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The Putney Debates

Updated Sunday, 7th January 2001

Questions of suffrage and property were at the heart of the Putney Debates

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The battle of ideas which took place at Putney Church in October 1647 profoundly influenced British politics for the next 350 years. Here, ideas emerged which still influence our lives today; ideas took hold which led men to demand a say over their future. They wanted control over their politics and communities - how their money was spent; accountability from those in power. It was here that democratic socialism was born - the right of the lowliest individual to have a say in the shape of their society. It was the start of a process that would end in votes for all and the democracy of the Westminster Parliament.

In October 1647, the General Council of the Army met to debate the Leveller ideas set out in their manifesto, An Agreement of the People.

This was a highly radical document which demanded manhood suffrage and an elected Parliament answerable to the people of England. While John Pym had fought a civil war to defend the rights enshrined by Magna Carta against Charles's arbitrary kingship, the Leveller's dismissed it as a "beggarly thing" imposed on the free-born Saxons by the Normans. The Levellers wanted to rebuild the equality and democracy which they believed were the birth-right of all Englishmen. They wanted to rid England of the 'Norman Yoke.' At the heart of that struggle was the vote.

St Mary's in Putney, site of the Putney Debates Creative commons image Icon Jim Linwood under CC-BY licence under Creative-Commons license
St Mary's, Putney - home to the debates

On the other side, Cromwell represented the conservative Grandees. As a substantial landowner, he had always believed in private property and insisted that only property-holders with a 'fixed permament interest' should vote. But the Levellers wanted to extend it further. They wanted nearly all men to have the vote.

In the immortal words of Colonel Rainsborough, 'I think the poorest he in England has a life to live as the greatest he.' These are the ideas that inspired British socialism for centuries: the idea that every man has a right to vote and play his part in society; that he deserves a decent education, decent housing, and the same opportunities as the 'greatest he'.

But Cromwell was no socialist. The Leveller demands were far too radical for Cromwell and the Grandees. So they wound the debates up and returned the agitators to their regiments. And when Leveller rebellion flared up again, Cromwell's reaction was swift and merciless. At the army camp in Ware, the Leveller troublemakers were taken out and sentenced to death. This was not a debating society, it was an army. The New Model Army was built on discipline and it was needed now more than ever - because Charles had evaded his captors.

 

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