English identity sits at the centre of the debate on British membership of the EU, but that identity, moulded by television and the tabloid media has become a surrogate Englishness dominated by pint supping, cricket watching, and endless mugs of tea; an identity shorn of its uncomfortable, radical roots. What, though might the English tradition of dissent whisper to us as the vote on EU membership draws near?
This text is adapted from a talk I gave recently at the Unitarian Chapel in my home town. The congregation had recently been visited by a minister from Romania: they needed no reminding from me of Unitarianism’s origins in the 16th century Principality of Transylvania and in Poland. It reached England in the 18th century and quickly became central to the country’s culture of Dissent and to its nascent scientific community.
The English travel writer Patrick Leigh-Fermor, walking through Hungary and Romania in the mid-1930s, visited some of Transylvania’s many remarkable libraries. At a time when Europe was going very dark indeed, he reflected ruefully upon the religious tolerance and the ‘humanistic Golden Age’ which had once flourished in that remarkable corner of our continent, when it was ruled over by John Sigismund, a Unitarian monarch (the only one there has ever been).
No setting could have been more appropriate, then, for a talk about English Nonconformity and its relationship with Europe. I should also say several pews were piled high with boxes and sacks of supplies ready for delivery to the migrant camp in Calais. And my story began with a refugee.
He arrived in England after losing his wife and family in the religious civil war he had then fled. He had spent five years as a fugitive in his own country before leaving to join a community of refugees in a neighbouring state. It was from there that he was invited to England by a network of refugees already here. The hope was that he might address parliament, thereby gaining support for a new kind of college which he hoped to set up here. This ‘College of Universal Wisdom’ would resolve, through a new system of education, the underlying causes of the religious conflict destroying his home country.
That refugee’s name was Jan Comenius. A Czech philosopher and a minister in the Moravian Brethren (of which more later), he arrived in 1641, full of hope that England would provide a haven even as the Thirty Years’ War raged, a war between Catholics and Protestants which had begun in Bohemia.
Of course, England in 1641 was on the brink of its own civil war. Comenius never did address parliament but he did write a book here, the Via Lucis, or The Way of Light, outlining his idea. He already had a Europe-wide reputation and soon received invitations from the French and Swedish courts. He chose Sweden, taking up a position there in 1642.
I begin with Comenius partly just because he was a very interesting man who is not as well known to the English as he should be. He remains an important figure in the Czech Republic and is better known even in Germany than he is here. But my main reason for starting with him is because the 1640s, the dissenting movements of the Civil War and Commonwealth periods here, loom large in the English political imagination – as well they might.
The Diggers and the Levellers are only the best known of these. There were the Independents, too, the Congregationalists, the Baptists, the Ranters, the Seekers, Quakers, Fifth Monarchists. Not to forget the Muggletonians. This was a time of astonishing fertility in religious and political ideas and of course the two were effectively inseparable at that time. Theirs was a revolution which not only decisively influenced those of the following century, in America and France, but which remains a reference point for us, a defining moment in the emergence of the modern English and British polities.
The sovereignty of the people not only over the monarch but over parliament itself – this was a central theme of the famous Putney Debates of 1647. A written constitution was demanded. Universal Suffrage. For the late Tony Benn MP, it was this sovereignty of the English people which was violated by the institutions of the EU, which was why he campaigned against it in 1975 and remained opposed to it. That is an honourable argument and it’s the reason why Giles Fraser, formerly the vicar of St Mary’s Putney, has argued that we should leave.
Equally, Owen Jones sees the Putney Debates as part of a tradition we should cherish, which led, via the Chartists and the Labour Movement, to the struggle for workers’ rights and the struggle against bigotry – a struggle in which the EU at its best has also engaged. For him this English legacy is aligned with or runs parallel to the ideals of the EU. Jones is, with hesitations, a remainer. Both of these are honourable cases but what interests me about them here is that both cases are rooted in a certain shared tradition of English Dissent or Nonconformity.
That tradition is quite English – at times self-consciously so – ‘I am an Englishman born, bred and brought up,’ John Lilburne, leader of the Levellers, once declared, ‘and England is a nation governed, bounded and limited by laws and liberties; and for the liberties of England have I both fought and suffered much.’ He had indeed – he uttered these words shortly after being arrested by 200 armed men for writing a pamphlet of which Oliver Cromwell disapproved. Home-grown despotism also happens.
Colonel Thomas Rainborough at Putney spoke these famous words: ‘I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he; and therefore truly, Sir, I think it’s clear, that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government.’ What was being proposed here was a new kind of social contract.
That phrase ‘the poorest he’ has of course come in for a lot of scrutiny. And rightly so. Where is ‘she’? But I personally have never heard those words being questioned for their national bias. It was clear to Rainborough that a government only needed the consent of males. Similarly it was clear, to a people steeped in the Bible, that the actions of the English people were specially underwritten by the Divinity. Rainborough’s claim was a universal one, but couched in the language of its own time. The unique status of one gender over the other and the unique status of one country over all others were things he could take for granted.
How far do we still take either of those for granted? In a town like my own, Bridport, in Dorset, there are dissenting chapels at every turn. Its present inhabitants may be aware of their lovely unassuming architecture. But what does it mean now? It isn’t only the chapels. Just across the road from the Unitarian Chapel stands a hotel that was fought over during the Monmouth Rebellion. But the struggle was over decades and centuries. It wasn’t about one morning in 1685. That struggle was for the right to liberty of conscience, equality before the law, freedom of expression. ‘The ‘dissent’ was from any authority in church or state which sought to limit those. Lest we forget.
This is where I come back to that Czech refugee, to Jan Comenius in London in 1641. I want to think about him as well as Colonel Rainborough and the Putney Debates. Comenius, from a less fortunate country than England in some ways, certainly at that time, lived as a refugee in Poland, in England, in Sweden, in Hungary and he died as one in Holland. But England was the first country he made for once it became clear to him that he was never going back to Bohemia. Why was that? Why did England seem to him the natural home for his college?