June 27 2011: Woman Outside Oliver Cromwell’s House, Ely (Undated Photograph, 1950s)
When we studied the English Civil War at school, Oliver Cromwell and his Roundheads were mostly portrayed as the humourless lot who banned Christmas and dancing: both charges true enough, though it took awhile before I learned that ‘banning Christmas’ in the mid-1600s meant not spoiling everyone’s fun and tearing the presents from small childrens’ hands (all that wasn’t really part of the Winter season until Victorian times anyway) but rather removing one of the many religious holidays from the Christian calendar on the grounds that it wasn’t Christian.
The music and dancing ban shows us that Christianity (every bit as colourful and cosmopolitan a faith as Islam at its best) has its own Taliban tendencies when left to unchecked ideologues and fanatics. That said, the truth was always a bit more complicated than Roundheads and Parliamentarians being dour fanatics, and Cavaliers and Monarchists dashing and flamboyant rakes. The Civil War itself was fought on a political principle, albeit entangled with religion, that an elected parliament, answerable to the people (or at least, the few property-owners eligible to vote back then) should hold the Monarch to account.
The question raised by Cromwell’s authoritarian rule was one that still plagues us today: who, then, holds that elected parliament to account, when its dominant parties have too few checks on their authority between elections? Or what happens if both the primary parties represent similar interests to the same excess rather than act to counter one anothers’ least healthy tendencies? Perhaps the latest answer to that one will take shape soon.
I wonder if the lady in this picture – undated, but probably a snapshot from the 1950s – would have been thinking along similar lines? After all, however rosy the past is made to seem in hindsight, when the chance arises to read newspapers from 1941, say, or 1951, what’s revealed is a political landscape every bit as rife with privilege, fractures, bickering and bias as the one we inhabit now, however the details might change.
There never was a Golden Age when our Parliaments properly represented the broad range of people’s interests (even in 1945 – though that may well be as close as we’ll get for the forseeable future) and rights have always needed to be fought for and defended using means that extend beyond the ballot box: those who pretend otherwise are propagandists rather than historians. As for Cromwell, well, he didn’t wait for permission from his King to shake off his subject status and establish the beginnings of representative government.
There will always be entrenched interests to tackle, even as our representatives tell us that the ballot box is the only legitimate way to effect change. Had we bought that line in the past, most of us would still be disenfranchised now and it’s highly unlikely that a single significant reform would have been implemented since, well, quite a long time before Oliver Cromwell’s own day.