Given that this blog takes it's name from the sea-green ribbon of the Levellers, I ought to note that we are currently going through the 360th anniversary of the Putney Debates.
Gordon Brown's speech on liberty gave a brief mention to the Seventeenth Century radical tradition, but passed over this first attempt to give England a democratic constitution. Surely, a Government which is seeking to start its own debate about a written constitution should embrace this precedent? One way to do that would be to give a written constitution the title that the Levellers used, An Agreement of the People.
Tristram Hunt had a good article on the debates in the Guardian on Friday, although he made one crucial mistake. The Levellers did not advocate a sovereign Parliament. The whole point of a written constitution was to control the power of the parliamentary oligarchy, and enable a sovereign people. It is because they were defeated that we have parliamentary sovereignty.
It has been suggested that Gordon Brown's proposed constitution will enshrine the sovereignty of the people. Whether that is true in substance will depend on who has the power to amend that constitution.If a referendum is required, then the people might get the power to vote on future European treaties, for example.
Interesting piece on Levellers Day from historian Tristram Hunt:
Yesterday, I joined Tony Benn and a large crowd in the Cotswolds to commemorate these martyrs to democracy. Organised by the Workers' Educational Association, the Levellers' Day festival remains one of the few living monuments to Britain's hidden heritage of democracy. But why does Burford hold such a lonely place in our history calendar? Why are we still so shy of our radical past?
Last week saw a welter of commentary on Education Minister Bill Rammell's call for teaching 'British values' in schools. The left took it as a cue for more historical self-flagellation; the right for cultural triumphalism. Yet, disappointingly, what Rammell had, in fact, urged was the anodyne incorporation of 'modern British cultural and social history into the citizenship curriculum'. What he should have demanded is a vigorous exploration of our democratic heritage in schools and communities alike.
Democracy has many fathers, but in its modern, Western variety, the British contribution is marked. From the Magna Carta to the Levellers' 'Agreement of the People' to the Chartists and Pan-African Conference, the British experience went on to influence democracy around the world. The US Declaration of Independence was partly born from the democratic ideals of the English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution. (Observer)
openDemocracy has an interview with Geoffrey Robertson QC, about his book on John Cooke, the Seventeenth Century lawyer who prosecuted Charles I.
Charlie Devereux: Do you think that the tyrannicide brief can be used as a precedent to prosecute modern-day tyrants? Can it be cited?
Geoffrey Robertson: We’ve moved on 350 years and the tyrannicide brief
fascinates as the first attempt in modern times – since the treaty of
Westphalia came into being a few months before the trial, which was the
beginning of modern international law – to prosecute a head of state.
It is of interest to see how the first effort was made and how some of
the problems in that exercise persist. Some of the problems that Cooke
and the court faced are with us today – in the case of Saddam Hussein. (openDemocracy)
Slugger O'Toole picked up an interesting letter from the Irish News last week, about the Nineteenth Century Irish patriot Thomas Davis.
Davis – the descendant of a Cromwellian soldier – knew what he was talking about when he told his Catholic fellow countrymen that “if you would liberate Ireland and keep it free, you must have Protestant help – if you would win the Protestants you must address their reason, their hopes and their pride”. (Irish News, via Slugger)
I''d be interested to learn more about Davis' ancestry if anyone knows anything. In the meantime, the Slugger post is perhaps worth reading in conjunction with this article from the Irish Democrat.
Tony Blair may be a lawyer, and married to a human rights lawyer, but that hasn’t stopped him having some harsh words for the judiciary in recent weeks.
“For eight years I have battered the criminal justice system to get it to change,” he told the Labour Party conference last month, claiming improbably that “the whole of our system starts from the proposition that its duty is to protect the innocent from being wrongly convicted.”
The New Lord Chief Justice hit back last week, warning politicians against attempting to browbeat judges.
In the midst of this controversy, it’s perhaps appropriate that barrister Geoffrey Robertson has written a new book which examines one of the key historical struggles for judicial independence.
Geoffrey Roberston QC is set to publish a new biography of John Cooke, the lawyer who prosecuted Charles I.
Charles I waged civil wars that cost one in ten Englishmen their lives. But in 1649 parliament was hard put to find a lawyer with the skill and daring to prosecute a King who was above the law - in the end the man they briefed was the radical barrister, John Cooke. Cooke was a plebeian, son of a poor Leicestershire farmer. His puritan conscience, political vision and love of civil liberty gave him the courage to bring the King's trial to its dramatic conclusion: the English republic.Cromwell appointed him as a reforming Chief Justice in Ireland, but in 1660 he was dragged back to the Old Bailey, tried and brutally executed.
Geoffrey Robertson QC, the internationally renowned human rights lawyer, provides a vivid new reading of the tumultuous Civil War years, exposing long-hidden truths: that the King was guilty as charged; that his execution was necessary to establish the sovereignty of Parliament; that the regicide trials were rigged and their victims should be seen as national heroes. John Cooke was the bravest of barristers, who risked his own life to make tyranny a crime. He originated the right to silence, the 'cab rank' rule of advocacy and the duty to act free-of-charge for the poor. He conducted the first trial of a Head of State for waging war on his own people - a forerunner of the prosecutions of Pinochet, Milosevic and Saddam Hussein, and a lasting inspiration to the modern world. (Amazon)