth, so truth be in the field  [and] we do injuriously by licensing and  prohibiting to misdoubt her strength. Let her and  falsehood grapple; who ever knew truth put to the  worse, in a free and open encounter…

The second statement comes from the Leveller Richard Overton’s ‘An Arrow against all Tyrants’ (19th October, 1646). It contains as good a refutation of the power of authority without consent over the individual as you will find:

 No man hath power over my rights and liberties,  and I over no man’s….for by naturall birth all  men are equally and alike borne to like propriety, liberty and freedom, and as we are delivered  of God by the hand of nature into this  world, everyone with a naturall, innate freedom and propriety….even so are we to live, every one  equally and alike to enjoy his birthright and  privilege…. [no more of which may be alienated]  than is conducive to a better being, more safety  and freedome….[for] every man by nature being  a King, Priest and Prophet in his own naturall  circuit and compasse, whereof no second may  partake, but by deputation, commission  and free consent from him, whose  naturall right and freedome it is. [An Arrow against all tyrants].

These were not odd voices crying in the wilderness. The  democratic spirit was widespread in the 1640s. By this I do not mean that men were commonly calling for full manhood suffrage, much less the emancipation of women. Even the most democratically advanced of the important groups which evolved during the Civil War, the Levellers, were unclear as to whether those who were deemed dependent in the sense of not being their own masters – servants and almstakers –  should be given the vote or, indeed, who counted as a servant or almstaker.

Rather, there was a sense that the social order had been  rearranged by the war, that men were on some new ground of equality and had a right to a public voice. In particular, there was a belief that those who had fought for Parliament had won the right to enfranchisement. There was also a widespread feeling, which penetrated all social classes, that the existing franchises (which as we have seen varied greatly) were frequently too narrow and that the towns, particularly those most recently grown to substantial size,  were grossly under-represented.

Ideas of social and political equality had, as we have seen, existed long before the Civil War, but never before had large swathes of the masses and the elite seen anything approaching representative democracy as practical politics under any circumstances. The political and social elite of the period after 1640 may have been desperately afraid of a general representation of the English people, but they did not say it was impossible, merely feared its consequences.

They may have loathed the idea of every man his own political master but they were forced by circumstances to admit that a Parliament elected on a broad franchise was not a fantasy. The Putney Debates in 1647 provide a vivid record of the political fervour and mentality of the times. Parliamentary and Army leaders including Cromwell and his son-in-law Henry Ireton, met with a variety of people on what might broadly be called the democratic side. A substantial part of the debate was taken down in shorthand. It is a most intriguing and exciting document, despite its incompleteness and some confused passages. The sheer range of political ideas it displays is impressive. It shows clearly that the 1640s  experienced a high degree of sophistication amongst the politically interested class and that this class was drawn from a broad swathe of English society. The ideas run discussed from the monarchical to the unreservedly democratic, epitomised in Col Thomas Rainsborough’s famous words:

 … I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to lead, as the richest he; and therefore truly, sir, I think it’s clear, that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government; and I do not think  that the poorest man in England is not at all bound in a strict sense to that government that he has not had a voice to put himself under… (Col Thomas Rainsborough Puritanism and Liberty The Putney debates p 53).

Democracy, the revolutionary idea

Why was the idea of every man being an elector so revolutionary? There was of course the age-old traditional fear, known to the Greeks, that the masses would dispossess haves if they had control of who was to hold power. But the matter went much deeper than that. The enfranchisement of a  wide electorate is perhaps the most fundamental political change a society can undergo. It forces the elite to take note of the masses in a way that no other system does. Even the humblest man must be considered as a man in his own right, a person with a vote and needs and wishes. Those needs and wishes may be heeded and met to varying degrees according to the success an elite has in subverting the representative process through such tricks as international treaties and the development of disciplined political parties, but what the majority needs and wants cannot as a  matter of course be ignored completely when each man has a vote.

A form of male-only democracy existed in the ancient world, but it was never inclusive because the citizens were only a part of the population of a Greek civis and the large numbers of unfree men and free men who were not citizens were excluded. The Roman Republic had enjoyed in varying degrees at various times democratic expression through  plebeian institutions such as the concilium plebis and offices such as that of tribune. But that was a class based  representation which arose to oppose the Patrician class, not a self-conscious representation of individual men.

Received wisdom it may be now, the idea that every man (but not woman then) should have an active voice in choosing those who would represent and govern them was to most people, poor and rich, a truly novel and disturbing concept in the middle of the 17th century.

The Levellers

The group which gave the strongest voice and effect to democratic feelings in the 1640s was the Levellers. They  were a disparate and ever shifting crew, drawing their support primarily from the ranks of the Parliamentary armed forces (especially after the New Model Army was formed in 1645), small tradesmen, journeymen and apprentices.  However, they also included those from higher social classes, their most famous leader, John Lilburne, being the child of minor gentry.

The Levellers time was brief. They were a serious political  force for, at most, the years 1646 to 1649 and that is probably being a mite too generous. They failed utterly in the end, not least because they were unable to carry the army, especially the junior officers, with them. But they were important both for giving voice to the ideas and creating many of the practices on which modern politics is founded.

Their opponents attempted to portray the Levellers as social revolutionaries who would take the property of the rich, most particularly their land, and give it to the poor.  Hence the epithet of Leveller which originated as a term of abuse. But the Levellers consistently denied that they had any such programme and were staunch defenders of the right to property. They might best be characterised as radical democrats with a very strong libertarian streak. Indeed, so far were they from being proto-communists that they had an almost sacramental belief in the individual’s right to personal property.


Intellectually, they started from the view that all Englishmen had a birthright which entitled them to have a say in who should govern them, although at times they accepted that the birthright might be breached through dependence on a master or by receiving alms. More  importantly, their ideology contained the germ of the idea of a social contract between the people and those who held power, an idea which was to come to dominate English political thinking for the next century or so through the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke.

The Levellers were, with one or two exceptions such as Richard Overton, who was a deist at best and an atheist at worst, or John Wildman, who was a libertine and chancer,  religious. But their belief had a strong vein of rationalism in it. They saw God not as the often cantakerous and domineering supernatural being of traditional Christianity, but as a rational intelligence who entered every man and allowed him to see what was naturally just and reasonable.

For the Levellers, it seemed a natural right – a rational right – for a man to have a say in who should hold power and what they should do with the power. They  were happy to use historical props such as  Magna Carta and the legend of Norman oppression when it suited them, but their rationality led them to question how men were governed from first principles. One of the Leveller leaders Richard Overton actually called Magna Carta a “beggarly thing” and went on to comment:

 Ye [Parliament] were chosen to work our deliverance, and to estate us in natural and just liberty, agreeable to reason and common equity, for whatever our forefathers were, we are the men of the present age, and ought to be absolutely free from all kinds of exorbitancies, molestations or arbitrary power. (A Remonstrance. Tracts on Liberty in the Puritan Revolution)

More balanced was his fellow Leveller William Walwyn:

Magna Carta (you must observe) is but a part of the people’s rights and liberties, being no more but what with much striving and fighting, was wrested from the paws of those kings , who by force had conquered the nation, changed the laws and by strong hand held them in bondage. (England’s Lamentable Slaverie, Tracts on  Liberty in the Puritan Revolution.)

To call the Levellers a political party in the modern sense would be misleading. Yet they were the closest thing to it both then and, arguably, for several centuries. Their tactics and organisation were modern – the use of pamphletering and newspapers, the ability to get large number of supporters onto the streets (especially in London) at the drop of a hat, the creation of local associations.

Much of this was the work of Lilburne, a man of preternatural obstinacy, courage and general unreasonableness. It says much for the restraint of the English elite of the day and respect for the law that he was not killed out of hand. It is difficult to imagine such behaviour being tolerated anywhere in Europe in the seventeenth century.

Lilburne by every account of him was a most difficult man – it was said that his nature was so combative that he would seek a quarrel with himself if he were alone – ‘Jack would fight with John’. Yet this man, who came from a very modest gentry background, remained alive  despite challenging the authority of first the king and then  during and after the civil war, Parliament, Cromwell and the Commonwealth. He thus carried on this mortally dangerous  behaviour for almost a generation. To the end of his life in  1657, he was thought dangerous enough to imprison.

Lilburne first came to notice for seditious speeches and  writings in the 1630s. For that he was whipped from the Fleet  to the Palace Yard where he was stood in the stocks. Whilst  in the stocks, he removed copies of the pamphlets which had  caused his punishment and threw them to the crowd. That  little episode will give a good idea of the Lilburne’s  general mentality. He was an extreme example one of those  necessary unreasonable men without whom nothing great gets  done.

From the time of his flogging onwards, Lilburne’s career was  one of studied defiance of authority. He was one of the most  potent pamphleteers England has ever seen. For more than a  decade, he produced a flood of writings guaranteed to inflame  virtually anyone in public authority in the land. He faced  down judges in the most powerful courts in the land. He  controlled the London mob consummately. He treated the  greatest men in the land as equals. In any other place on the planet at that time, he probably would have been dead meat before his  career as an agitator began. But not in England. He might be  flogged. He might be put in the stocks. He might be  imprisoned. He might be tried twice for his life. But what the elite of  17th century England would not do was unreservedly murder him.

The Levellers developed an increasingly sophisticated political programme in a series of documents known as The Agreements of the People. These Agreements dealt extensively with political representation and structure. They were also very successful in creating a sense of historic grievance and an enemy. They did this by portraying 1640s England as  having declined from a golden age of freedom to an oppressed land and people under the heel of the Normans and their French successors.

The Levellers and the franchise

The Levellers changed their position on the franchise throughout their existence, tending to compromise when they thought that some accommodation with the likes of Cromwell could be made and ever more radical as political power slipped away from them, although there were times and places throughout their existence when this general tendency did not hold true.

What the Levellers did retain always was a belief that all  Englishmen were born with the same birthright. However, they accepted more often than not that certain  parts of this birthright could be forfeited under certain conditions. Religious, civil and even possibly economic rights could not be alienated justly, and as such should be protected constitutionally. The  right to elect, however, could be forfeited by  entering into a condition of dependence, either by  taking wages or alms. In such cases, a just  dependence resulted and the subservient individual’s  voice was deemed to be included in that of his master or benefactor, as far as a voice in elections was concerned,  just as that of a wife was deemed to be included in that of her husband. An idea of how the Levellers’ position changed can be gained from these extracts from Leveller tracts:

‘That the People of England,… ought to be more  indifferently proportioned according to the number  of inhabitants.’ (The first article of the First  Agreement.)

 [electors] ‘shall be Natives, or Denizen of England,  not persons receiving Alms … not  servants to, and receiving wages from any  particular person’ (The Second Agreement – D.H. Wolfe,Leveller Manifestoes p.403)

 ‘Whereas it hath been the ancient liberty of this nation, that all the freeborn people  have freely elected their representers in  Parliament, and their sheriffs and Justices of the Peace, etc. and they were abridged of that  their native liberty by a statute of the 8.H.6,7. That, therefore, the birthright of all English men be forthwith restored to all which are not, or shall  not be legally disenfranchised for some  criminal cause, or are under 21 years of age,  or servants or beggars .’ (The franchise clause  (section ll) of the Petition of January 1648 -D.H. Wolfe, Leveller Manifestoes P,269.)

By the time political opportunity had long passed the Levellers by we find in 1653 a pamphlet Leveller in tone – ‘A Charge of High Treason exhibited against Oliver  Cromwell’ summoning all the people of England to the polls ‘as well masters, sons of servants’.

Constitutional restraint

The Levellers did one more thing which was to have great influence in the future: they created the idea of constitutional law acting as a restraint on a parliament.  The Agreements of the People placed restrictions on what Parliament might do, removing the power from Parliament to  repudiate debts it had incurred, interfere with the operation of justice, destroy the rights to property or diminish the liberty of the individual. The Levellers even included provision granting the electorate the right to  resist Parliament if they acted beyond their powers. They also called for annual parliaments, i.e., a general election every year, which would have been a great restriction in itself on what those with power might do.

In 1648 the Levellers attempted but failed to convene a Constitutional Convention of the type which more than a century later produced the American constitution. However, the idea of restraining Parliament by superior law was given form in the Instrument of Government which set up the Protectorate. The idea of such constitutional restraint disappeared in England after the Restoration and the novel doctrine of Parliamentary supremacy eventually won the day after the “Glorious Revolution” of 1689, when the monarch became king not by right of birth but by gift of Parliament.

Other radicals

The most uncompromising of the democratic and egalitarian forces in the 1640s were the so-called Diggers or, “True Levellers” led by William Everard but best known through the writings of Gerrard Winstanley. In many ways the Diggers,  probably unwittingly, reiterated the most extreme egalitarian sentiments of the Peasant’s Revolt, such as the reputed words of John Ball, and reached back to the mediaeval idea of society as a communal enterprise.  They believed that the land belonged to no one saying “None ought to be lords or landlords over another, but the earth is free for every son and daughter of mankind to live upon.” ( Works, ed by Sabine p289).

For the Diggers the “natural” state of man was one of common ownership and the root of  evil the egotistic desire for individual advantage including  the “cheating art of buying and selling” by which king’s live  (Winstanley’s Law of Freedom 1652).

In 1649 a small group of Diggers attempted to put their philosophy into practice camped on St Georges Hill near Walton on Thames in Surrey and attempted to cultivate common land. Further Digger attempts were made at Cobham in Surrey and at Cox Hall in Kent and at Wellingborough in Northamptonshire. All met with a mixture of legal and physical harassment by local landowners and even attracted the attention of the Council of State which sent troopers to repress them. The Diggers were brought twice to court.

Their numbers were small, probably amounting to no more than a hundred or so at most and they had no lasting direct legacy. Yet they are a reminder that many Englishmen have never have never accepted willingly the unearned privileges of social rank or vast differences in wealth while the masses struggled to feed themselves.

The Diggers are also significant for giving voice through Winstanley to the novel idea that the end of politics should be the well-being of the common man and for the clear recognition that liberty rests on the economic state of society.

Exporting Representative Government

After the Cromwell’s establishment of the Protectorate, democratic ideas did not gain serious political currency in England for more than a century, but the example of England’s continually evolving parliamentary government proved a potent one.

The Restoration did not result in serious legal abridgements of the power of the monarch, but Charles II was in practice much restricted by a Parliament unwilling to adequately open the purse strings for a monarch who was, ironically, expected to do more and more as the formal power

of the state grew.

The “Glorious Revolution” of 1689 produced a true constitutional sea-change. From then on the English monarch ascended the throne only with the acceptance of Parliament and the Bill of Rights (1690) placed restrictions on the monarch. Amongst the long list of things the king was forbidden to do were:

Dispense with and suspend of laws, and the execution of laws, without consent of parliament.

Levy money for and to the use of the crown, by pretence of prerogative, for another time, and in other manner, than the same was granted by parliament.

To raise and keep a standing army within England in time of peace, without consent of parliament, and quartering  soldiers contrary to 4.

To violate the freedom of election of members to serve in parliament.

To demand excessive bail of persons committed in criminal cases, “to elude the benefit of the laws made for the liberty of the subjects.”

To impose excessive fines and illegal and cruel punishments.

The abuses of power by the crown listed in the Bill of Rights  are described as being ” utterly and directly contrary to the known laws and statutes, and freedom of this realm.”

That old reliance on the law and the traditional freedoms of the Englishman.

From 1689 began the century long decline of the monarchy as an executive power. The American War of Independence sealed the fate of the monarch and the Americans forged a new version of the English political model, with a formal separation of powers and a written constitution to restrict what governments and legislatures might do.


The received academic opinion on the American constitutional settlement is that it was the offspring of John Locke. In fact, it had at least as much affinity with the ideas of the Levellers. There is no direct intellectual link, but arguably the most important popular propagandist on the American side, the Englishman Tom Paine, shared much of his ideology with the Levellers. The Constitution is a balancing act between Locke Paine, granting a large degree of popular involvement in politics, whilst tempering it with restrictions such as electoral colleges and granting through the Bill of Rights  (which was inspired by the English Bill of Rights of 1690) constitutional protections for the individual against the state.

If the American Revolution owed its shape and  inspiration to England, the French Revolution was inspired by both English constitutional development and the America revolutionary example. Most political revolutions resulting in an attempt at representative government, have been  touched, consciously or not, by the legacy of the American and French revolutions.

England through control of the British Empire, ensured that the Westminster model of government was transplanted with widely differing success, to approximately a quarter of the world’s population, when the empire dissolved in the twenty years after 1945.

The astonishing upshot of the English example, the American and French Revolutions and the British Empire, is that the  political structures of most modern states are broadly based on the English constitution of King, Lords and Commons, the overwhelming majority having a head of state plus two assemblies. In addition, the widespread practice of a written constitution derives from the example of the United States, which of course drew its form and inspiration from  English settlements in North America, English history and political practices. These political structures apply as readily to dictatorships as they do to liberal democracies.

Of course, the balance of power between the head of  state and the assemblies varies widely and there is much difference between Parliamentary and Presidential government, but they all have their ultimate origin in the example of the English system of representative government.

One last thing. Look around the world. How many countries  can be said even today to have accepted elected representative government and the rule of law as a banal fact of life, the norm of their society? Britain, the USA, Australia, Canada, New Zealand certainly, Switzerland  and Scandinavia possibly. But where else? Not France which  as recently as 1958 overthrew the Fourth Republic. Not  Germany which embraced Hitler nor Italy the land of Mussollini. Not Spain so recently loosed from Franco.

As for the rest of the world, that tells a sorry tale of elites who generally have such a lack of respect for the individual and a contempt for the masses that the idea of shared power with and for the people is simply alien to them.

The fact that the only really stable examples of elected representative government in countries of any size are in  those countries which have their ultimate  origins in English colonisation strongly suggests that it was no accident that it was in England that the institution evolved. There must be something highly unusual about English society for it both to develop in a manner so different from any other country and to export this rare and valuable difference to colonies.

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