Britain's very own Taliban

<em>The New Statesman Christmas</em> - Oliver Cromwell's Puritans were fundamentalists who banned Ch

Oliver Cromwell, the man who banned Christmas, is back in vogue. After Simon Schama's elegant TV account of Britain's one and only military dictator came Channel 4's 90-minute-long defence of "the brave, bad man" of the civil war. So strong is the current interest in the late Lord Protector that a feature film about his life is in production. Tim Roth is to play Cromwell, while Dougray Scott, the star of Enigma, has been cast as the parliamentary general Sir Thomas Fairfax.

Oliver Cromwell, born in 1599, dead in 1658, sometime MP for Cambridge, creator of the New Model Army, military genius, regicide and, finally, king in all but name, is one of history's great dividers. He brought peace after a decade of war, united England, Scotland and Ireland under one government, and stole Jamaica from the Spanish. He also committed unspeakable atrocities in Ireland and turned Britain into a soulless war state where Easter and Christmas were cancelled, Boxing Day sports prohibited, and ivy, mistle-toe and holly outlawed, Taliban-style, as "ungodly branches of superstition".

Cromwell is responsible for a deeply divided legacy - as one contemporary put it: "Never man was higher extolled, and never man was baselier reported of and vilified than this man."

In this historical divide, the left has always seemed to know whose side it was on. The fight for the socialist commonwealth was historically identified with the Puritan "Good Old Cause". Cromwell might have been a son of a bitch, but he was "our" son of a bitch. R H Tawney best summed it up when he wrote: "The Puritans, though unpleasant people, had one trifling merit. They did the job, or at any rate their job."

As the Labour Party owed more to Methodism than to Marx, so the Crom-wellian lineage was there at its birth. Its very foundation place, the Memorial Hall, Farringdon Road, London, is a monument to one of the defining moments in Puritan history - Charles II's ejection of Nonconformists from the Church of England in 1662. The spirit of radical Nonconformity was deeply felt by Labour's first leader, Keir Hardie. As Raphael Samuel has shown, Hardie regarded temperance, purity and clean living as prerequisites for the life of a true socialist. Hardie himself was more than a little puritanical: a lifelong campaigner in favour of abstinence, a champion of vegetarianism and a zealous advocate of the closure of music halls.

Hardie's puritanism enabled him to draw on the same religious rhetoric that drove the civil war combatants. He addressed striking railwaymen in the 1890s with all the biblical fervour of Cromwell rallying his cavalry on the eve of Marston Moor. "Come out from the house of bondage, fight for freedom, fight for manhood, fight for the coming day when in body, soul and spirit you will be free to live your own lives, and give glory to your Creator."

Ramsay MacDonald was similarly infused with the Roundhead spirit and, in 1912, published "A Plea for Puritanism". "With the Puritan, character must always count," he informed the troops of the nascent Labour movement. "The Puritan can no more ask what has private character to do with public life than he can ask what has theft to do with honesty."

Reverence for Cromwell was one of the few socialist traditions that survived the transition from old to new Labour. Frank Dobson, a politician whose career symbolises the difficulty of that passage, is a leading light (along with Lady Antonia Fraser) of the Cromwell Association. And Dobson shares the same machine-politics admiration for the Roundheads that Tawney expressed. "For me, it boils down to this," he responded to a question about Cromwell's actions at Drogheda. "He was on the right side in the civil war and, because of him, the right side won. He changed the course of English history, and changed it for the better."

Shamelessly, even those on the wrong side of the Labour divide have sought the benediction of Huntingdon's favourite son. David Marquand cack-handedly entitled his mid-1980s manifesto for the SDP Russet-Coated Captains: the challenge of social democracy. The reference is to Cromwell's famous assertion that he would "rather have a plain russet-coated captain that knows what he fights for and loves what he knows" as one of his soldiers "than what you call a gentleman and is nothing else". It was a radical defence of meritocracy in a parliamentary army crippled by aristocratic amateurism. But the whole point about Cromwell's Ironsides, as they became known, was that they were united, determined and steadfast in the face of sometimes overwhelming odds. They did not run off to form another party at the first sign of danger.

The Puritan tradition in the Labour movement is now under threat. With the passing of John Smith and Donald Dewar, the last dismal spark of frugal front-line Presbyterianism is dead. Gordon Brown, though holding impeccable credentials as the son of a Calvinist minister, just has too many gaudy ties, holidays in Cape Cod and dinners at Granita to qualify as a true Puritan. The creepy Christian Socialism of Chris Smith and Frank Field doesn't really count, either. Instead, new Labour is about consumption and conspicuous consumption. It's champagne with the Gallaghers. Peter Mandelson famously had "no problem with the filthy rich". Stephen Byers was concerned with increasing wealth rather than redistributing it. More recently, in his speech to the Welsh Assembly in Cardiff, Tony Blair championed the rampant consumerism of the west as an act of cultural virtue. While the Taliban "mistake our desire for a comfortable life as decadence", the Prime Minister declared that it was, in fact, "progress" and, what's more, "we will fight to maintain it".

As new Labour separates itself from the Puritan tradition, the historical stock of Cromwell and his fellow zealots seems to be falling. Today, the English civil war is no longer regarded as a constitutional battle between king and parliament over arbitrary taxation and the rights of the monarchy. The old class analysis of a rising gentry seizing power from a decaying ancien regime is giving way to a greater stress on religion as the motivating force in a struggle that involved all of England, Scotland and Ireland. In turn, Cromwell the bourgeois gentleman farmer of the Fens, who dragged Britain into the modern world, has been transformed into more of a religious freedom fighter. It is now apparent that Cromwell's politics were in fact deeply conservative - he defended property rights against the Levellers at the Putney Debates, opposed universal franchise and, right up to the execution of Charles I in 1649, he tried to find a solution that involved retaining the monarchy.

Instead, it was Cromwell's Puritanism that gave him his mission. He was a fundamentalist, as committed to his illiberal vision of religious domination as today's Taliban. Cromwell entered the war against Charles because he feared that the king was undermining the Protestant faith. He regarded Charles as a subversive crypto-Catholic. In Ireland, Cromwell slaughtered the Catholics at Drogheda and Wexford, condemning them as heathen savages fit only to be put to the sword. Despite numerous leftist revisionist attempts to whitewash this bloodbath, it remains a brutal, religiously driven war crime that has soured Anglo-Irish relations for centuries.

In England, the Cromwell-sanctioned clampdown on popular festivals and the traditional rituals of the Church of England bears more than a similarity to the Taliban's ministry for the promotion of virtue and the prevention of vice. As the Bible gave no specific sanction to the celebration of Christ's birthday, the Puritans argued that it was a sinful contrivance of the Roman Catholic Church. And therefore "the Feast of the Nativity of Christ, and all other festival days commonly called Holy-days" were banned. With them went maypoles, dancing and other lewd entertainments - just as the Taliban banned music, film and revealing clothes.

The one great difference between the two camps is hair. The parliamentarians initially gained the nickname Roundheads because of their short, bullet-headed appearance, while the Taliban have notoriously had a far more indulgent attitude towards hair growth.

So, if in this post-11 September world, the leader of the Labour Party can no longer look to Cromwell the religious militant, then from whom can he seek inspiration in the great rebellion of the 1640s? I have a suspicion that a prime minister educated in Scotland but most definitely not of Scotland, a politician with little time for devolution and even less time for the rights of parliament, a leader with more than a whiff of Rome about him, might find some empathy in the character of King Charles I, Martyr.

At Christmas time, who better to toast than the man who laid down his life for our right to enjoy this "superstitious", "licentious" and "sinful" day?

Tristram Hunt is presenting a four-part series on the English civil war, beginning on 7 January at 8.30pm, BBC2

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