Giles Fraser writes:
I can still picture Billy Bragg standing on that stage, giving it full-throated fire and moral defiance. You probably know the lyrics (by Leon Rosselson).
“In 1649, to St George’s Hill, a ragged band they called the Diggers came to show the people’s will. They defied the landlords. They defied the laws. They were the dispossessed reclaiming what was theirs.”
What most people know about the Diggers and their leader Gerard Winstanley was that they were religious socialists who wanted to turn the land into a common treasury.
What they often don’t know is that they were also Eurosceptics. So Winstanley begins his book The True Levellers Standard Advanced, also written in 1649:
“O what mighty Delusion, do you, who are the powers of England live in! That while you pretend to throw down that Norman yoke, and Babylonish power, and have promised to make the groaning people of England a Free People; yet you still lift up that Norman yoke, and slavish Tyranny, and holds the People as much in bondage, as the Bastard Conquerour himself, and his Councel of War.”
I am no great fan of nationalism. And I want us to welcome far more refugees into this country, not less – they are fleeing a slavish Tyranny and Councel of War, after all.
But, nonetheless, I believe in people’s democracy and so I will be voting for us to leave the European Union.
For Winstanley, the Norman yoke went back to the invasion of 1066 and William the Conqueror, who set his French nobleman over the English peasantry, thus generating centuries of resentment against foreign rule.
The kings and nobles may have learned to speak English over time, but they were still an alien power imposed without popular consent.
This is why the Levellers, who met in my old church in Putney, first demanded democracy as a way to curb the imposition of heteronomous power, power imposed from without, from a distance.
In the 16th century, Henry VIII had broken with Rome and established home rule for the church. As article 37 of the 39 articles puts it: “The bishop of Rome hath no jurisdiction in this realm of England.” [Check which article that is, and it is purely a statement of fact; he hath no such jurisdiction anywhere outside the Vatican City State.]
The Bible was to be written in English and not in a foreign language that ordinary people could not understand [vernacular translations were illegal only in England, for political rather than religious reasons].
In the 17th century, the monarchy itself was deposed, Charles I being regularly depicted as a reincarnation of “the Bastard Conquerour himself”. In the popular imagination, the English Reformation was a Brexit.
All of which is why someone like Tony Benn was such a prominent Eurosceptic.
Steeped in the history of 17th-century radicalism, Benn knew that democracy was about the power of the people.
“It’s not for members of parliament to give away the powers that were lent to them because they don’t belong to members of parliament, they belong to the electorate,” argued Benn, yet “we live in a continent where increasingly power has gone to a group of people who are not elected, cannot be removed and don’t have to listen to us”.
The point is not that we don’t want to be beholden to foreigners but that power must stay close to the people from which it flows.
The more distant the power, the more faceless and bureaucratic, the less its legitimacy. We now cast more votes for Big Brother than we do for the Europe’s politicians.
No, the bastard conqueror isn’t the European Union – we freely gave the powers away. But the EU has meekly become his servant.
The bastard conqueror is international finance that ignores borders, locates itself offshore to pay no tax, and has the EU in its pocket.
Look at how the EU dealt with Greece, imposing crippling austerity on its people.
Look at the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, the massive trade deal that the EU has been negotiating – mostly in secret – with the US.
Under the terms of this deal, large companies will be able to sue nation states if they introduce policies that curb its profits.
I’d vote against TTIP if I could. But because of the way the EU is negotiating the deal, I have no say in the matter. And nor do you.
The EU has become a neoliberal club, and I will not worship the God they serve.
“Was the Earth made to preserve a few covetous, proud men to live at ease, and for them to bag and barn up the treasures of the Earth from others, that these may beg and starve in a fruitful land; or was it make to preserve all her children?” said Winstanley.
Now that would be a common agricultural policy worth voting for.