Liberty as a social value - lessons from the Levellers

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This is a talk given by Melissa Lane at the session on Liberty, sovereignty and republicanism - Can the Leveller tradition be revived in the 21st century? at the Convention on Modern Liberty

Melissa Lane (King's College, Cambridge): The panel has already brought to light many of the major themes connected with the Levellers: freedom of religion and toleration; liberty from oppression, which is viewed as tyranny and slavery; popular sovereignty, or government as based on the ever-revocable consent of the people interpreted broadly, including the ordinary poor.  Indeed, against longstanding assumptions that the Levellers were little educated or more saintly than followers of Machiavelli, the humanist, radical, popular nature of Leveller republicanism has been well established by S.D. Glover.   To what has been said so far, focusing on the control of the executive, I would add the important Leveller preoccupation with the control also of the legislative or, in their terms, the ‘Representative’:  a Commons (parliament) which is free from the negative veto of Crown and Lords, but which is also controlled in its exercise of power by annual or biennial elections and a quiver of classical devices such as the rotation of offices, term limits, removal and scrutiny, designed to check ‘corrupt interests’.  Not only the fact of control by elected representatives, but the nature of that control, is a major Leveller concern which has clear ramifications for politics today. 

My own focus is on two aspects of Leveller politics that are less obviously political and constitutional than their explicit programmes of defending existing liberties (the de facto freedom from imposition of religious uniformity, petitions to restore which prompted their own burst into petitioning in 1645-6) — but I hope to persuade you that they were both central to the Levellers overall and too often neglected today as we try to construe and advance their legacy of liberty.  The first point is post-partisanship and fallibility; and the second is the linking of the cause of liberty to a wider social ideal.   I’ll say something about each in turn.  

First, post-partisanship.  Scholars including David Wootton and Jonathan Scott have pointed out that the Levellers did not constitute themselves as a distinct party, preparing for power, or even see themselves as a distinct ideology which might be set against rival ideologies contending for power.  Scott comments (England’s Troubles: seventeenth-century English political instability in European context, Cambridge University Press, p.270) that ‘As a public phenomenon, “Levellerism” must be first understood as an activity’ - the activities of petitioning, pamphleteering, publishing, agitating and mediating.  They saw the principles they were defending as those of all like-minded (right-thinking) people, certainly of parliament as a whole in the age of its innocence, before it tasted the temptation (claimed to be necessity) of arbitrary and absolutist power from 1642 onward.  Their principles were not primarily a programme for using power (though they did agitate for the relief of the indigent and hard-pressed, and of course for specific benefits for the New Model Army).  They rather sought to define the proper relation to power, the constitution of power and its limits.  

What might this non-, or post- , partisanship suggest today?  One’s thoughts turn inevitably to President Obama and the aspiration and travails of his aim to transcend or tame partisanship in the United States.  But the structural necessity of bipartisan negotiation within Congress and often between Congress and the Presidency, coupled (paradoxically? or for that very reason?) with the far more vitriolic and strident tone of partisanship in the public culture there, makes the American example of only limited relevance.  Indeed, whereas President Obama’s call for post-partisanship at least makes sense in the American context, such a call might seem to be structural anathema in Britain, where partisanship itself plays an important and honoured role, the structuring of power between government and opposition and so to a great extent to its responsible and accountable use in office.   And yet one of the most important aspects of today’s Convention, beyond the specifics of various legislative and judicial encroachments on liberty which it protests, is its non- or post-partisanship: the fact that it is deliberately drawing on speakers and ideas from across the whole political spectrum.   As for the Levellers, the defence of liberty should be seen not as a partisan programme but as a structuring principle, a presumption, an orientation: a commitment which rules certain possibilities absolutely out of bounds while directing attention to the systematic effects of others on the universe of liberties which we value. 

By saying ‘we’, however, I also mean to indicate the limits of post-partisanship.  It cannot (as President Obama too is discovering) be allowed to become an excuse for lack of principle, for softening or abandoning core values.  Instead, the defence of liberty is better understood as an oblique axis in British politics, running through each of the parties and forcing each of them to take a stand on how they will reconfigure their ideologies and platforms to respect it.  Not everyone is committed to that defence, however, and its friends must recognise that it has real enemies, even as they reach out to each other across party lines. 

The notion of the ‘we’ also brings me toward my second point.  The ‘we’ of the Levellers was of course in very many ways different from ours: the ‘we’ of an overwhelmingly Christian society, a ‘we’ who argued passionately for freedom of worship from the standpoint of the recognised and ineradicable (except on pain of hypocrisy forced by compulsion) diversity of belief among the Christian churches and sects.  That argument for religious freedom and pluralism is both tantalisingly parallel to our own concerns with pluralism today and tantalisingly far from it.   But there is at least one respect in which I think we can learn from it, and this is the urgent need to embed the defence of liberty, as the Levellers did, within wider social ideals. 

If the republican content and knowledge of the Levellers has only recently been fully recognised, it has long been known that all of them were serious and committed believing Christians, whose engagement in politics was structured by their grappling with the implications of the proper understanding of their faith - Walwyn began by writing on religion, Lilburne ended as a quietist Quaker.  In their politically active period, theirs was a practical Christianity, which was as Walwyn put it a religion of love (’love makes you no longer your own but God’s servant’, quoted in Andrew Sharp, The English Levellers, Cambridge University Press, 1998, p.xix), and a fused Christian-classical notion of the ‘public good’ was the standard to which they repeatedly appealed: as Lilburne’s broadsheet of 1645 argued that ‘the letter [of the law] kills’, whereas it is the spirit of equity, defined as ‘the public good’, which ‘gives life to authority’ (Sharp, pp.3-4).  Leveller writers constantly invoked the public good: the purpose of consenting to government can only be the good, not the harm, of the people (Lilburne, ‘The Freeman’s freedom’, in Sharp, p.31).  Liberty was justified by God’s purposes and the nature of His creation, and it served those purposes, even as it was demarcated according to classical models.     

Again, the Levellers’ own broad social philosophy is not one that most of us can share today.  But I want to close by saying why articulating some sort of broad social philosophy - one that can make sense of liberty as a shared social value - is so important if the movement to defend liberty is to succeed.  As central to the Levellers as their defence of liberty was their vision of how liberty could be best employed.  They struck a chord in their own society because they were able to articulate what many people cared about, and why they cared about it: their many contemporaries who saw themselves as freeborn children of God could understand the value of religious toleration, for example, in light of their highest values.     

In recent years, however, the defence of liberty has risked becoming - under pressure of circumstances - oppositional and isolated, involved in defending a bare list of rights, not a social outlook which connects with people’s wider values.  The Levellers’ pluralist defence of liberty - in defence of a broad and inclusive social good as they understood it - has been replaced in our day with a neutral defence of liberty, isolating it from any wider or deeper social values.  Even the list of martyrs is telling: very often today the celebrated cases of defending liberty are defending those with whom most people in society have little sympathy - the rights of people who may sympathise with terrorism but not engage in it, for example.  I don’t at all mean to say that such cases are not important, or should be abandoned.  But contrast such cases with the Levellers’ most frequent martyr for the cause, John Lilburne, who was himself a hero of the ideas and values that they themselves believed in, using his liberty to argue for what he and his fellows understood as the social good.   To win genuine popular resonance, we need to celebrate not just the liberty to do what others don’t like, but also those who make use of their liberty to serve the welfare of others and to advance broad social ideals - to show that while we will defend the liberty of everyone, we mostvalue the liberty which is used to help others, not to harm them.  Otherwise liberty risks becoming seen as a cause only of the marginal, the eccentric, the disagreeable - while whereas it is indeed their cause, it is also everyone’s cause, and in the service of everyone’s good.  The moral is not to defend only the freedom of those whom we admire, but it is to link the active defence of the liberty of all with a story of why liberty is to be valued and how it features in the good life and good society.  One unsung lesson of reflecting on the Levellers is that, while liberty unused is at risk of being lost, liberty used (or seen publicly to be used) only for values which people do not respect or share is at risk of being devalued.