"The times are running up like parchment on fire". 1642 or 2019?

In 1652 William Lilly wrote that the Westminster Parliament had become “odious unto all good men, the members whereof became insufferable in their pride, covetousness, self-ends, laziness, minding nothing but how to enrich themselves”. Not all MP s were corrupt - there was a kernel of “very able, judicious and worthy patriots who . . . by their silence, only served themselves; all was carried on by a rabble of dunces, who . . . voted what seemed best” to them at the time.

William Lilly
The 17th century chronicler, Bulstrode Whitelocke, recorder of events during the Commonwealth, wrote that Parliament was daily “breaking forth into new and violent parties and factions”, and making “too many delays of business and design to perpetuate themselves and to contrive the power in their own hands . . . nor can they be kept within the bounds of justice and law or reason” being answerable to no one but themselves.

Sound familiar? When I wrote the biography of the 17th century author Margaret Cavendish, I was struck by similarities between that time and ours.

We seem to be going through a re-run of 17th century politics.  Parliament was prorogued by King Charles I in 1629 and by 1642 there was increasing unrest.  “The times,” wrote Gerard Winstanley, “are running up like parchment on fire”.  That sounds familiar too.  It didn't end well.

England was (and is now) dangerously divided and ordinary people felt that they had no representation. Governed by a stubborn, self-serving monarch, there was no choice for them but civil war. Thousands of people died in battle, were hanged, beheaded, defenestrated and driven into exile. Their lands, money and houses were seized. The poor found themselves even more impoverished. Cromwell, supposedly on the side of the people, won, but he didn’t do too well either, and he closed Parliament in 1653.  An ironic note pinned to the door read “This House is to be Lett; now Unfurnished”.

Now, in 2019, we find ourselves, supposedly the Mother of All Parliaments, the ‘Oldest Democracy in the Western World’, exposed for what we are.  We have a Prime Minister elected by 0.13% of the population, a hereditary monarch, no constitution*, a Parliament elected by a skewed system, rigged to favour one party over the others, a largely unelected upper house that can be rigged by a prime minister appointing his/her cronies into it to create a majority, and, like the 17th century population, we can do nothing about it except by direct action.  It could be 1629.

We live in interesting times. When Margaret Cavendish wrote her book 'The Description of a New World called The Blazing World', I don't think this is what she envisaged. The dangers ahead make me feel physically ill if I allow myself to think about them. Meanwhile, the world is burning and the sea is rising and the government is not even discussing it.

* You can’t call a collection of often conflicting statues (some of them dating back to Magna Carta), a few Parliamentary ‘conventions’, and host of ‘gentleman’s agreements’ (women didn’t get the vote until 1928) a constitution. There are no provisions for, or guidance on the situation we face today. 


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