The first professional army in these islands was a hothouse of debate and democracy.
With the 370th anniversary of the New Model’s finest hour approaching, it is time to examine what it means to be a soldier or veteran in Britain today.
To lean on the work of Geoffrey Robertson QC, one of the great biographers of the Leveller and Agitator movements of the English Civil War, democracy as we understand it today was not born in Rome or Athens, nor in the comfortable estates of theorists like Rousseau or Montaigue, it was brought screaming into existence, spattered in battlefield muck, by “buff-coated and blood-stained English soldiers.”
In 1647 elected representatives from the New Model Army — a winning army, we should note — aired their big political ideas to their generals at Putney Church.
Those ideas ran to the very core of what it meant to be a soldier or a citizen.
For those of us who have become thinking, political beings through the crucible of war and military service, the Agitators are our spiritual ancestors.
Their military-democratic legacy is ours to claim.
When these lost heroes — Sexby, Rainsborough, Everard — went to Putney they carried, alongside high-minded ideas of representative democracy, the real-world grievances of their electorate: the common soldiery.
Their concerns echoed those of many veterans and soldiers today.
The New Model soldier wanted, among other things, payment of arrears owed; he did not wish to be sent to Ireland for another war; he desired proper pensions for the wives and children of fallen comrades; and he wanted indemnity from prosecution for war crimes.
“No respecter of persons”
At the same time, low-ranking soldiers are being picked off for legacy offences carried out in Afghanistan, Iraq and Northern Ireland. Shit rolls downhill, as I was assured in basic military training.
No soldier worth his salt should argue that genuine war crimes should not be pursued and prosecuted. Yet, as the Agitators argued and as we also must argue, the law should be “no respect of persons.”
This principle, once used to try a vicious tyrant whose immunity was literally God-given, appears so degraded today that it cannot even bring a single messianic former Prime Minister to trial.
While every war throws up crimes — it is the nature of the thing — there is no prospect of a trial for the now much-enriched war leaders. Not for Blair, nor his Grandees, nor for the living architects of the great savage mess that was The Troubles.
This is the case even though it is the letter of the law that the military and political commanders must bear the first responsibility for the excesses of the conflicts they start.
There is now a veteran’s movement in this country. Broadly speaking, it has a right-wing and a left-wing and is overwhelmingly formed of the subordinate social class. It is broad, radical and, at times, peddles contradictory ideas. It is diverse in its parts.
Like its ancestor this movement has passed beyond the realm of ideas, moans and gripes and into organised activity. The increased number and more political tone of veteran protests and actions in recent years has largely been glossed over, as if it isn’t serious. Believe me, it is.
Sections of this ex-military mass are reactionary, royalist, Brexiteering and believe they are suffering rank injustice handed down by sub-standard Tories and a mewling ‘liberal’ left.
Other parts are radical, progressive, anti-war, anti-imperialist — even revolutionary. They demand the end of the “war system” of which Britain is one of the world’s foremost purveyors and of US military colonisation of the UK. They would see troops brought home and war chests reallocated.
The only group who can defend service-people and veterans from the selfish politicking of their masters are the soldiers, sailors and airmen themselves.
But not as some of the groups are trying to, through a shallow form of ex-forces identity politics.
These segments of the moment cannot succeed as a pressure group merely begging, as veterans disorientated by Civvy Street and lacking political nous often have, for a few scraps from the table.
They must organise to do as the Agitators and Levellers did, with the technological advantages of our own age, to organise alongside the social class from which they are mostly drawn.
A veteran federation
The first step towards this would be to unionise as veterans with a view to extending the new organisation into the serving military as already happens in Europe.
An organised military union — likely to be termed a ‘federation’ — would provide veterans and personnel with a basic self-defence mechanism.
The scheme has already been touted by some fairly senior officers but must obviously be grass-roots led.
Many issues which military personnel are forced to confront alone — food, accommodation, leave, pensions, bullying, poor mental health provision, inept management, stagnant wages etc. — would be basic work for a union.
The military culture of hidden abuse, like that seen at Deepcut, would also be most properly dealt with by soldiers representing their colleagues.
Additionally a union could provide free, centralised source of advice for those who face legal cases over legacy charges.
It would be sensible for such an organisation to outlaw, in constitutional terms, scabbing or breaking strikes by civilian workers.
To placate hawks it may be the case that some exemption would apply to war-fighting operations, though in a democratic organisation that would surely be a matter for the rank-and-file.
In barracks, there is no solid argument against soldiers representing themselves, their comrades and their interests against their employers.
The first professional army in these islands elected its own agents from the ranks to challenge generals and politicians on how the world that they had won would be structured.
Far from being a deviation into anarchy, reprising soldier-democracy would be a return to the proudest military traditions of all: dissent and debate in pursuit of justice
Note: these are my personal views as an armed forces veteran, not those of any organisation.