Earlier this year I was shortlisted for a residency in Lincoln as part of a project celebrating the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta. My proposal (“Lincoln Debates“) was to work with young people in the city to re-evaluate the state of our society and to bring their voices concretely in to discussions of where we go next. I proposed to engage people in gathering and sharing their voices – through collaborative public authoring and the making of material artefacts, much as I do in my work with indigenous communities in Papua New Guinea and my work with data manifestation. Embedding their concerns and aspirations for civic empowerment within the fabric of the city through events and with physical, digital and other media I hoped to devise a project that could resonate for future generations and inspire in them a continual engagement with power, rights, obligations and responsibilities.
1647 Putney Debates
My project title alluded specifically to the debates held in October 1647 at St Mary’s Church, Putney between the representatives (“Agitators/New Agents”) of the rank and file of the New Model Army, and the Army Grandees (Oliver Cromwell, Henry Ireton etc). The debates were part of a proposed settlement towards the end of the English Civil Wars to determine a new future for England (and by implication Scotland, Wales and Ireland). The men of the army had developed their own manifesto, which would later become a manifesto for a proto-socially democratic constitution for England – An Agreement of the Free People of England. Their demands were essentially communitarian and advocated for much of what we would now recognise as the basis of a functioning democracy, but where there would be no inherited privilege (thus ‘levelling’ each person’s status). The Debates were ultimately unsuccessful, but the discussions that took place and the manifestos that resulted became the inspiration for future milestones in our own and other country’s path to freedom and democracy.
Modern Putney Debates
As we lurch forwards into a new time of uncertainty and division in this country, it seems to me that we could do with more such debates and proposals – not merely as an exercise in creative agency, but vitally as a positive beacon for the future of our country, or countries, our identity and our aspirations to do good in the world.
What would it take to organise some events that draw inspiration from the Levellers of 1647 and strive to propose a new social contract founded on equity, compassion, responsibility, empathy and agency?
Last year I published a series of books that brought together key texts that derive from Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest – spanning 900 years they represent a stunning legacy of hope against oppression, subjugation and exploitation. Now is the time to start adding to that legacy with something new.