Monday, 17 February 2014

Reanimating the Levellers

Students threaten to reanimate the Levellers claimed one satirical news article back 2010 at the height of the student protests. This came as a surprise to a lot of Levellers fans who knew the band had been consistently touring and producing great music during fourteen years since the Swampy and the Fairmile A30 protests. In fact their 2008 album, Letters from the Underground, is the best thing they done since the Zeitgeist. 

A sign of the continuing popularity of Levellers is the fact they a simple Google search for their name returns the band as a result above the 17th Century political moment they take their name from. This is interesting as the 17th Century Levellers had a profound influence on the shaping of western democracy and a lot of what we now take for granted began with them. I find it strange that they are not more widely known about, just as I thought it strange that The Daily Mash thought The Levellers were dead.

The Levellers were an important political movement after the English Civil War and were one of the first movements campaigning for what we would understand as modern democracy. They had no fixed goals or manifesto and were not a political party, however, they did have a loose list of demands for reform. These included suffrage for the entire adult male population, reform of the electoral process, parliamentary elections to be held every two years, religious tolerance and end to debtors’ prisons. These demands did not make up the whole of what Levellers stood for; they were a broad political and social movement for all men aimed at removing corruption from the political and judicial system. They wanted to make the government more open to ordinary people and remove some of the bias towards the wealthy land owners who dominated 17th Century politics.

During the lifetime of the movement, few of the Leveller’s demands were adopted by parliament. The surviving Levellers themselves might have thought they failed - but ultimately they our modern democratic system is based on a lot of their demands. No longer is the country ruled by the landed elite, and suffrage for all, religious freedom and regular elections are considered the cornerstone of the democracy Western nations export around the world.

More than this, the Levellers became an icon of the everyman’s resistance against the oppression of the wealthy elite. They are the promise that a corrupt and exclusive political system will fall and that egalitarianism will triumph. This spirit lives on in the radical politics of today, as it did in the late 1980s when the band Levellers formed. Levellers incorporated the earlier Levellers iconography into their own identity, combining it with modern ideas about anarchism and environmentalism. This all felt very appropriate under a Tory government in the pockets of wealthy business owners, with no working class representation in government. Thatcher had been power for a decade when their first album, A Weapon Called the Word, was released and the goals of the Levellers seemed as relevant then as it did during the time of the New Model Army.

It is also relevant today with growing numbers of MPs from privileged backgrounds - a third of MPs are privately educated, compared to only 7% of the population. Again we have a Tory government in the pocket of large business and growing feeling that most people’s views are not represented by the political classes. The time seems right for another Levellers movement, what we go was something similar.

When Occupy took up resident on Wall Street on 17th of September 2011 they were accused of being a lot of unwashed anarchists, the age old accusations levelled at anyone who wants change but does not come from an acceptably privileged background. There was also a lot of criticism of their lack of focus and absence of clear goals. They only had a nebulous list of demands, including more protection for the environment and an inquiry into the role of big business in politics. I am sure the same criticism was made of Levellers over three centuries earlier.

I cannot help the seeing the similarity between two these two radical movements, both staked up against enormous vested interests, both with a list of general critiques of the political system. Both with the same underlying principals: our government is skewed towards the vested interests of the wealthy, our political system is corrupt and we do not get an adequate say in how we are governed.

Occupy might seem like a failed dream now, much like the Levellers goals did in 1650, but the criticism lives on and maybe in the future things will be different. Perhaps in three hundred years time the goals of Occupy will underpin our political system, political systems where checks and balances are put in place against views of the wealthy being over represented. Maybe in the future there will be a band called Occupy who will be more famous than the movement and most people will take for granted the political freedoms people in the past suffered for.

The enduring legacy of the Levellers is that the desire for change, for a fairer society, does not die and gets reborn with every new generation who take the goals of the past and combine it with the needs of today. The desire for a fairer, free, less corrupt and skewed society cannot be stamped out. It might take centuries for change to manifest itself but a wealthy few cannot hold back the tide of righteous anger of the many forever. Remember that Levellers are still alive and producing good music and remember that the dreams of 17th Century radicals are still alive and influencing people today.

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