In Praise of… the Putney Debates

It often seems to me that us Brits look abroad for our radical politics: often to Marx, Rousseau or a dozen others. But we have such an amazing radical heritage in Britain to which we give too little love. This is why I’m thrilled that the Putney Debates are getting so much attention lately.

In line with my previous post, I intend to spend more time with my politics and the Putney Debates have long been part of the heritage on which I draw when I call myself a ‘socialist’. The transcripts resided at Worcester College, Oxford until the 19th century largely unread but I devoured the texts ten years ago thanks to Tony Benn tipping me off (via his diaries) and I still marvel at these amazing discussions in 1647. Open, radical, classless, iconoclastic and meaningful: they represent the first great, recorded discussion about what shape the British constitution should take. Quite simply: how should we live?

Not a year ago I recall standing outside St Mary’s in Putney*, where the debates took place, and waxing enthusiastically about what the debates meant to me. My girlfriend of the time was bored by my eulogy (who can blame her? I was rambling and unfocussed in my praise and she doubtless had better things to do: who needs a man that wants to discuss democracy when you could better be browsing boutiques?) and I wish I could have found this quote from Colonel Rainsborough, and engaged her, even momentarily, as she looked wistfully towards the shops she was evidently more interested in:

“I think that the poorest he that is in England has a life to live, as the greatest he. And therefore… 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 at all bound in a strict sense to that government that he hath not had a voice to put himself under.”

(Of course, as we read this in the 21st century, ‘he’ in itself is offensive. I take it to mean, in a modern context: ‘he/she’. )

*Just yards from St Mary’s you’ll find the excellent Spanish restaurant La Mancha. It’s great.

1 thought on “In Praise of… the Putney Debates”

  1. Thanks for sharing that with me too!

    I moved here after I finished school, and though I love history, I’ve learned little about British history (almost nothing beyond the usual Shakespeare, 1066, and American version of WWII stuff).

    I found your website through your book on eBay, it’s refreshing to see you have so many other interests as well (I’m still curious about how you bought a Cornish pastie on eBay. Was it any good?) ❓

    I don’t know anyone outside of academia who finds “he” offensive, and if you’re going to learn latin languages (like Italian), you’ll hopefully learn to lighten up about things like that. 😉

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