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.

The Constitution of the United States

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 Peasants’ 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).

Winstanley DIggers

“Take notice, That England is not a Free People, till the Poor that have no Land, have a free allowance to dig and labour the Commons, and so live as Comfortably as the Landlords that live in their Inclosures.” Gerrard Winstanley, in his The True Levellers Standard Advanced: Or, The State of Community Opened, and Presented to the Sons of Men. (1649)

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 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.
  • 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 and 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.

battle of bunker hill

The Battle of Bunker Hill, Boston, during the American Revolution

If the American Revolution owed its shape and inspiration to England, the French Revolution was inspired by both English constitutional development and the American 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 that have their ultimate origins in English colonization, 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.

Part 1   Part 2   Part 3   Part 4   Part 5   Part 6   Part 7  Part 8   Part 9

Print Friendly, PDF & Email