Seventeenth-century calls for English devolution

With the publication today of the Smith Commission recommending further powers for the Scottish Parliament, Philip Baker, Research Fellow on the 1624 Parliamentary Diaries project, discusses proposals for English devolution during the 1640s…

The current demands for greater devolution and decentralisation of power from central government raise the prospect, as some commentators have acknowledged, of the most significant constitutional changes since the Glorious Revolution of 1688-9. But not dissimilar calls for a redistribution of power from Westminster to England’s local communities were heard somewhat earlier in the seventeenth century, at the height of the civil war of the 1640s, and would have brought about a fundamentally different form of constitutional settlement.

The first half of the seventeenth century saw the increasing centralisation of English government. In addition to the refusal of Charles I to call any parliaments between 1629-40, the crown’s attempts to enforce strict compliance with its military, fiscal and religious policies undermined the discretionary powers of local officeholders. But far from ending this process, the years of civil war and parliamentarian rule only brought about its escalation. The creation of numerous bureaucratic committees at Westminster and of a whole new tier of local government – the county committees, which were closely managed by parliament – rode roughshod over more traditional practices of self-government within local communities.

Reactions to these changes took various forms. Some counties saw the rise of neutralist club associations, which took up arms against both royalist and parliamentarian forces and petitioned Westminster for the restoration of their traditional local rulers and organs of government. The demands of the London-based petitioner movement known as the Levellers went much further. These included the abolition of the central Westminster courts and the transfer of legal jurisdiction to local courts, an extension of the parliamentary franchise and the election of local officials, including ministers. Like other religious nonconformists, the Levellers also opposed the idea of a compulsory national church.

At a time of significant disenchantment with Westminster politicians and their practices, major changes to the political system were contemplated by the Levellers and other contemporary pamphleteers – changes which have also been debated over recent months and years. These included the need for regular, fixed-term parliaments; for a reduction in the number of MPs; and for formal procedures for the accountability of MPs to their constituents, including the power to recall them.

Many of the Levellers’ ideas were brought together in a series of draft written constitutions called the Agreements of the People – the earliest attempts to produce a written constitution in the English-speaking world. These documents would have created a nation of self-governing communities with an unprecedented level of local authority and power, and were often presented as a restoration of past practices. But while such a vision of the English state had obvious medieval antecedents, it was an appeal to a largely imaginary past with an alternative value system.

The Agreements of the People were never implemented, although some of their proposals influenced the constitutions of the 1650s, and they obviously aimed to devolve power at a much lower level of society than is being considered at present. It remains to be seen if the current calls for decentralisation remain, like those of the 1640s, mere popular rhetoric or if in time they will become a constitutional reality.


You can read more from Phil on the Agreements of the People in his earlier blogpost for us ‘The Agreements of the People, 1647-49′.

You can also read our full series on the political relationship between England and Scotland, published earlier this year in the run up to the Scottish Referendum, here.

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