I had a profound spiritual experience at the southern end of Putney Bridge last week and suspect few others can say that. It took place in St Mary’s church while visiting the scene of the Putney Debates that were held over several days in 1647. This was during the brief period of peace following Parliament’s initial victory over the Royalists.
Oliver Cromwell was himself facing a potential revolt from the New Model army rank and file, the later labelled Levellers, who wanted to confront the Army Council concerning various demands. It was the first time in British, possibly world history in which members of the elite had to engage on equal terms with people who had no social status and no political rights whatsoever. It represented the start of a long journey that would eventually result in the enshrinement of freedom of conscience, the American revolution and the extension of the franchise to all adults.
The Putney Debates were therefore a hugely important development in the history of our country and for the whole of the Anglosphere. Seeing at first hand the actual environment in which this momentous event took place was both very inspiring and rather bizarre.
It is ironic, however, that the concept of equality, which was the foundation stone of the Levellers advocacy of freedom of speech, should today be deployed by the wokey New Left to justify restricting the exchange of ideas. Driven by their nonconformist, protestant understanding of Christianity, which stressed that there was ‘an equality of souls’ and that God had granted everyone free will, the Levellers deduced that political rights should be granted to all men, if not, at this stage, women.
Being religious extremists, they did not extend the logic of their starting position to a right to consume alcohol, play football, dance, engage in extra-marital fornication and celebrate Xmas. Though they may not have been exactly party animals they did, at least, get the liberal ball rolling.
The debates were recorded and what is clear is that Cromwell could not adequately respond to the demands that religious liberty should logically be accompanied by an extension of political rights. He kept talking vaguely of the prospect of anarchy if the changes demanded were conceded. This was an intellectually bruising experience for him. Cromwell was later to embark upon his own version of cancel culture. This involved the time trusted method of having some of the leaders of this potentially insurgent movement executed for supposed treason. This is something the Wokesters haven’t, as yet, decided to visit upon the likes of JK Rowling or, even, David Starkey for their thought crimes. If anyone was engaging in treachery to The Old Cause, as the supporters of the parliamentary side referred to the struggle against Charles Stuart, it was ‘The Lord Protector’ himself.
While waiting for a coffee in the excellent café inside St Mary’s I had a vision of the ghosts of Levellers queuing behind me following a break in proceedings, hoping to obtain perhaps a parsnip flavoured hot beverage accompanied, possibly, by some foul fish recently procured from the adjacent and malodorous River Thames. What these hardy, battle-hardened chaps would make of the desire today to extend ‘hate crime’ legislation to incorporate even private conversations, together with the drive to cleanse our universities of the contestation of ideas, we can only conjecture.
And if the latterday control freaks of the Woke Left were to be able to go back in time to the mid 17th century they would no doubt either ban the Putney Debates from taking place at all, due to the toxic masculinity of the participants or, if they were allowed to proceed, would insist on ‘jazz hands’ when the delegates wanted to show their appreciation of comments made.