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Free-born John

Forget Cromwell and the BBC's 'Great Britons' poll winner Winston Churchill. John Lilburne, leader of the Levellers during the English Revolution should get the vote, argues Pete Smith.

John Lilburne is the undoubted hero of the English Revolution. The other prominent figures on the revolutionary side scarcely compare. I leave aside Colonel William Rainsborough, one of the most radical figures amongst the officers, whose assassination deprived the revolution of one of its greatest potential leaders.

Cromwell is, mistakenly, often applauded on the left, presumably for his role in establishing and maintaining a republican form of government and his part in the regicide of Charles I. The real Cromwell is far removed from the picture painted of him by his supporters. He was an authoritarian and a counter revolutionary. He viewed the world entirely from the perspective of the propertied classes and saw the inequalities of 17th century society as perfectly natural and God-given.

In a sense Cromwell was the inventor of British imperialism, war with the Dutch over commercial interests and the dispossession of the Irish. In Ireland Cromwell's policy was shocking to contemporary observers, never mind the standards of our own day. The execution of prisoners who had surrendered when their chance of resistance had not completely disappeared was against the generally understood laws of war and yet Cromwell did it. The massacre of civilians had happened on the continent of Europe during the Thirty Years War but had been largely absent from the conduct of the Civil War in Great Britain.

The Irish were murdered not just because they were Catholics (there had been Catholics fighting on the Royalist side in England) but also because they were not seen, by Cromwell and Ireton (his son-in-law), as fully human as their English neighbours. The Irish were killed or displaced - "To Hell or Connaught". The vacant land was then planted with either army veterans or Presbytarian Scots settlers (and thereby hangs a tale). Many native Irish found themselves as virtual slaves in the West Indies or part of the growing Diaspora across the globe, which was an intentional result of English policy. Cromwell clearly understood the classical dictum that war abroad distracts from misrule at home, since many of the more radical regiments, which threatened Cromwell's power, were either bribed with Irish lands or distracted from demands for social and political change by a war against unbelievers on the other side of St Georges Channel.

Gerard Winstanley was one of the prominent leaders of the Diggers or True Levellers, who led the direct action of cultivating the common land at St Georges Hill in Surrey before they were suppressed with the support of local landowners including Sir Francis Drake, the Lord of the Manor of Kingston. Winstanley is often seen often seen as one of the founders of English socialism. Actually Winstanley was more of a religious visionary than a political leader. He was more of a precursor of the king of spiritually inspired communes that have been such a feature of America up to the present day.

Although Christian socialism has been an important influence on the Labour Party and trade unions it has tended to be practical and social reformist rather than utopian. Robert Owen's experiment in socialism at New Lanark was motivated by a belief in rational social engineering rather than spiritual mysticism. If the Diggers have any modern counterparts it is on the New Age fringes of the environmentalist movement.

No John Lilburne gets my vote as the Great Briton, of the sixteen hundreds at least. Lilburne was born in 1615 into a fairly prosperous but non-noble type of landowning family that was becoming increasingly important in Parliament and wider English society. The family even had a coat of arms and Lilburne often showed himself proud of this gentlemanly background.

As a younger son he had no estate to inherit and he had to make a way for himself and was apprenticed in London. The apprentices were often people very like him, the younger sons of the gentry with a little education and experience in the use of arms.

Lilburne interested himself in religion, reading and attending sermons and lectures. He also became increasingly caught up in the political ferment of the times. In his late teens Lilburne was involved in the distribution of literature smuggled in from Holland. In 1638 Lilburne was jailed and whipped.

When the Civil War broke out between Parliament and King Lilburne enlisted in the parliamentary army. He was wounded at the indecisive battle of Edgehill. At the Battle of Brentford, where the Trained Bands (in effect the London militia), turned back the King's forces from the city, Lilburne fought with great bravery but was captured and carried off to Oxford, where the King was based. Lilburne was sentenced to death but a threat from his side that Royalist prisoners would be killed in reprisals saved his life. He spent a year in prison and was badly treated but he was then exchanged and released.

Then the political struggle began in earnest. Lilburne placed himself on the radical and egalitarian wing of the revolution. Originally close to Cromwell he became more and more alienated from him. Lilburne became a leader of the Levellers and produced pamphlets and petitions presenting their case. Although there has been an academic debate about just how far down the road towards manhood suffrage the Levellers were prepared to go, for example, would servants be allowed to vote? There can be no doubt that if the Levellers had triumphed the history of Britain would have been very different. Probably no restoration of the monarchy and a more 'modern' state than the one we currently experience.

Lilburne's platform was, in some senses, individualist and liberal but it had a radical and egalitarian edge. The poor could claim just as much a stake in the political system and also the same right to assert their voice as those with property. It is not likely that those with a vote would continue to tolerate the massive maldistribution of wealth that existed. The rich knew this. To give the power to vote to the modest folk, many of whom had put their lives at risk during the war against the King would have led to as much a social as a political revolution.

From the Levellers onwards the message was clear, if political power was equally distributed how could economic and social power remain unequally distributed? Democracy and social democracy were always linked. The Chartists drew just the same conclusion. Give the people the power and they will use it. During the 19th century, across western Europe, the demand of working people for the vote was rooted in exactly the same logic.

The Levellers had considerable support in the army, particularly amongst the rank-and-file but also many of the officers. Mutiny broke out when several of the Leveller regiments were threatened with service in Ireland. It was suppressed with some loss of life at Burford and elsewhere.

Lilburne was at the centre of the writing of The Agreement of the People, which was, in many senses, the precursor of The Declaration of Independence and also the author of England's New Chains, an indictment of Cromwell's Protectorate. He was as persecuted under the new commonwealth as under the old monarchy. Imprisoned, exiled to Holland under pain of death and deported to Jersey he was not wanted in the new republic of the wealthy. Of course those who had concentrated wealth and power in their hands would stop being republicans as soon as it suited them. As the radicalism of the revolution ebbed away Lilburne turned into an embittered and broken man and sometime before his death, in 1657, he became a Quaker, a member of that most passive and apolitical of sects.

As Lilburne put it, "And posterity we doubt not shall reap the benefit of our endeavours, what ever shall become of us." We are his posterity, the man who has been rightly described as England's first democrat. Let us now take down that statue of Cromwell in Parliament Square and raise up a monument to a Free-born John.

Pauline Gregg's biography, Free-Born John is published in paperback by Phonenix Press
Eduard Bernstein's book, Cromwell and Communism is published in paperback by Spokesman books
An interesting Lilburne themed album has been produced by Rev Hammer on Cooking Vinyl