Proposition - 16491
People proposing new constitutional principles
Individuals and groups promoting and proposing constitutional change have made up an important historic process of constitutional change founded in legislation.
During the seventeenth century life did not always default to people enduring the excesses of a corrupt and sometimes cruel political establishment. People did not always continue to do things as they had always been done for fear that suggesting improvements might attract attention and perhaps a punishment or two. There were many chinks of light, illegal pamphlets and exchanges between people causing many hearts to rejoice at inspirational ideas concerning the liberation of the people of England.
Universal suffrage - a government by the people
In particular a wonderful concept arose that people should be governed by a Parliament of their popular choice. Such a concept was justified by Colonel Thomas Rainborough, a participant in the Putney Debates organized by the Levellers at the Church of St Mary the Virgin in Putney in the County of Surrey, in October and November 1647. He stated:
“...for really I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he; and therefore truly, Sir, I think it's 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 bound in a strict sense to that government that he hath not had a voice to put himself under...” |
This concept, although very advanced for the time, was limited to full male suffrage only.
Some constitutional fundamentals
Almost 360 years ago the concept of universal suffrage, and other constitutional ideas, were considered by the Levellers to be important in promoting freedom. But many of these were never included in the English Bill of Rights nor in the American constitution, nor were they subsequently taken up and applied in the United Kingdom and nor, it would seem, anywhere else. This, as this book recounts, resulted in flawed constitutional structures leading to failures to defend individual freedom in an effective manner.
To understand the sort of challenges these constitutionalists were addressing it is useful to describe some of the events in the life of John Lilburne, one of the principal figures in the Leveller movement, committed to improving the constitution of England.
John Lilburne was born in 1615 near to what is now known as Sunderland. His mother, Margaret died soon after he was born. In 1630, at the age of 15, he was sent to London by his father to be a cloth trade apprentice. At the age of 22, Lilburne met John Bastwick a Puritan. John Bastwick had had his ears cut off for criticizing the Anglican Church and the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud. Lilburne was shocked that such a punishment could be metred out to someone for expressing an opinion related to religion.
Tasting prejudicial punishment
Lilburne volunteered to assist Bastwick in his opposition to the Church and went to Holland to organize the printing of a book written by Bastwick. By December 1637 Lilburne had been arrested for printing and circulating "unlicensed" books. He was fined £500, whipped, pilloried and put in prison. In March 1638, at the age of 23, he was walked from the Fleet Prison to the Palace Yard in London being whipped all the way. He was placed in a pillory where he tried to make a speech praising John Bastwick but he was gagged. Lilburne later described his punishments and attacked the Anglican Church in two publications, "The Work of the Beast" (1638) and "Come Out of Her, My People
A journey begins
At the age of 23, Lilburne knew at first hand the cruel and intolerant nature of the religious and political environment of England. But rather than cowering into submission he became electrified into action. He recognized that to build a fair society there was a need to destroy whatever made arbitrary decisions and tyranny possible. He realized the need for a major change in the way the people of England were governed; a new constitution was required. Lilburne felt that the writing and articulation of constitutional propositions might help reduce the levels of submission of people. His mission became that of fashioning practical solutions, to give hope and to inspire changes in people's outlooks; he dedicated himself to this purpose.
An Agreement of the Free People of England of 1649 - an innovative Constitution written in a prison
John Lilburne, William Walwyn, Thomas Prince and Richard Overton, all of whom were Levellers, had been imprisoned in the Tower of London by Oliver Cromwell. While there, in May of 1649, they penned out a proposal called "An Agreement of the Free People of England
". This document was a proposal for a written constitution for England. 40 years later parts were used in the English Bill of Rights of 1689 and the American Bill of Rights in the American Constitution of March 1789, some 140 years later.
But basic principles, to be perfected
Within the text the authors state that their proposals are not detailed but that redrafting work, aimed at improving (the process of perfection) the content, should be undertaken by faithful representatives of the people.
That we may be free and happy . .
Lilburne and his colleagues sought to secure fundamental rights for the people of England. In the preamble to their declaration they set out the context of their proposal. They wrote that the nation should be free and happy and that all differences should be reconciled so that all can stand with a clear conscience whilst preventing the prevalence of interests and private advantages. They wrote that actions should not be driven by malice against anyone nor as a result of disagreement over opinions but should be geared towards peace and prosperity for all. They proposed that the free people of England establish a government without arbitrary power and whose action would be bound and limited by law, as would all subordinate authority, with the purpose of removing all grievances.
To secure this state of affairs they drafted a range of articles on the specific steps required.
Organizing a parliament
They proposed a Parliament of 400 representatives with a quorum of 200. Representatives would be elected by the people according to the population distribution of England.
Preventing conflicts of interest & a class of professional politicians
To avoid conflicts of interest people with specific professions would not be permitted to exercise them while acting as a representative for their community. Members of Parliament were to be elected only once, having to stand down at the next election but they could be elected in a subsequent election. This was a precaution against the build up of embedded interests and to discourage the formation of a class of "professional" politicians. Parliaments were to last one year with annual elections; not to act on this provision was to be considered to be an act of High Treason.
Public officials should be chosen by Members of Parliament and elected each year. This was a move to avoid the formation of so-called factions within government service who could become embedded as permanent and likely to develop arbitrary power and be increasingly prone to corruption.
The purpose of parliament
The purpose of the any parliament was (a) to conserve peace and commerce with other nations, (b) to secure safeguards and security for the lives and persons of all people, their liberties, properties and estates as well as safeguards contained in the Petition of Right (14) and, (c) to raise revenue in support of these ends, these being expanding freedoms, redressing grievances and promoting prosperity. They suggested revenue should be raised on the basis of a flat rate tax applied to estates.
Trial by jury
Normal and trivial offences should not put at risk people's lives, limbs, liberties or estates (possessions) but that recompense should be paid to the damaged parties according to the conscience of a jury. All more serious cases should be by trial by a jury selected from the neighbourhood.
No one above the law
No one, either by status or rank of any sort, could be above the law but that all were to be subject to the laws of the country. Parliament would have no authority to pass judgement on anyone and the issue of grievances should no longer be approached through the use of petitions, which were ignored, but through the force of law which parliament must obey.
The military & military campaigns
Civil authority should remain superior to and should have the means to control military authority. The raising of forces was to be organized within constituencies by representatives who could appoint officers linked to regiments, troops and companies according to the needs of safety, peace and freedom of the people of the Commonwealth (15).
Ahead of their time
As one might imagine, such writings, at the time of their release, were considered to be subversive, dangerous and to represent a potential threat to those in power. Although at first an admirer of Lilburne, Oliver Cromwell had him thrown into prison on several occasions, indeed, Lilburne spent much of his life in prison. He was, however, never diverted from his mission to fashion innovative ways to chart out courses with the objective of freeing the people of England from what he considered to be forces leading to tyranny. Even today, many of these ideas can be revisited, with advantage, as guides to solutions to contemporary problems.
John Lilburne died at the age of 42 on August 29th 1657, at his home in Eltham, the day he was due back in prison at Dover Castle. He had been visiting his wife Elizabeth and his family; she had just given birth to their tenth child.
Points to note
The English Bill of Rights of 1689 did not make use of some of the Leveller proposals including five specific points which they regarded as fundamental to the defence of individual freedom including:
The sustaining of electorate preferences in Parliament?
- making petitions legally effective over parliament
- organizing military ventures by involving the direct participation of the people safeguarded by the right to conscientious objection
- preventing the formation of a class of professional politicians who would develop entrenched interests
- avoiding the organization of factions for the same reasons as professional politicians
- avoiding the ills of corruption arising from the existence of factions and a professional political class
A notable point was the Levellers' particular concern to defend freedom from the negative impact of the development of various forms of corruption of the process of governance. In particular they sought to prevent a concentration of power around the promotion of specific interests frustrating the satisfaction of the preferences of the people. They saw such potential risks in the formation of factions and professional politicians. Naturally, if one combines these two elements, one ends up with nothing other than a political party. The Levellers sought to remove this threat by proposing that public officials were to be elected for a fixed term by a free Parliament. Parliament itself was to undergo a general election each year with no representative being re-elected to the subsequent Parliament. Representatives could stand for the Parliament following the one from which they were excluded. The proposal for a one year Parliament was extended to a two year Parliament, but such details, at this point in the discussion, are of less critical importance. What is of significance is that they considered political parties to constitute a fundamental threat to freedom in their likely tendency to ignore peoples' preferences. Their reasoning was specific: that political parties made up of individuals, serving for extended periods of time through several consecutive parliaments, would have a tendency to follow their own interests in a quest for power, status and money, and invariably, through corrupt process.
Testing the Levellers' view on political parties
The Levellers based their concerns about factions and politicians on their practical experience of the times in which they lived, this view was, therefore, hardly a hypothesis. However, ample time has passed to enable an assessment as to whether or not things have developed in such a manner as to relegate this point of view to the status of a failed hypothesis. Were their perceptions that political parties could divert the conduct of government from upholding individual freedom right or wrong? Later in this book the extent that politicians and political parties have upheld real electorate preferences since 1649 is assessed.
This article is based on Chapter 4, "A Proposition - 1649
" in "The Briton's Quest from Freedom - Our unfinished journey
" (HPC, Portsmouth, 2007, 418 pages) a book written by Hector McNeill, the British constitutional economist. It provides a description of the actions of John Lilburne, a leader of the Levellers and who became a Quaker shortly before his death in 1657.