“That all and every person and persons (not distempered with sickness, or distracted in brain) who … shall deny the holiness and righteousness of God, or shall presume … to profess that unrighteousness in persons, or the acts of uncleanness, profane swearing, drunkenness and the like filthiness and brutishness are not unholy and forbidden in the Word of God … or the acts of lying, stealing, cozening and defrauding others, or the acts of murder, adultery, incest, fornication, uncleanness, sodomy, drunkenness, filthy and lascivious speaking, are not things in themselves shameful, wicked, sinful, impious, abominable and detestable in any person … [shall be] committed to prison or to the House of Correction for the space of six months without bail or mainprize…”
A few reports in the papers about the legal action being launched by Christian groups against the BBC for broadcasting Jerry Springer the Opera in 2005.
There’s a particularly hilarious comment in the Scotsman from one of these religious activists, the Revd. George Hargreaves:
“The blasphemy in Jerry Springer – The Opera is the image of Jesus in a nappy saying he feels gay. To me that is gratuitously offensive. Given that Jesus is alive, it is possible for him to be libelled, slandered and insulted. This is known as blasphemy and is part of Scots common law. ”
I’m sorry, you want a judge to rule on whether Jesus Christ is alive or not? Good luck with that.
But on a more interesting point, I wondered whether Scottish and English blasphemy laws were different. The difference, it seems, is that in Scottish law an individual must be personally involved in the case for an action to be brought.
The House of Lords Select Committee Report on Religious Offences makes clear that any legal action based on the existing blasphemy laws is likely to be very counter-productive as it will now run against the articles of the Human Rights Act 1998 which support freedom of expression. The end result is likely to be a High Court ruling that the blasphemy laws are incompatible with HRA, leading any conviction, were one to be secured, to be quashed at appeal.
I got most of this info from the House of Lords report, but it does seem to be very vague
“1. Blasphemy (and blasphemous libel) is a common law offence with an unlimited penalty. The content of the current law is obscure and, from the evidence that the Committee has received, is widely misunderstood.”
Does the 1650 Blasphemy Act constitute part of the content of the current law? Or has this been removed from the statute books?
As part of something I am writing for the BBC’s new Who Do You Think You Are? tie-in mag, I have put together a list of Protestation Returns available on-line. You can find it here
Might be useful for those interested in family history.
Reproduced from my article in BBC History Magazine Oct 2007, http://www.bbchistorymagazine.com
The Levellers Legacy
The Putney debates are some of the most important political discussions in English history, but their significance is being distorted by recent attempts to commemorate them.
E.P. Thompson wrote his classic history of English working-class radicals to save them from the ‘condescension of posterity’. Now it seems historians must write to save radicalism from the condescension of the tourist industry.
The Putney Debates were voted the most overlooked radical moment in British history in a recent competition sponsored by the Guardian newspaper. Tristram Hunt, who launched the competition, hopes that this revived interest in Britain’s democratic heritage will lead to the creation of a ‘freedom trail’ of radical history visitor attractions based on the American model. As a starting point, St. Mary’s Putney was awarded £1000 for winning the contest, which will help fund a week’s events commemorating the debates plus a permanent exhibition. The timely raising of awareness of these historic events is welcome. However, the broader project of commemorating the development of British democracy threatens to replace genuine history with a politically-motivated fiction.
The Putney debates began on 28 October 1647, as the General Council of the Parliament’s New Model Army met to discuss The Agreement of the People. This paper, produced by civilian Levellers, called for regular, two-yearly Parliaments and an equal distribution of MPs’ seats by number of inhabitants. It guaranteed freedom of conscience, indemnity for Parliamentarian soldiers and equality before the law.
Colonel Thomas Rainborowe, MP for Droitwich, vice-admiral of the English Navy and an implacable opponent of Oliver Cromwell, expressed his belief that all men that signed the Agreement should be eligible to vote:
‘For really I think that the poorest he that is in England has a life to live as the greatest he; … every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent put himself under that government’.
An irate Henry Ireton, Cromwell’s son-in-law, responded:
‘no person has a right to an interest or share in the disposing or determining of the affairs of the kingdom … that has not a permanent fixed interest in this kingdom’.
The confrontation between Rainborowe and Ireton is often seen as the defining moment of the Putney Debates of 1647 between the army leadership, rank and file ‘Agitators’ and civilian Levellers: the radical advocate of the rights of all free-born Englishman versus the defender of the landed interest who ‘would have an eye to property’. The Putney Debates have been celebrated as a seminal moment in the history of British democracy by a host of twentieth-century historians and politicians. Marxists scholars such as Christopher Hill saw the Levellers as representing the English petty bourgeoisie. American liberals like William Haller praised John Lilburne as an early advocate of ‘free enterprise’. The celebration of the Levellers’ contribution to the development of democracy has spread into the political arena. Since 1975, left-wingers have commemorated the suppression of the Leveller-inspired mutiny at Burford in 1649. The socialist icon Tony Benn used his speech at the second ‘Leveller Day’ to applaud them for their forward-looking ideals which ‘anticipated by a century and a half the main ideas of the American and French Revolutions.’ Paraphrasing Benn, Tristram Hunt has described Rainborowe’s comments as expressing the ‘ethical ideal of socialism’ and suggested that the ‘language and ideas expressed in the US constitution were lifted straight from the Putney debates’.
It is doubtful that the words spoken at Putney influenced the Founding Fathers, given that the text of the debate was not published until 1891. In 1649, the imprisoned John Lilburne had defiantly predicted that ‘posterity … shall reap the benefit of our endeavours whatever shall become of us.’ Yet, for over two hundred years, references to the Putney debates and the Levellers were few and far between. Although a permanent record of the debates was kept by the general secretary of the army, William Clarke, all reporting of the debates in the press was banned. They were barely mentioned in contemporary newssheets and pamphlets.
This secrecy was unsurprising. The discussion of the franchise, the most celebrated element of the debate for recent historians and commentators, was neither the most significant nor the lengthiest portion of the discussions. The focus instead was on settling the kingdom: in particular, the King’s role in any future peace negotiations. During the debates, two soldiers referred to Charles I as a ‘man of blood’, a tyrant who had waged war against his people and must be brought to retributive, divinely-willed justice. Religious language suffused the talk at Putney. People attending the debates also gathered for prayer meetings charged with apocalyptic language. New historical research suggests that Putney saw a shift from the pursuit of a negotiated settlement with the King to the decision to bring Charles I to trial. In the chaotic political situation following the first civil war, few of the participants in the debate, Cromwell least of all, were prepared to leave hostages to fortune by letting the proceedings be reported in public.
Celebration of the Levellers, including the Guardian’s recent competition, has been driven by a desire to fit them into a tradition of British radicalism, as forerunners of democracy, liberalism and socialism. But if the Levellers are part of a ‘democratic tradition’, it is a tradition which has largely been invented by twentieth and twenty-first century historians, journalists and politicians, not one created by radical movements themselves. Until the late nineteenth century there was very little reference to the Levellers and there is, frankly, scant evidence that their works influenced any subsequent radicals either in Britain, America or France. Even once C. H. Firth’s transcriptions of the Putney debates had been published, they were mainly seen as being of interest to military historians. It was not until the publication in 1938 of A. S. P. Woodhouse’s provocatively titled Puritanism and Liberty, that Putney was established as a milestone in British constitutional history. Woodhouse’s edition of the debates had an explicitly political aim: to provide ideological ammunition for the public in the battle against the forces of Fascism and, later, Soviet totalitarianism. It is his re-interpretation of Putney as a crucible of democratic thought which has proved most influential to the present day.
Historians have now begun to ask if the Levellers have been given disproportionate attention; and whether, indeed, we can talk of the ‘Levellers’ at all. Recent scholarship has argued that there was no coherent ‘Leveller’ programme before the autumn of 1647. The term ‘Leveller’ itself did not appear until after the Putney Debates and was a pejorative label attached to these London radicals by their opponents. The radicals’ critics claimed they wanted to ‘level’ all social distinctions and do away with private property. The leading ‘Leveller’ writers, William Walwyn, John Lilburne and Richard Overton, were always keen to disassociate themselves from the term. In A Manifestation (1649) they complained that they ‘never had it in our thoughts to level men’s estates, it being the utmost of our aim … that every man may with as much security as may be enjoy his propriety’. Perhaps, as some historians have suggested, we have been guilty of accepting the words of the Leveller’s critics too literally and have viewed them as a more radical, more modern and more coherent group than they really were.
The proposals for St Mary’s Church Putney to remember the 360th anniversary of these debates threaten to set the anachronistic interpretation of the Levellers as the first democrats/liberals/socialists in stone, institutionalising an invented tradition of British radicalism through museum displays, heritage centres, and public memorials. Hunt has argued that commemorations of this kind provide an antidote to a heritage industry fixated on the lives of our kings and queens but, in fact, this version of Putney really only offers its ‘radical’ equivalent: a romantic vision of great historical democrats (Lilburne, Walwyn) struggling against oppressive tyrannical ‘baddies’ (Cromwell, Ireton). Good melodrama perhaps, but bad history. E. P. Thompson, whom Hunt invokes to promote his project, would, I suspect, be horrified at the proposed ‘heritage- ization’ of British radicalism. Thompson believed that the role of radical history was to arm the people for the political struggles that they faced in the future. Yet the recent Guardian competition offered only an opportunity to ‘celebrate’, through a Whiggish narrative of ever-broadening British freedom, the rights we enjoy at present. The history of the Levellers themselves, crushed by the army leadership and largely forgotten for nearly a quarter millennia, should warn us against this smug complacency about the security of our civil liberties.
So should we bother to commemorate Putney at all? Yes – but in ways which will allow us to continue to benefit from the most recent historical research on the subject. The Levellers are important. They were the first western Europeans to develop the idea of an essentially secular written constitution (though they did so to preserve their own deeply held religious beliefs). Consequently, they were the first to approach a more modern understanding of freedom of conscience and freedom of speech as natural, human rights. Their analysis of the politics of the 1640s remains very relevant today. They saw that an over-mighty Parliament could be as dangerous (if not more so) than a tyrannical King and called both for greater accountability in government and the establishing of civil liberties which could not be undermined by either the monarch or his ministers (even under the pretence of ‘emergency’ or ‘necessity’).
This month sees the release of a new paperback edition of the debates, and a major new collection is forthcoming on the Agreements of the People. These publications and the celebrations of the 360th anniversary of these remarkable debates should be used to spark a discussion of the enduring importance of these English writers and politicians. Leveller writing has much to say about present threats to our rights and freedoms, if we read their own words and not the anachronistic bowdlerisations of their twentieth-century interpreters. Those who spoke, wrote and gave their lives for liberty deserve more than to have their ideas reduced to ignominious (and inaccurate) banalities on a blue plaque.
As I don’t read the Guardian (it brings me out in hives), I missed this piece by Tristram Hunt in last Friday’s edition, puffing the up-coming Putney jamboree:
I’m glad that Tristram has learnt so much from our discussion in BBC History Magazine.