On 17th May 1649 three soldiers, Corporal Perkins, Cornet Thompson and Private Church, were executed by firing squad in Burford churchyard, Oxfordshire.
The three men were identified as ring-leaders of a mutiny of over a thousand troops. Some of the mutineers were influenced by Leveller ideas, promoting a new constitutional settlement for England based on a wider male electoral franchise, greater political accountability and religious toleration.
Burford was effectively the last gasp for this particular branch of English radicalism. Cornet Thompson, who had written of the mutineers’ readiness to ‘die for Freedom rather than live as slaves’, had devised his own epitaph.
Flip forward 358 years to May 2007. In the early summer sunshine a slightly eccentric village fete appears to be taking place. The Lord Mayor of Oxford leads a crowd in a rendition of the Internationale. A fairly brisk trade in tea and cake is going on (though the organic houmous and mushroom pate rolls appearing to be shifting rather more slowly). Two bearded men carrying red Communist Party banners join Morris-dancers at the front of a parade down Burford High Street. A coach-load of bemused Japanese tourists look on as the procession weaves its way past an antiques fair and numerous souvenir shops. The dress-code (wax-jackets, old jumpers and walking boots) could easily make an observer to mistake this for a particularly vocal meeting of the Ramblers’ Association. This is Levellers’ Day.
It began in 1975 as a relatively low-key affair. Then, in 1976 Alan Hicks of the Oxford Workers’ Educational Association invited the Energy Secretary, Tony Benn, to speak. The presence of a government minister raised Tory ire both locally and nationally.
Burford’s MP, Douglas Hurd, complained that the WEA were misusing public funds to support what was essentially a party political event, noting sardonically that the minister was not coming to the Cotswolds to talk about North Sea oil.
Locals took more direct action, daubing the side of the church with the words ‘Bollocks to Benn’. Although the vicar of Burford had supported the event, a local non-conformist minister, Raymond Moody, complained that residents did not want the day to become a regular left-wing jamboree ‘like the Durham miner’s gala’.
Despite the efforts of the local Conservative Association, who in 1983 tried to scupper Levellers’ Day by booking the church hall for a non-existent jumble sale, Moody’s nightmare has come true. The event, now in its thirty-second year, has attracted a ‘Who’s Who’ of left-wingers, including Labour luminaries (Ken Livingstone, Michael Foot, and er… Peter Hain), peace campaigners (Bruce Kent), environmentalists (George Monbiot), and Marxist historians (E.P. Thompson and Christopher Hill). Entertainment has been provided by musicians including the ‘Bard of Barking’, Billy Bragg. Occasionally, the odd cabaret act has performed too, (‘David Blunkett and his dog Nelson’ in 1985).
And it has developed from a commemoration of England’s radical history to a broader gathering which attempts each year to tackle an important current political theme, (this year climate change). Aside from Benn, neither of the other speakers, Green MEP Caroline Lucas or Labour rebel Alan Simpson, attempted to link their discussions of global warming to the politics of the English revolution. Perhaps wisely, as the seventeenth-century was undergoing a mini ice-age. Beyond the ribbons which their supporters wore, there was not much that was ‘green’ about the Levellers.
There has always been a slightly incongruous juxtaposition between the historical events of 1649, the setting of the commemoration in modern-day Burford and the make-up of those who attend Levellers’ Day. The event celebrates political radicalism but takes place in a chocolate-box pretty tourist town within the Tory Cotswolds. It memorialises the violent death of three soldiers in a bloody civil war but receives some of its financial support from the Oxford branch of CND. Its procession features members of civil war re-enactment societies, brandishing brutal-looking pikes, halberds and (working) muskets walking side-by-side with members of the Abingdon Peace Group.
Levellers’ Day remains popular, lively and politically relevant, even with all of these contradictions.
However, following the death of Alan Hicks, this year’s event was also tinged with sadness and there was a broader sense in the air of the passing of one generation of activists. With the exception of kids playing with balloons during Alan Simpson’s talk, the other panellists bar Benn were probably the youngest people in attendance. (An indication of the audience demographic came during the opening set from the group ‘Pillow-fish,’ who were roundly booed for delivering a song about how the Sixties generation had squandered the opportunity to build a better world).
Tony Benn joked that Alan Simpson was leaving Westminster ‘to spend more time in politics’. With Parliament bypassed by government and the ‘awkward squad’ pushed further and further out of the picture, ‘politics out of doors’ is more important than ever. Yet, if the silver-haired masses don’t turn up, who will? Benn has been called ‘the Father of Levellers’ Day’. He has supported the event for over thirty years, but what will happen to his progeny when Tony finally taps out his pipe?
Ted Vallance is lecturer in early modern history at the University of Liverpool. He is the author of The Glorious Revolution: 1688 and Britain’s Fight for Liberty (Little, Brown and Co, 2006) and is currently writing a history of English radicalism from Magna Carta to the present day.