Wear a sea-green ribbon for 'the poorest (s)he'

By Jill Segger
October 26, 2010

“The poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he...”

These words spoken by Thomas Rainsborough at the Putney debates in 1647 caught my imagination when I was about 11 years old. It was the oddity of the 17th century phrase in the ears of a 20th century child which initially made it memorable, even though the sentiments were entirely consonant with the political and spiritual atmosphere in which I was brought up.

Rainsborough, a colonel in Cromwell's New Model Army, spoke in the Leveller cause at Putney, where the intention was to work out a post-monarchical constitution for England. It was to be called 'The Agreement of the People' and was the occasion of the first truly radical, popular and egalitarian dialogue in British history.

The Leveller movement believed in religious tolerance, equality before the law, extension of suffrage and the sovereignty of the people. The Quaker John Lilburne - 'freeborn John' - and the hero of my adolescence, (OK, so maybe I was an odd kid) is perhaps the Leveller known best in our own times.

Rainsborough continued his call to justice and equality with these words: “...and therefore, sir, I think it clear that every man who is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government, and I do think that the poorest man in England is not at all bound in a strict sense to that government that he hath not had a voice to put himself under.”

The poorest hes and shes of our country will soon begin to comprehend what George Osborne's cuts will do to the lives they have to lead. And the 'yes' campaign for the AV voting system has been launched. These two facts are inextricably linked and although the Alternative Vote may not be an ideal solution to the 'first-past-the-post' system which so distorts our democratic outcomes and effectively disenfranchises millions of voters, it is at least a step in the right direction towards a truly representative form of voting.

Without such reform, so many whose lives will be made even more difficult by the wealthy and privileged triumvirate who head our government, will indeed not have had a voice in that which they will be 'put under'.

Thomas Rainsborough was killed by Royalists at the siege of Pontefract Castle in 1648 and at his funeral, thousands of mourners wore the sea-green ribbons of the Levellers.

If you are troubled about the injustice and democratic impoverishment of our country, get yourself a sea-green ribbon, wear it with pride and speak out for an Agreement of the People.

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