5. Liberty, sovereignty and republicanism

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Session info
14.00 – 15.15

Supported by:

History TodayOurKingdom

The British Library’s magnificent Taking Liberties exhibition provides a vivid refutation of the establishment narrative which says that British liberty has been gradually and consensually achieved without the need for popular struggle or the kind of written constitutional document found in Europe. Liberty was not a gift from on high: it had to be fought for, taken and written down as a reminder to the ruling elite.

Today the history of these documents provides us with a fresh reminder. It reminds us how long and hard has been the struggle for the very rights and freedoms we now stand to lose. It reminds us that that struggle is not, and never has been, complete. For centuries the establishment myth of British liberty managed to suppress the radical tradition of the English Levellers. But here, in all their glory, are the Agreement of the People of 1647 and a transcript of the Putney Debates at which Colonel Rainsborough declared that “the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest he…that every man that is to live under a Government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that Government”.

The Levellers understood that the freedom of the people was too precious to be left in the hands of parliamentarians, however well-intentioned. When Parliament discussed their proposals in 1649 it dismissed them as “destructive of the being of Parliaments, and to the fundamental government of the kingdom.”

Today, as an executive-dominated Parliament threatens our freedoms anew, what can be learnt from the Levellers and their appeal to republicanism and popular sovereignty?

Chair: Paul Lay (Editor, History Today)
Speakers: Quentin Skinner (Professor of Humanities, Queen Mary, University of London)
  David Marquand (Honorary Fellow and former Principal of Mansfield College, Oxford; author Britain Since 1918)
  Geoffrey Robertson QC (founder and head of Doughty Street Chambers)
  Melissa Lane (Fellow, King’s College, Cambridge)