Tag Archives: Magna Carta

For some new Putney Debates

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.

GilesLane_LincolnMagnaCarta_Proposal

Magna Carta 800

800 years ago on June 19th 1215 King John was forced, by Archbishop Stephan Langton and a group of barons, to sign the Magna Carta – a document setting out limits to the king’s power and guaranteeing the pre-eminence of the rule of law over the executive. John almost immediately repudiated it, but over the next 80 years or so it was re-issued several times, with the 1297 version extending the freedoms it offered to free men across the land. Alongside Magna Carta (and the 1217 Charter of the Forest, or Little Charter) the 13th Century in England featured the calling of the first English Parliament and with it the establishment of the foundations of modern democracy and a just and fair society.

To celebrate the events at Runnymede on 19th June 1215, I am selecting a series of manifestos and texts written over the centuries that build upon the Magna Carta’s legacy in their own period of history. Each month, from January to June 2015,  I will juxtapose two or more texts in a book made with and shared on bookleteer (and distributed as physical copies to subscribers of the Periodical) as a way of reflecting that, across the generations, the quest continues apace for a fair and just society in which the rights and responsibilities of individuals are respected and upheld without prejudice. By re-presenting these ideas in a series of books I hope others can also draw inspiration from them and help frame the questions and challenges that face both the UK and other countries in the time ahead of us.

I’m particularly keen to shine a light on ideas and writings from periods such as the mid-17th Century that have inspired me in developing my own sense of what a just and fair society might be like and how it could function. There is much we can learn today from those called Levellers and Diggers – what they sought then has resonated across the centuries and still seems so relevant in our own time. Perhaps we are seeing history repeat itself : then, a chance was missed during the Interregnum (or Commonwealth) for a new kind of society to emerge that could have swept away inherited privilege and arbitrary exploitation of the poor and landless. Instead, the power of the City, landowners and merchants usurped the dominance of king and nobility. Now, over three hundred years later we are seeing the Welfare State – a kind of postwar commonwealth – being dismantled by a similar nexus of wealth and privilege. This process goes hand in hand with the rapacious exploitation of the natural world, subtly reinforced even among environmentalists by the placing of money values on natural ‘resources’ as an argument for their protection from extraction. In this way, every relationship humans have to each other or to the ecologies we live within are divorced from context and connection with the flow of life – anything which could bind us to people and place in ways other than can be defined by money. By elevating money as the paramount value, we are isolating ourselves from each other, from inherent rights and from any sense that we have intrinsic responsibilities and obligations to others and the world we live in.

I’ve begun the series with a book containing two texts written roughly two hundred years apart, at the apogee of two great moments of change in the UK – the English Civil Wars and the Chartist movement. Both sought radical change to the status quo of how the country was governed, laying crucial foundations for the development of our modern parliamentary democracy and for a just and fair society based on individual rights and responsibilities. That both were rejected by those in power in their own times is a reminder that each generation must continue to strive for its own version of a just and fair society. These texts serve as an inspiration for us now to continue to question and challenge the Powers That Be – to reject their surveillance state, their dismantling of the Welfare State, their greedy pilfering of the commonwealth for their own private gain. And to remind ourselves that, across the centuries, others have stood firm against tyranny whatever form it takes.

If you’d like to receive the physical versions of the books, please subscribe to the Periodical here. And there’s now a special limited edition (40 sets only) bound together with a red satin ribbon, buy your’s here.
You can, of course, also read each book for free, either online in their book reader versions or if you download, print out and make up the handmade versions – just visit bookleteer and browse the collection.