‘The Tower’, they call the shortest of these buildings. Do they not get the feeling its name has been somewhat overtaken?
Upstream of Tower Bridge, the tidal Thames ebbs and flows through the current power centres of both the English nation and the larger constitutional vehicle it presently rides, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (a.k.a. ‘the Union’) – although that ride feels wobblier by the day.
Many people think of this country as a democracy, and one of the oldest in the world at that. Its civilised, courteous, tea-sipping national persona fuses in their minds with the landscape of its capital city’s riverside, where red buses link the likes of the Palace of Westminster, the Victoria Embankment and St. Paul’s Cathedral. It is in pride of place at the downstream culmination of this catalogue of modern wonders that stands the Tower of London, which draws in some three million awestruck visitors per year.
But there is a problem here.
The Tower was a political prison, torture dungeon and killing field. Erected by William of Normandy as part of a network of castles to scare his conquered populace into submission, by the time the English nation consolidated under the Tudor dynasty (1509-1603) the main use of this fortress had shifted to confining, torturing, and oftentimes decapitating high-profile political dissidents and prisoners of war. Thomas More, Anne Boleyn, Lady Jane Grey and William Laud were among the dozens who had their heads handed to them here, and even four hundred years later it was dragging German spies in front of its firing squads in both World Wars. Yet nowadays you can pay a hefty £24.70 per head – and keep the head – to go in and take carefree selfies on top of those corpses while marvelling at this architectural symbol of a country which, they would have you believe, has political freedom and human rights in its national DNA.
That story of democratic destiny has been incredibly powerful in the English self-consciousness. But as we follow the Thames right through the middle of its ancient nuclei – the City of London and the City of Westminster – the river will have a quite different story to show us: of a heritage packed, like everyone else’s, with greed, oppression, and violent struggle. A story in which for every piece of democracy these people have scrapped together, they have had to fight and die for it and could never be sure they wouldn’t lose it again at any moment – and in which its worst enemies have not been external threats, but the impulse for the abuse of power that has ever lurked in their own culture.
Power. Yes. That will be the Dark River’s melody today.
Start: Tower Bridge (nearest station: Tower Hill)
End: Putney Bridge (nearest stations: Putney Bridge, Vauxhall)
Length: 16km (10 miles)
Location: Greater London – Borough of Southwark, Borough of Lambeth, Borough of Wandsworth
Topics: Power versus democracy amongst the City of London merchants, Southwark bishops, Bankside and Lambeth recreationalists and the English Parliament in Westminster, then escaping through Vauxhall, Battersea, Wandsworth and Putney.
Today’s exploration is long. If you want to keep to the three main discussions, they are the City of London (immediately below), the story of Parliament (skip to ‘City of Westminster’), and the Putney Debates (skip to ‘Putney’ at the end.)
The City of London
Here’s someone who knows a thing or two about power. Trajan, once a mighty Roman emperor (r.98-117 CE), now subsists on a zero-hours contract as a human signpost outside Tower Hill station. Look at this wall, he tells everyone. My power reached all the way up here once.
This is one of the last remaining traces of the original wall the Romans built around Londinium, which stood where the City of London stands now. ‘The City’ is not that large, and they even nickname it the ‘square mile’. That is the limit of what London meant until the most recent centuries, when its industrial population explosion and suburbanisation widened it to what is now called Greater London.
The essential point: the City of London is distinct from Greater London. Which makes a start to explaining why the Mayor of London, whose office faces the City across the river, is not in fact the mayor of it.
|The Greater London Authority (GLA) headquarters, which houses the Mayor’s office. The point of the ‘Greater’ is that the GLA governs ‘Greater London’ and not the City of London.|
The office of the Mayor, currently held by Sadiq Khan, is a new one, created only in 2000. The Mayor is chosen every four years by popular election and heads the Greater London Authority (GLA). This is itself the latest in a short sequence of bodies that have governed Greater London since its formation in the 1960s, which shows just how recent the concept is.
But the Old City is too ancient, powerful, and convinced of its own exclusive destiny to condescend to such trifles as democratic elections. It has its own leader – confusingly, the Lord Mayor of London – who is elected not by the people but by the City’s livery companies and whose office has existed since 1189. The livery companies are the City’s merchant guilds or trading associations, typically styled ‘The Worshipful Company of’ something or other and in some cases hundreds of years old. And in the costumes, rituals, closed double doors and archaic vocabulary of the ‘sheriffs’ and ‘aldermen’ of their City of London Corporation – their very own island of self-government and buttress against hostile waves of democracy from the little people outside – they are not afraid to show it.
Their own clutch of skyscrapers is new, an outcome of the unshackling of the financial sector in the 1980s which has replaced England’s real economy. Nonetheless it was not out of character for some in the City to embrace that new opportunity. The language of their governance structures speaks for itself: the Old City has always been the domain of merchants and traders willing to do whatever it takes to turn a profit, and it is this that has secured its constant dominance since its revival under King Alfred in the ninth century.
Through the river, the merchants connected England to the outside world. They brought other people’s stuff in and got rich selling it. That made them powerful. It made whoever could control or count on their support powerful too. So whether it was Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, Normans, Tudors, or later political heavyweights with either imperialist or democratic visions, the City was too precious and useful an asset for them to ignore, let alone confront. Whatever rulers or ideas held sway over England in a given time, the City was happy to exploit to serve its own interests, yet just as swift to brandish its clout if it felt they threatened them.
The story of the docklands was a perfect example. In earlier centuries the City merchants wrestled ferociously with successive royal governments to produce the Legal Quays system. These quays – all of course along the City’s own riverbank – were the only places cargo ships were allowed to unload, so of course all their delicious import taxes got funnelled straight into the hands of the Corporation’s customs officials. Naturally they swarmed with corruption and bitterly resisted the rise of the docks until the clogging of the river with ships left no real choice. Enraged by the dock monopolies’ destruction of business at their Legal Quays, they nonetheless waited patiently for those monopolies to expire then scrambled for everything that fell through the big dock companies’ arms, in some cases creating new docks of their own. And when the whole dock system came crashing down in the late twentieth century to be swept up by the free-market revolution, those who now sit atop these new Towers of London, the Gherkins and Walkie-Talkies, were ready to bite their own chunks off it too by leaping into the new ranks of financiers and property speculators atop England’s undead modernity.
Now whether one defines democracy narrowly as the ballot box or broadly as a system where people have political power over their own lives, there is a mounting sense that the English and British democratic project is in serious trouble. What, in this crisis, is the significance of the City of London’s power?
Perhaps its vote in the 2016 Cameron referendum – 75.3% to Remain, 24.7% to Leave – reflects its ambiguity. Most merchants dislike uncertainty and enjoy having access to other people’s markets, and there is no doubt that these Brexiting times have left a great many of them anxious and frustrated. Yet as in the docklands, others among their number salivate at the prospect of upheaval: the disaster capitalist bankers, speculators, free-market ideologues and merchants of death who see in every calamity the chance to make huge gains out of others’ shock and misery and, it is feared, await the chance to do just that if Brexit goes through. Their values and outcomes – deregulation, tax avoidance, rock-bottom health and environmental standards, exploitative and insecure work, and so on – are very straightforwardly anti-democratic: the whole point is to carve power over people’s lives away from them by corroding their health and rights. And that is to say nothing of the City’s behaviour in bringing about the Brexit crisis in the first place, whether by causing the 2007-8 financial crisis, or by rescuing itself with public money then continuing to siphon the nation’s wealth as austerity policies ripped the majority population into poverty.
In pain and rage, and often with little left to lose, that population rails against the City merchants. It accuses them, not without basis, of wrecking English democracy in any meaningful sense, but what that sense is differs depending on the values and identities of the accusers. In the hands of the nationalists, it becomes a charge that the merchants are rootless elites with no higher loyalty to their nation. From this there rises a tin-pot notion of democracy as the brute power of a (real or perceived) majority, identifying along tribal or ethnic lines and enforceable through violent masculinism, whence former Prime Minister Theresa May’s infamous ‘citizens of nowhere’ speech.
It is this populist debasement of democracy, with its shades of the path to twentieth-century fascism, that has found expression through the Brexit movement, imperilling the English democratic experiment in a paradoxical double assault with the disaster capitalists in hatred of whom it emerged but in whose prophecies of rapturous upheaval it identifies a common destiny.
Which casts a certain irony upon the HMS Belfast moored across the river.
This navy cruiser, launched in 1938, went on many adventures in World War II before settling here as an iconic museum ship. It embodies what is without question the most prominent tale in the popular storybook of English democracy: its triumphant fight in 1939-45 against the external threat from Nazi racist authoritarianism. That the Nazis were a threat – an unspeakably heinous one – is in no doubt; but they were never the only threat, nor even the most dangerous. The storytellers’ mistake has been to locate the threat too heavily in the external part, and not enough in the racist authoritarianism part which has just as long been present in English hearts too. The worst enemies of English democracy have always been in England – and here, right beside this old warrior, are targets it might want scrutinise for creating the poverty and alienation that nurtures those.
The City of London sits entirely on the north bank, which has generated a lasting dynamic on the lower Thames: the dominance of north over south.
|The London Underground map, one of this city’s most recognisable images, illustrates this with potency. Notice how few of its lines serve the south of the river. (The green tram line at the bottom was only added in 2000.)|
Yet London’s site was chosen because it was the lowest point on the river the Romans could ford it. And till 1750 London Bridge was the only place you could ford it because our friends the City merchants had a vested interest in resolutely opposing new bridges, lest they cause any of the revenues of its tolls, ferries and bridge-side businesses to fall away from their single open maw.
|A display of several of London Bridge’s incarnations, though it goes back at least to the timber bridge built by the Romans around 50 CE. Notice how most generations had buildings stacked on the bridge itself.|
And so a secondary settlement grew up round the south end of the bridge. Southwark – the ‘south work’ – is thus one of the oldest pieces of the Greater London conurbation. Indeed, the very fact it came into existence as the ‘other’ London, consisting of several liberties outside the City’s jurisdiction, makes it an inviting place to look for alternative expressions of power.
Like this, for instance.
|Southwark Crown Court. It has fifteen courtrooms and seems especially interested in serious fraud cases.|
Southwark Crown Court is one of several Crown Courts in London, which occupy a rung about halfway up the English judicial system. Justice systems represent a significant plank of power in their own right in the stories of most nations, and those that aspire to democracy generally find it important that they be fair, transparent, and uninfluenced by other centres of power, particularly the political establishment: all people, no matter how powerful, should be equal before it. But in practice this perfect rule of law is never absolutely achieved. Laws and their arbitration grow from and are influenced by political forces and cultural values, especially oppressive and anti-democratic ones like race, gender and class. The result has been a tension between brave ideals and shameful realities, and a perpetual struggle between them for control of the justice system’s power.
How far that system in England has promoted or frustrated democratic outcomes is too vast a subject to delve deep into here. At the least, it is mercurial. It has often been ruthlessly oppressive: as a random sample of the courts’ political abuses, consider their role in Enclosure and the ‘Bloody Code’; the Bloody Assizes show trials of the 1680s (yes, that’s a lot of blood); and as a vehicle of homophobic prejudice in persecuting Oscar Wilde and Alan Turing. On the other hand, the courts have come far enough that they certainly have the power to hold powerful figures to account when they want to, as just this year when the Supreme Court overturned Boris Johnson’s prorogation of parliament. On the last public opinion divided down the political lines of the Brexit confrontation, with some in Johnson’s government claiming angrily that the court had overstepped its remit and making sinister mutters about reforming it. In the present English crisis, we see well how the place of the courts is yet one more form of power under contestation.
The justice of Baroness Hale, who sank Boris’s prorogation, is clearly a very different thing from the justice of Lord Jeffreys of Bloody Assizes fame. Power is not static. It changes – like the river, it ebbs, flows, and swirls. And next door to the court, a familiar pattern of shifting power-tides returns in the form of Hay’s Galleria. It used to be Hay’s Wharf, which in the heyday of imperial plunder became one of London’s principal landing sites for imported tea along with the other dry foodstuffs that got it nicknamed ‘London’s Larder’. But since closing in 1970 it has been redone into offices, shops and flats.
|The reincarnated Hay’s Galleria. As the structures of England’s political economy has changed, so too has power flowed out of some types of hands and into others. It will continue to do so, but they must choose how.|
The rentier class sweeps everything away, and like the Tower of London, once-mighty powers tremble in the shadows of its upstarts. In the centre of Southwark is evidence of another old power gone by.
|Mammon’s Revenge: Southwark Cathedral, overshadowed since 2012 by the tallest building in the UK. The Shard is effectively owned by the state of Qatar, with its luxury offices occupied by high-end international businesses.|
|This ruin is all that remains of Winchester Palace, once the London residence of the Bishops of Winchester and one of the grandest centres of authority in the London area.|
The Christian church once wielded very real clout in this land. In medieval times the Bishop of Winchester was effectively the king’s chancellor, giving the twelfth-century Winchester Palace high status indeed. Southwark Cathedral was preceded by a prestigious monastery, perhaps like many in this country a centre not only of worship but of scholarship and fabulous wealth.
In the period these were built the Church was already established as a locus of spiritual authority in England, but in practice this meant regular involvement in its political and economic affairs too. This meant trouble, because the Church meant the Roman Catholic church, meaning in turn that an external power – the Pope in Rome and his bishops – wielded authority in the same territory as the English king. When they didn't get on, the crown-versus-church power struggle became one of the most defining dynamics in early English politics, with the drama of King Henry II and Archbishop Thomas Becket perhaps its most representative episode.
This contest came to a spectacular and violent end in the 1530s under the Tudor dynasty, when Henry VIII crushed the monasteries, seized control of the Church in England for himself, and permanently threw the authority of the Pope out of England. But because he did it out of his own personal interest in fucking Anne Boleyn and seizing the monasteries’ riches rather than for any higher constitutional vision, his death saddled England with a further century and a half of immiserating struggles, atrocious persecutions, and finally a messy civil war before the religious strife he unleashed resolved into anything resembling a peaceful settlement. Southwark Priory experienced this for itself, expropriated by Henry VIII then used for trials under his daughter, Queen Mary, in which religious dissidents were condemned to be burned alive. The Priory eventually became the Protestant cathedral it is now and has been rebuilt often over the years.
The monarch, currently Elizabeth II, remains head of England’s Protestant state church to this day. Though its power over people’s lives diminished from those turbulent centuries on, that has not stopped religious power asserting itself through other means. The centuries of seething anti-Catholic prejudice that followed, in continuity with longer-term anti-Semitism and modern Islamophobia; the dissenters and refugees unsatisfied with the eventual shape of Protestant England who quit England for Northern Ireland or America, and from there went on to cause all kinds of monumental trouble for their land of origin; such things have mattered a great deal in shaping this country’s fate, and even now one ignores them to one’s peril. Spiritual power can reach and move people from directions that more material forms of power have no access to, especially in an age when the latter is doing so much to discredit itself. It must be accounted for and channelled in healthy directions if democracy is what this nation seeks.
Look behind Southwark Cathedral and it appears these people have form in ironic ship placements. As the HMS Belfast blasts loyalty to nation in the faces of City bankers’ loyalty to their own pockets, another vessel challenges Southwark’s installations of spirit with an installation of matter.
|Replica of the Golden Hind, galleon of Sir Francis Drake.|
Other people’s matter, for the most part.
Francis Drake was a privateer, that is to say a pirate and private soldier, and one of the most illustrious in the period those became popular under Henry VIII’s daughter Elizabeth I. The government made use of these people to attack Spanish ships and rob them of the treasures they themselves had plundered off the indigenous South and Central Americans (whose civilisations the Spanish had spent that century butchering) because relying on privateers rather than official forces made it easier for the government to disavow responsibility. Aboard the Golden Hind, Drake circumnavigated the world in a career which developed English fortunes, knowledge and global connections that proved crucial for the colonial empire they would go on to assemble. And indeed, it was out of precisely such piracy that grew the City’s corporate big beasts who would do the assembling, like the Atlantic slave traders and the East India Company.
|Southwark Bridge. Built in 1921, this is a fairly recent addition to the lower Thames bridges.|
|Much as has been the case all the way up from Erith, the riverbank displays remnants of stories long gone by.|
Such was the power of the Bishops of Winchester that they set about some land reclamation next door to their Southwark lair. The strip they took off the river is now known as Bankside, but they might not have been impressed by its later fate. It became a land of recreation, and not all of it salubrious: bear-baiting, playhouses, and most famously the theatre, just as it was raised to its revolutionary flourish by William Shakespeare.
Arts, games and sports are political. The political authorities dreaded them as potential incubators of subversion, as did the religious authorities who found them morally corrupting. But ironically they came here in the first place thanks in part to the Bishops of Winchester, who by securing this area outside the jurisdiction of the City made it the perfect place to do things you couldn’t in places that pretended to respectability.
Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, resurrected in 1997, holds pride of place here. Beyond its function it is a monument to one of the titans of the dramatic arts, and the one person who has probably had the greatest individual impact on the English language.
Shakespeare and his work were critically immersed in the political atmosphere of his time. His plays rampage around the English historical consciousness when not single-handedly creating it, openly dissecting sensitive religious and sexual topics while carry razor-sharp yet profound and sometimes ambiguously complex political messages. Their resonances in the ominous years of the Tudor-Stuart transition remain no less potent today, and so rich is the mountain of timeless archetypes crystallised and deconstructed in his work that a surprising amount of mystery still surrounds the person behind it.
Here we see a completely different kind of power: not the coercive hard power of political armies and pirates (be they privateers or financiers), but an attractive soft power, first articulated by political scientist Joseph Nye, that moves hearts and minds through persuasion, emotive impact and charismatic appeal. Soft does not necessary mean good, still less democratic – it includes advertising and what is now called fake news – but its heartier forms have been formidably important to England’s power in the world, with the likes of Shakespeare, the Beatles, Manchester United and the BBC World Service doing far more in this country’s favour than was ever accomplished by its gunboats and bombers.
English hard power has largely collapsed with its empire and industrial base, driving their present crisis in the longer term. If they emerge from it, it could be expected that any attempt to rebuild their international profile will instead have to leverage their soft power assets like these to become loved in the world, rather than feared or (as seems largely the present case) pitied. Lessons from countries like Japan and Costa Rica, though by no means flawless, could be worth heeding in that circumstance.
|The area’s soft power concentration has assimilated another industrial relic. What used to be Bankside Power Station has bequeathed its unmistakable shape to the Tate Modern art museum.|
On the north bank the City comes to an end at Blackfriars, so named for the French Dominican priory that stood there till it was eaten by Henry VIII. But the real boundary has been buried, quite literally. It is the lower course of the River Fleet, one of the largest Thames tributaries until its amassment of some of London’s worst slums, markets and prisons turned it into an abominable open sewer. It has since been completely built over, but still flows underground and discharges into the Thames beneath Blackfriars Bridge.
From here the Thames crosses a weird middle distance between the Cities of London and Westminster. Neither of one centre nor the other, it has seen the comings and goings of yet more alternative forces in the English power story.
The north side gained early significance when, after the Romans left and the City declined for a time, the Anglo-Saxon immigrants built a wīc or trading port there called Lundenwic. After Alfred revived the old City this port became simply the ‘old wīc’, whose name lives on in the crescent of Aldwych. Nowadays it is dominated by the Temple district: the former lair of Catholic military orders whose esoteric ambience was inherited by their successors on that site, the lawyers.
On the south side, whose concerns come and go in the gravitational pull of Waterloo station, the river enters the former marshes of Lambeth, whose name – ‘landing place for lambs’ – hints at its settlement’s riverine origin.
|Concealed by the trees is the Temple complex, built for the fearsome Knights Templar and later passed to the Order of St. John (Knights Hospitaller). When they fell victim to Henry VIII’s purge, some lawyers to whom they had leased bits of it took over the rest of the site and have stayed there ever since. Its two parts, the Inner Temple and Middle Temple, are now two of London’s four barristers’ professional associations (the Inns of Court), and still count as liberties, i.e. independent local authorities. Being lawyers, they have put to effective use the cryptic atmosphere they inherited from the knights. Maybe they are sitting on their massive secret treasure hoards too.|
The recreational air of Bankside continues some way down the south bank, albeit with an increasing sense of performative modernity.
|Against these promises of tomorrow, the lamp-posts here are peculiar. Bearded Father Thames and gaping fish motifs suggest deep animistic or eldritch whispers.|
As Lambeth draws level with the City of Westminster, that performative modernity reaches a crescendo and surges with the explosive consumerism of the modern tourism industry.
|After WWII, the Labour Party government of Clement Attlee aspired to rebuild a ruined and bombed-out Britain. Famed for its creation of a new and visionary welfare state, within a few years that government was losing public support so decided to throw the 1951 Festival of Britain as a soft-power celebration of the nation’s recovery: a showcase of art, music, film and design right here on the south bank. A demonstration of English confidence, or a white elephant parade set loose by a government in trouble to disguise deeper problems? The question joins the Festival to a tradition that includes the Great Exhibition of 1851 before it and the Millennium Dome after it. The site where it happened is now these Jubilee Gardens.|
|Westminster Bridge, with the Palace of Westminster behind it.|
Westminster Bridge connects this jumble of disguised power scuffles with the place where everyone expects to find them: the City of Westminster, ground zero of England’s and Britain’s central political institutions. Westminster has been the seat of government in England since one of the last Anglo-Saxon kings, Edward the Confessor, commissioned the first Westminster Abbey (the ‘west minster’) here in the 1040s on what was then Thorney Island – note the river’s say again – and parked his palace next to it, and to this day most of this nation’s core political institutions are based in that area. The bridge itself is noteworthy as the first new bridge over the metropolitan Thames since Roman times: it was opened in 1750 only after overcoming nearly a hundred years of ferocious opposition and sabotage attempts by the City of London’s monopoly-jealous merchants and ferrymen. Indeed it was this that led the City to finally demolish the houses on London Bridge as they hurriedly sought to improve it to compete in a new era of bridge-building.
For three kilometres of river, that’s already a great deal of English power problems. But if you hoped that we were nearly finished, I’m afraid you’d better look over there.
It’s the English Parliament.
Sorry about that.
The City of Westminster
If there is one image that stands for democracy in the worldwide imagination today, it is surely this very Palace of Westminster. It houses the English (currently British) Parliament, the principal body in a government system seen as the archetype of parliamentary democracy – so much so that many countries around the world have sought to emulate this Westminster Model in their own democratic efforts.
Even its building seems to advertise this constitutional romance. It dates to the mid-nineteenth century, far more recent than parliament itself, when it replaced a previous palace which burned down. Its battery of Gothic Revival spires soars into the air, as though in symbolism of a power which grows organically from the people on the ground and carries their will to the supreme heights.
|Since 2017 the clock tower, known by its bell, Big Ben, has been silenced and shrouded in scaffolding for urgent restoration work, providing an unwittingly suitable allegory for England’s present crisis.|
There are many reasons England is not in fact a democracy. Considering the frustration of democratic outcomes by unaccountable powers such as the river has shown us so far, this cannot be called a country where power is arranged and put to use for the well-being of its people. But even leaving that wider problem aside for a moment to focus on Parliament itself, the historical fact, and there is really no way around it, is that as far as democracy is concerned, this institution is not a veteran, but a newcomer.
Parliament originated not as a popular body but a bunch of landowners, barons and priests, all men, gathered around England’s kings after the Norman Conquest of 1066. These ‘Great Councils’ helped the monarch keep on good terms with the powerful interests at the top of English society, its nobility and clergy, without whose support, not to mention money, ruling was very difficult; this is to some extent the case in all societies, no matter how autocratic. The big flashpoint here, celebrated by the English with almost mythological enthusiasm, was when angry barons rounded on King John and forced him to sign away some of his power in the Magna Carta of 1215. This of course had nothing to do with democracy and everything to do with protecting the power of the barons and priests at the top of the feudal hierarchy.
Over the centuries these councils gained permanence. Soon they were being called a parliament, a Norman French coinage (parlement, a ‘speaking’ or ‘conference’). They grew in strength when the monarch was weak and bubbled under when the monarch was strong. The Tudors were strong, but when Henry VIII smashed the priesthood off Parliament’s benches, that magnified the presence of its other main component, the landlords. By then they were already Enclosing common land in their territories for profit, and in the turbulence of the English Reformation many turned to extreme Protestantism and became Puritans, making them ever richer and tougher-minded just as the wars of Elizabeth I and extravagance of her successor, the Stuart king James I, emptied out the monarchy’s pockets and made it reliant on them for cash. Gradually, inadvertently, a new power imbalance was emerging between the monarch and parliament, whose explosion in the seventeenth century would knock that constitutional relationship onto its head.
And knock heads off it. When in the 1640s Parliament’s growing assertiveness came into conflict with King Charles I, James’s son, who insisted that the king was vested with supreme authority by God, the country plunged into the Civil Wars. The immense complexity of these conflicts is condensed in popular imagination to one of the most remarkable set-piece images in English history: when Parliament, having defeated the king in a full-scale military campaign up and down the country, put him on trial, found him guilty, and beheaded him.
The English had known regicide before, but Parliament’s behaviour this time was different. Having asserted its physical power, it now asserted power over the English story. It claimed the institution of Parliament had origins deep in Anglo-Saxon heritage, long before the monarchy, which by this reading was duty-bound to respect and listen to it; hence Charles Stuart’s naughtiness in failing to do so, and Parliament’s right to exercise its greater authority in holding him to account. This was neither the first nor last time in this world that revolutionaries have disguised themselves as traditionalists, but what was basically a re-writing of history has had remarkable staying power. It is from here that has grown the present-day myth that parliamentary democracy has timeless roots in some deep English ethno-national essence.
But democracy was far away. Parliament was still a gang of rich landowners out to protect their class interests, and they actively suppressed movements to get ordinary people’s concerns represented in politics. They ruled as a military junta no less authoritarian than the king had been, and after the death of their figurehead, Oliver Cromwell, the country was fed up enough to bring the late king’s son back from exile to restore the monarchy again. Nor did it help Parliament’s legitimacy that the Stuarts had a tendency for professional martyrdom, and Charles had been no exception in swathing his death with an aura of tragic romance and wronged integrity. Parliament’s power was only cemented for good in 1689 after another revolution and a Dutch invasion: the MPs did a deal to accept the Dutch Stadtholder, William of Orange, as king in return for a Bill of Rights that enshrined in law Parliament’s right to powers over his office, along with freedom of speech on the benches (now known as parliamentary privilege, which lets them say illegal things if deemed necessary for their duties) and regular elections.
Elections, that is, among the tiny part of the population who were male, adult, and drew rents from an extremely high threshold of land ownership. It was on these hyper-exclusive terms that Parliament developed into a form recognisable today, as political parties and prime ministers emerged to represent, and finally replace, the executive power of the king or queen. Nothing resembling democracy entered into it, and wouldn’t for some two centuries more until mass popular struggles like the Chartists and women’s suffrage movements prised open the franchise in bits and pieces – to people without massive property, to younger people, to women – and hacked away at corrupt practices like the rotten boroughs (like MPs getting in for a constituency that had fallen into the sea or only had seven people living in it). Naturally, Parliament’s abiding vested interests, now increasingly bound to the mighty corporations of the industrial revolution, kicked and screamed in contemptuous resistance all the way.
The last major voting reforms were in 1928, after which all men and women aged 28 or over could vote, and in 1969, when this was extended to people aged 18-20. It has therefore been less than one hundred years since any talk of electoral democracy became meaningful in this country, and the franchise still has glaring flaws: lowering the voting age (i.e. to people whose futures are most screwed over by political failings) is a recurring debate, and prisoners are still excluded. But the real problem is deeper, has been brought into bilious relief by the Brexit crisis, and at its heart goes right back to this seventeenth-century revolution that Parliament brought about.
It is that the English are insecure in what democracy means. Far from consensually arriving at a stable model and offering it for the world to emulate, their constitutional settlement actually emerged from a long bout of authoritarian bloodletting, in which both factions insisted their political values represented the true national interest but in practice each sought power over the other. Although executive power then passed from the monarch to a Prime Minister and Cabinet, its power relationship with Parliament has never been truly resolved. Any accountability either of them have to the wider public has been won piecemeal through generations of blood and tears, and is not in any way enshrined in the culture or identity of those institutions which for most of their lives preferred to answer to no-one but themselves.
It is hardly coincidence, then, that such a central plot of the Brexit drama has been abitter conflict between government and parliament, with each side’s supporters, and those of Leave and Remain more broadly, shouting in passion that they have exclusive claim to what democracy means while tarring their opponents as betrayers of the nation’s democratic will. In terms of historical fact, neither is right. On the one hand, this country has no solid tradition of making decisions by direct referendum, and its authoritarian cultural history makes it easy to parse how so many of its people could recklessly define democracy as a coercive act of violence by a majority over a minority, i.e. Brexit. But nor does the more meaningful sense of democracy – the social and economic effort to build a freer and more inclusive togetherness, so at risk of being blown to pieces by Brexit – have historical basis here either, given the sheer number of people, past and present, abandoned and left without stake in those efforts. But of course, this was never about who is factually right or wrong, no more than the arugments between the Royalist Cavaliers and the Parliamentary Roundheads were. The problem is a normative one, about what kind of England its people want: and after so many years of failing to live up to their own democratic rhetoric, it has all come down, yet again, to a painful and disorienting power struggle.
With that, thankfully, it is time to get clear of English capital territory. The river now begins a long escape via the old marshlands and villages on Westminster’s western flank, historically part of Surrey (south) and Middlesex (north). Much of this land fell under the manorial estates of the Norman kings’ orbiting nobility – Vauxhall, ‘Falkes’s Hall’, is named for one of them – and, further west, of the royals themselves. The villages in these marshes sprouted mills and factories in industrial times to make use of the river and its tributaries, as well as the odd political or cultural installation.
|There is also the headquarters of a UN agency here, the International Maritime Organization (IMO). Like many countries, England has never been at ease with international power structures unless it gets to be in charge of them. Since winning WWII it has had a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, though for how much longer is surely in doubt. But it has reacted with raging hysteria to routine UN investigations that constructively criticised it on violence against women (2014) and extreme poverty (2019), and in the last month has refused to comply with a ruling by the UN General Assembly to relinquish its illegal occupation of the Chagos Islands.|
|The London Fire Brigade headquarters from 1937 to 2007. It has since moved to Southwark.|
|Across the river is Millbank Tower, built in 1963 for the Vickers-Armstrongs engineering company but since used by a range of companies and political organisations, including both the Labour and Conservative Parties.|
Much of the de-industrialised land here is now – of course – being re-done into unaffordable luxury housing.
|Like these. Does anyone actually live here?|
Near Vauxhall Bridge, two more ancient powers flow dormant beneath the surface. From the south the river Effra descended to the Thames till it was largely absorbed into Bazalgette’s sewer system. To the north, the Tyburn comes down from the Hampstead hills and still discharges into the Thames here. Both are now completely underground but might return in a future where London recedes.
|More redevelopments for the modern-day barons and clergy of rentier capitalism: the St George Wharf complex with its recognisable hats, completed in 2007-12.|
Hereabouts the marshes gave way to Surrey farmland, where an island or dry ground (Old English ēg) got named for someone called Beadurīc, whence this district’s present name Battersea. This was in turn part of the big Norman manor which encompassed a settlement (worth) named after a Wændel, whence the Borough of Wandsworth. Unusually the Thames’s major tributary through here, the Wandle, got its name from the settlement and not the other way round.
All this moving water attracted the mills and workshops of industrialisation, catalysed in this case by a pivotal factor: immigration. As the Reformation ripped Europe apart in religious warfare in the sixteenth century, a large number of persecuted French Protestants, called Huguenots, fled to England, whereupon the word refugee first entered the English language to describe them. Many of them settled in Wandsworth, and because they had skilled traditions in weaving, dyeing, hat-making and the chemicals and metallurgy to support those sectors, they helped turn Wandsworth into an industrial powerhouse in a period when textiles were at the core of the national economy. The teardrops depicted on the present Borough of Wandsworth’s coat of arms still commemorates these people who taught England one of its first lessons in how helping refugees reaps its own rewards.
Here on the riverfront the Nine Elms zone, formerly taken over by railways and gasworks, is undergoing regeneration into apartments and shopping centres.
Battersea is where the regeneration brigade have scrambled for a specially succulent jackpot. The four-chimneyed profile of Battersea Power Station, completed only after WWII, has held a commanding profile on the Chelsea Reach even long after its abandonment and fall to dereliction. Schemes to convert it into something else – shops, apartments, even a theme park – have been put forward by one development company after another, only for each to fall apart because the money ran out, the works went wrong, or people got angry about it. It is as though the building itself is determined to see off visions it deems unworthy, and although someone appears to have finally got a tight enough hold to really go for it with their cranes and scaffolding, time will tell if they, too, are shrugged off onto its pile of vanquished suitors.
|Battersea Power Station. Let’s see how long this behemoth allows this latest Lilliputian army to clamber around on it.|
|Now here is perhaps as healthy a deployment of power as we are likely to see on this journey. One of Battersea’s most eminent names today is the Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, a venerable animal shelter providing love, safety and re-housing for vulnerable animals since 1860. They have an explicit policy commitment to never turn away a dog or cat in need.|
Some of the marshes refused to be built on. Dark and windswept in the dingy shadows of industrial workshops, the stretch beyond the power station known as Battersea Fields was a convenient place for duellists to come and blow each other’s brains out until it got swept up in the let’s-preserve-green-spaces-while-we-still-can movement and was prettified into Battersea Park in the 1850s. This first large riverside park encountered on this route has been a precious local space for walking, sports, funfairs, and general recovery from London ever since.
|Over the bridge is Chelsea’s Royal Hospital, a famed retirement home for former soldiers who they put in red coats and tricorne hats and call Chelsea Pensioners.|
Down the rest of the Battersea Reach, the old concentration of riverside industries has given way to a protracted unaffordable-housing orgy.
|Ransome’s Dock, which once served the local industries but now finds itself hemmed in by new apartments.|
|The residential Montevetro Building (Italian: ‘glass mountain’) of 1999 replaced a two-centuries-old heritage of flour milling on this site. The bread company Hovis owned the mill from 1887 to 1994 with its grain arriving by river barge.|
At last, this long strike through the English heart approaches its end along the Wandsworth riverfront.
|Battersea Railway Bridge, a creature of the railway companies since they built it in 1863. It feeds trains into the nightmare tangle of Clapham Junction to the south.|
The goal of this section, Putney, lies just ahead.
|Despite Brexit, the moorings at Prospect Quay, which once served a large coal or gas depot, resemble the gondola posts of Venice.|
|Putney’s The Boathouse pub is built into a former vinegar brewery.|
Putney is different: a very old village with a name origin lost in obscurity, whose bridge signals our escape at last from the London core. The relative narrowness of the riverbend here made it a ferry crossing of old, but its first bridge dates well beyond the capital’s bridge scramble to the opening phase of the war between Parliament and the king. The parliamentary army threw down boats to make a pontoon bridge here as they rushed across soldiers and artillery to secure Surrey against the king’s incoming army in 1642; his failure to get London back off them and retreat up the Thames valley guaranteed the war’s spread across the rest of the country.
|A more permanent wooden Putney Bridge was put up in 1729 but was later run into by a barge and badly damaged, so they replaced it in 1886 with this stone creation, courtesy once more of Mr. Bazalgette.|
As something of a waypoint for river travel to the royal playgrounds upstream, Putney seems to have been well-supplied and looked after even while maintaining its character of a semi-rural hamlet. It has long exerted a subtle significance in the national story, with all manner of prominent personages coming through it like Henry VIII’s enforcer Thomas Cromwell (also decapitated at the Tower) and the great historian Edward Gibbon, both of whom were born here.
But it is another civil war story in Putney that offers a fitting close for today’s exploration of English power, and of the many ways it has acted to frustrate, subvert, or downright strangle this people’s attempts to create a democratic reality. No episode better exemplifies this tradition than the Putney Debates, which took place here, at this Church of St. Mary the Virgin, in 1647.
By then the war had raged for five years. Parliament and its New Model Army had captured King Charles, who was amusing himself by pretending to negotiate with them while actually waiting for them to fall out among themselves. And he had good reason to hope this would happen.
It is hard to imagine how bewildering a period this must have been for everyone involved. The English had bloodied their kings before but had never seen the institution of the monarchy itself challenged like this, let alone done away with altogether as it would be for a decade to come. One product of that atmosphere was a flourishing of radical social and political movements. The most prominent was the Levellers, named for people who had flattened hedges by which private landlords Enclosed common ground, and they called for religious freedom, natural rights, gender equality, progressive taxation, social justice, and the right to vote regardless of whether or not you held property. A rainbow of further groups with fantastic names and grassroots profiles of their own – Diggers, Ranters, Quakers, Fifth Monarchists and so forth – completed a kaleidoscope which shook out what appears to have been the first authentic, peaceful, and sustained articulation of democratic politics in English history.
Now the Parliamentarians might have toppled the king but they were still an authoritarian military regime led by rich landowners. They framed their revolutionary war against King Charles as a conservative mission to uphold England’s true constitutional order, intending originally only to bring him to account and only later, under pressure of circumstances, deciding to lop off his head and abolish his office altogether. They found these movements’ calls for democratic reforms alarming in the extreme. But simply ignoring them was not an option because they had taken root, perhaps ironically, in their New Model Army itself, which – another first for England – was a professionalised force built from the populace based on merit, not appointed by social rank. By now it was full of soldiers who had done all the hard work of defeating the Royalist army and were now sitting around, waiting to be paid, and wanting a chance to participate in governing the new country they had helped create.
It was these Levellers who, in presenting their manifesto, spooked Oliver Cromwell and Parliament’s other leaders, lest they lose authority in their army, into holding the Putney Debates to resolve the matter. And in that meeting Thomas Rainsborough, one of the Levellers’ most articulate spokespeople, stood up and delivered these immortal lines:
I think that the poorest he that is in England has a life to live as the greatest he; and therefore, truly, sir, I think it’s clear that every man that 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 has not had a voice to put himself under.
Emphasis added, because look at that. Consent. The core principle of democratic power relationships, whether with the state or between individuals, and goodness knows they have yet to crack it in either more than 350 years later.
Parliament’s response? It hedged for a while, sowed division among the ranks, then visited merciless violence on anyone who still dared to speak out. When after a few years the movements still weren’t going away, an exasperated Cromwell expressed the traditional English attitude to democracy best:
You are necessitated to break them.
And so the first known gasp of democracy in England was throttled, not to resurface in serious contention for another two hundred years – and then of course, from Peterloo to the labour movement, from the Chartists to the Suffragettes, the instinctive response from the authorities was always the bullets, blades, handcuffs and swaggering contempt of authoritarianism, which struggled against each wave as long as it could, before giving up as little ground as it could get away with, once it had no choice.
What impression are we to be left with then, after following the Thames through the political heart of England, if not that beneath the veneer of the popular story of apparent democracy flows a far darker tale? A tale driven less by the will of the people, by any estimation, and more by the violence and myth-making of those who, whenever they seized power in this land, were unrelenting in their determination to keep it? And where does it leave them today, lost in yet another raw power struggle disguised by lashings of competitive storytelling about English democracy, whose only common feature is that none has been able to provide a story acceptable to most people?
There will be people, especially those who believe in history as a straight line of progress culminating in a wonderful thing called modernity, who claim this is an unreasonable standard to hold them to; that real democracy, let alone things like social justice and gender equality, are anachronistic to speak of in a history shaped by a naturally violent and hierarchical human nature. That’s why events like the Putney Debates matter: they are proof that this excuse is hollow and this concept of nature a nonsense. The will for democracy has existed, and people are on record as having voiced it.
England chose not to listen – chose violence instead.
They must take responsibility for their nation’s authoritarian mistakes.
They should be warned that this authoritarian instinct has never really left them.
And they should look to the river. Here, past where democracy had its first real go in this land, the river ebbs and flows, up and down, twice a day. This water is the real power here, ancient when this nation was young, with each of England's phasing power arrangements it has shown us today mere ripples in its journey of millennia. It moves much like history does: not from a pre-determined beginning to end but with every motion unique, a story in itself, if with a few recurring patterns and habits. It brings in all the ideas and resources its human guests need to assemble whatever power arrangement they want – but that choice, it leaves to them.