Through The Glass Darkly: Britain’s Civil Wars

Through The Glass Darkly: Britain’s Civil Wars

John Rees

The dramatic events that shook Britain in the 17th century resonate more strongly than ever, despite attempts to marginalise them.

The celebratory exhibition held at the Royal Academy in early 2018, Charles I: King and Collector, was a reminder that the past is always viewed through the lens of the present. That lens has rarely distorted its object as much, or for as long, as in the case of the English Revolution. To see the extent of the distortion one only needs to compare how the US or France remember their revolutions with how the British state recalls the events of the mid-17th century.Over the Atlantic and across the Channel, the revolutions of 1776 and 1789 are part of a national story, an irremovable part of ‘who we are’. Monuments are meticulously preserved and names memorialised. In the US the revolution of 1776 is a compulsory part of what children are taught in school. In France the revolution is first taught to primary school students. It remains firmly on the curriculum for fourth year secondary students, who study it as part of their brevet exam (the equivalent of GSCEs). In Britain the national curriculum has no compulsory content about the mid-17th century. The period can only be studied as one part of one option at A-level.In the US and France, the sites of the respective revolutions are curated with care and to a high standard. In Britain, the site of the decisive battle of the first Civil War, Naseby, fought on 14 June 1645, is barely marked and has had the A14 driven through it. The chances of a portrait of Oliver Cromwell appearing on a £10 note anytime soon are small. The National Civil War Centre, the first ever national museum about the revolution, opened in Newark in 2015. Dependent on Lottery funding and local council support, it performs miracles with its scarce resources. The tiny Cromwell Museum in Huntingdon, recently threatened with closure, was dependent on a petitioning campaign to survive.This national amnesia is not new. The most prominent memorial to the revolution, the statue of Cromwell outside the Palace of Westminster, was controversial even during the Victorian rediscovery of the 17th century. Public and parliamentary controversy attended the very suggestion that the Lord Protector should be so remembered. In the end, no public money was spent and the statue was only completed with funds secretly donated by the Liberal prime minister, Lord Rosebery.At the beginning of the last century Churchill, when First Lord of the Admiralty, attempted on two occasions to have a warship named Oliver Cromwell. On the first attempt, George V refused. Churchill tried again the following year, on this occasion to name a new super-Dreadnought after the Protector. Lord Stamfordham, the king’s private secretary, replied immediately: ‘There must be some mistake … that name was proposed for one of the ships of last year’s programme; His Majesty was unable to agree to it and … personally explained to you the reasons for his objection.’ Churchill tried to reason that ‘Oliver Cromwell was one of the founders of the Navy and scarcely any man did so much for it … It seems right that we should give to a battleship a name that never failed to make the enemies of England tremble.’ But the monarch refused to give in and Churchill, lacking Cromwell’s way with kings, declared: ‘I bow.’ Stuart legacyBritain’s monarchy remains sensitive about its Stuart forebears to this day, though no direct line of descent exists. There has been speculation that if or when Prince Charles takes the throne he will choose, as monarchs can, to be called George rather than risk Charles, neither of whose two previous owners inspire much confidence.Here we touch on the reason for the twilight existence of the English revolution in the national consciousness. The US and France became settled republics; in Britain, the monarchy was restored. The events of the mid-17th century cannot be commemorated without raising uncomfortable questions about hereditary monarchy and, by extension, the nature of British democracy.It is not so much that a constitutional monarchy cannot be explained away in semi-democratic terms, although royalty has more direct influence on government than is usually admitted. It is more that the Royal Family represents an ideological and customary habituation to tradition, however ‘invented’, to social hierarchy and to disparity in wealth and ownership. Question the cornerstone, even if it is mainly decorative, and other more serious institutions upheld by the same values, such as the honours system and the House of Lords, may be questioned.For the lens of the present to be corrected there would have to be an admission that republicanism is a legitimate part of the national debate. Depending on which polling companies one chooses, around 20 to 30 per cent of the population believe that the UK would be better off without a monarchy. A majority of recent polls show a preference for Charles being passed over in favour of Prince William when the Queen dies. Perhaps we would view the period when Britain was one of the first modern republics in more accurate light if the dissenting minority of the population were to have their views reflected in national debate.Since this is not the case and since monarchist views are widely regarded as an essential part of conservative (as well as Conservative) thinking, the past is also unavoidably seen as a left-right dividing line. One only has to remember the furore over whether the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was singing the national anthem heartily enough to see how this plays in contemporary politics.The Labour politician Tony Benn perhaps caught this aspect best. Beginning in 1971, Benn attempted to develop his understanding of contemporary political battles by mapping his party’s right and left wing onto the factions in the Civil Wars. He noted in his diary that the Conservative prime minister Ted Heath and City financiers represented the King and Court, the parliamentary party the Presbyterians and Trotskyist groups the Agitators in the New Model army. ‘The Levellers are broadly the labour movement as a whole’, he thought.Revision and revolutionThis political polarity has sometimes been reflected in the historiography of the English Revolution. In the 1970s and 1980s, the rise of the revisionist interpretation of the English Revolution tended to downplay the role of radicals in it and, in some cases, to even deny that there had been a revolution at all in mid-17th century Britain.In the hands of some revisionist historians this re-interpretation of the 17th century went alongside an attempt to marginalise accounts by liberal and left historians, most notably the Marxist Christopher Hill. In some cases it was also consciously seen as part of a wider conservative project at work in the politics of the era. The historian J.C.D. Clark, in his Revolution and Rebellion: State and Society in England in the 17th and 18th Centuries (1986), even went so far as to argue that there was no decisive break in English history in the 17th century. He went on to quote approvingly a letter to the Times Educational Supplement to the effect that ‘British political science was particularly torpid until the electoral shock of 1979. Too many existing political scientists belong to the generation of 1968 – a provenance that almost disqualifies them from comment on late 20th century politics’.The wheels of both academic fashion and contemporary politics have moved on and a more liberal, post-revisionist mood has settled over the debate. Perhaps this is a moment when a more serious and at the same time more celebratory approach to the English Revolution can take hold.Contemporary political conditions call for it. The Brexit referendum raises fundamental questions of what it means to be democratically governed, a debate first broached in modern terms in the English Revolution – and one raised, not just on the left, but by right-wing critics of the EU, such as Daniel Hannan and Douglas Carswell. The contemporary crisis of parliamentary democracy, eroded both by far right and populist challenges and by its failure to deal with the post-2008 economic crisis, raise profound questions about how the consent of citizens to the actions of governments is achieved. This was at the core of the Levellers’ 1647 Agreement of the People.And what of the great question raised but unanswered at St Mary’s Church in Putney that year? Should democracy be bounded by ‘having an eye to property’, as Henry Ireton thought, or do ‘the poorest have a life to live as the richest’, as Thomas Rainsborough thought?These were all vital questions debated and fought over in the first modern revolution. There are encouraging signs: the new Putney Debates, run by Oxford University Foundation of Law, and the Will of the People Conference organised by Bath Spa and York universities address such issues. But more is needed, outside as well as inside academia. To leave the history of the 17th century semi-submerged in the national consciousness, prey to contemporary ideological prejudices, is an act of historical vandalism. We do our forebears a disservice if we do not take them seriously and teach them effectively.John Rees is author of The Leveller Revolution: Radical Political Organisation in England, 1640-1650 (Verso, 2017).

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