Occupy London and the English Civil War: a contemporary link

                    Tents outside the Church of St Mary the Virgin, Putney

This year is the 365th anniversary of a key event in English political history which has a curious link with the current Occupy London movement.

From 28 October – 11 November 1647 a series of debates took place between the radical elements in the New Model Army’ rank and file and their senior officers about the nature of society. The radicals wanted ‘one man, one vote’, authority in the country to be vested in the House of Commons rather than the King and the House of Lords. In addition they declared certain ‘native rights’ for all Englishmen: freedom of conscience, freedom from impressment into the armed forces and equality before the law. Colonel Thomas Rainsborough, speaking as a radical, memorably encapsulated the aspiration for universal suffrage when he said:

For really I think that the poorest hee that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest hee; and therefore truly, Sr, I think itt 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 think that the poorest man in England is not at all bound in a strict sense to that Government that he hath not had a voice to put Himself under.

We know what took place, at least for the first few days, as the debates were recorded verbatim until 2 November when all recording ceased.

Clearly the senior officers were alarmed by these proposals, particularly for universal suffrage, which they saw as a step towards anarchy. The King’s escape from capture overtook events and the debates were brought to an end, never published and the radicals in the Army persecuted.

What has this got to do with Occupy?

The events of 365 years ago were probably the first time that a genuine democratic debate involving ordinary people took place in this country, the first time that ordinary people looked at society and thought there might be a different way forward rather than the status quo.

The debates took place at the Church of St Mary the Virgin, Putney (SW London). In 2007, on the 360th anniversary, the then rector opened a permanent exhibition to the debates at the Church and organised a series of commemorative events. The rector went on to become Canon Chancellor at St Paul’s Cathedral before the events around the Occupy encampment forced him to resign in October 2011. His name? Rev Dr Giles Fraser.

Occupy London

On a trip to London I stopped off at St Paul’s to take a look at Occupy London. The first thing that struck me was how well laid out the tents are, how clean the area is. The encampment is well away from the steps to St Paul’s itself and does not block the way for people who want to attend church services or walk between the tents and Paternoster Square itself (where the London Stock Exchange is based).

In the Information Tent I asked one of the protesters how it was going: “This isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon. We’re here for the long haul.” There weren’t many protesters around and most of the tents were empty – many protesters join them in the evenings and at weekends.They were expecting the City to take the case to the High Court to have them evicted and a few days later this is exactly what happened.

Here are some shots I took of the protest camp:

The entrance to Paternoster Square (through the white arch in the picture above) is barricaded off so they can’t occupy the area in front of the Stock Exchange as it’s private land.

What is the point of the occupation and what good does it do?

The Occupy movement is a challenge and a reminder of what we have lost sight of in a society all but bankrupted by the actions of our banks. Our politics have failed us: reaction to the financial crisis has been limited to lots of hand-ringing and political rhetoric, but little action. We are angry and frustrated that we are in this financial situation, but feel powerless to do anything about it. Occupy has no solutions. It is posing questions: does it have to be this way? Is there a better way? How do we engage with each other to find alternative solutions? Occupy asks how we can create a fairer society with greater social justice.      These may be idealistic questions but they make a lot more sense that the cynicism and short termism of most of our current politics.

As we made our way out of the encampment towards St Paul’s tube station, we were passed by a well dressed middle-aged couple, the man in City suit and the woman in a fur coat. “They need to grow up!”, she said, looking at the sea of tents. It seems to me that the process of engagement and dialogue is going to take a long time.