Oliver Cromwell – Our Chief of Men

Today, 25th April 2013, would have been Oliver Cromwell’s 414th birthday. Long, long gone, but still remembered. It’s impressive being controversial more than 350 years after your death, and he has certainly managed that.

He was born not into poverty, but in to the gentry (but not the aristocracy who ruled the country at that time). At the age of 30 he was elected to Parliament where he managed to make almost no impression. It was only at the outbreak of the first Civil War that his genius began to show. I’m not a historian, but as a lawyer I think that there are some lessons to be learnt from him. If you want more history, there is a good deal of detail here online, but best is to read Antonia Fraser’s ‘Our Chief of Men’, a very well written and balanced biography.

He, along with 58 other brave souls, signed the death warrant of King Charles I. This followed an unavoidable and, from a legal point of view, travesty of a trial. But from a social point of view, it was truly a sign of the world turning upside down – men of England (and it was all men) asserted power over the King, anointed by God. And, after that had been done, no monarch could ever hope to assert absolute power again over us.

He wasn’t perfect, far from it. Just as I”m not equipped to give you a full history, I’m not going to talk about what happened in Ireland. It’s clear that his behaviour was, by modern standards, a war crime. It’s less clear to what extent his own responsibility for that, judged by the standards of the time, is one worthy of condemnation. Historians still debate that.

Neither was Cromwell a true democrat, at least by modern standards. Not only did he not consider giving women the vote (although in that he was hardly unique at the time), he was not someone who thought that all men should have the franchise (again, that was hardly out on a limb). He was however a leading light in a moment in history that saw a mass outbreak of radicalism and discussions of how we, as a people, should be governed. Radio 4’s ‘In Our Time’ had a good programme last week on the Putney Debates.


But, after the second Civil War, he was offered and resisted the temptation of the Crown. Whatever his motives for that, it was a significant moment. He introduced, in 1653, the first Constitution – the Instrument of Government. It was rudimentary (but at least it was written down, which is more that we have now). This established him as the Lord Protector, head of the Council of State. Whilst it was a post for life, it was at least elected. This was also separate to Parliament which established a small element of separation of powers (something that we still haven’t quite got to grips with – and have, in fact, gone backwards).

As I say, he was far from perfect. Given his religious mania and authoritarianism, I doubt that I’d have got on with him that well. Groups like the Levellers and the Ranters would probably be much more my style. And you’d certainly have more fun with them on a night out. But you can’t judge him solely in hindsight.

When, in 1993, the Home Secretary deported an asylum seeker in breach of a Court order, he was rebuffed by out highest Court – “the argument that there is no power to enforce the law by injunction or contempt proceedings against a minister in his official capacity would, if upheld, establish the proposition that the executive obey the law as a matter of grace and not as a matter of necessity, a proposition which would reverse the result of the Civil War.”  That is what was at stake at the time. It’s a lesson that today’s politicians could well learn.

I’m not the first person to say it, but we had our revolution too early. It didn’t last and the monarchy came back, albeit in a more ‘constitutional’ form. After the restoration, the two documents that we had had that could count as constitutions (the other being the Humble Petition and Advice in 1657) were swept away. We never did get our constitution and are the poorer for it, especially as we appear to have a generation of politicians who don’t understand the basics of the Rule of Law. But, you can’t really blame Ollie for that.

Cromwell taught us that we could live without a King, and that power in this country shouldn’t flow from God down, but from the people up (even if that was limited, at that time, to a certain class of people). And that is in some ways the most radical statement of democracy in human history. If it sounds obvious to us now, it was because the idea has triumphed so successfully. It was one of the first steps in the journey to democracy – one that is still ongoing, but Cromwell should be remembered for taking one of the biggest leaps forward.

And, for all his faults, give me him over all the Kings and Queens in history anytime.


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