On fiction and RBPEA – ‘Chance and the Institution’
This extract from the collaborative transmedia-project gives a bit more detail on the underlying backstory and storyworld that I’m setting up for it, and the crucial impact on world history of the suppression by Oliver Cromwell and others, in 1647-9, of a proposed alternative post-Civil War constitution called ‘The Agreement of the People’. That one act of self-centred sabotage has arguably sent us nigh-on four hundred years in the wrong direction, in terms of long-term sustainability, survivability and more – an error from which, right now, we’re still right on a knife-edge as to whether we will be able to recover.
(Building tools to give us some chance of recovery has been the focus and purpose of my work over the past ten years or so, on what I’ve termed ‘Really-Big-Picture Enterprise-Architecture’, or ‘RBPEA’ for short.)
The fiction-project uses an alternative-history model, somewhat in the vein of the steampunk genre, to provide a contrast and counterpart to our own everyday reality. The alternative-history diverges from our own timeline at 1649, by assuming that ‘The Agreement of the People’ was not suppressed, and imagining what would have happened as a result of that one change.
Somewhat recursively, this extract is a fictional talk by someone doing a ‘What-if’ in the other direction, with our timeline as the imagined world. Perhaps particularly for women, it’s a bit sobering to realise just how much we’ve probably missed out on over these past few centuries… And also, as the speaker says at the end of his lecture, the crucial importance of paying the right attention to even the smallest of chances that pass our way: “the wisdom of Monsieur Pasteur’s warning that ‘In the fields of observation, chance favours only the prepared mind’”.
Over to you: once again, I hope you enjoy it – and maybe even find that it, uh, kinda makes a lot of sense…
Chance and the Institution
Paper presented by Mr Thomas Coreham at the Commonwealth Institution for the Sciences, on the occasion of its Colloquium on the Role of Chance in Science, 18th September, 1887.
Thank you, Madame Chair, for that kind introduction. Thank you to the members of this august Institution, for inviting me to contribute to this Colloquium. And thank you, ladies, gentleman and all, for honouring me with your attendance at this lecture tonight.
The theme of our Colloquium is the role of chance in the sciences, and the wisdom of Monsieur Pasteur’s warning that “In the fields of observation, chance favours only the prepared mind”. My own topic here is an assessment of a single instance of chance in our nation’s history, and how lesser preparedness for the import of that event would have had incalculable effects not just upon the history of our sciences, but even the existence itself of our great Commonwealth of today. I would ask you to allow me to indulge in a certain amount of conjecture – a “What-if”, to use the current vulgar parlance – yet I trust that you will accept that the implications are clear, and the probabilities high, and that the social logic points to outcomes that would have been all but inevitable. As you will see, ladies and gentlemen, much of the future world hung in the balance at that one moment – and if the balance had tipped the other way, our present would be one that few of us would enjoy.
So, to my topic itself.
In the year one thousand six hundred and forty seven of our Lord – or of our Lady, if such is your faith – this nation was in the process of recovery from a bitter civil war. The party of the Tyrant had been broken, and the Tyrant Charles himself in captivity at Hampton Court; Generals Fairfax and Cromwell were in control of the land, as enforced by Cromwell’s New Model Army. That much is known well by every schoolchild in this land today.
Yet there was much dissension within the New Model Army itself, in part over arrears of pay, but perhaps more over the form of government that should pertain thereafter. In late October, the parties came together for the Putney Debates, at which Mr Lilburne and others of the Levellers within the Army presented Mr Wildman’s first draft of ‘An Agreement of the People’ – the Magna Carta of the people that, as you would know, is the basis of our constitution to this day. Cromwell and others of the ‘Grandees’ amongst the officers of the Army objected to key tenets of the Agreement: for example, they opined that the document’s provision for near-universal male suffrage would be tantamount to anarchy. In particular, Cromwell’s son-in-law Henry Ireton argued the case for the preservation of the property-rights and privileges of the ‘gentry’ over all others – concepts which are, of course, all but incomprehensible to us today.
By the eighth of November it was clear that the Grandees were on the verge of losing the debate. Fearing a collapse of his authority, Cromwell demanded that the debate be suspended. Three days later, the Tyrant escaped from Hampton Court, and the civil war restarted once more, with much bloodshed on all sides. Further debate upon the Agreement was shelved for the duration of the conflict, whilst representation of the rank-and-file soldiery on the Army Council was curtailed without explanation early in the following year.
Yet the demands of the soldiery and the common people could not be ignored, and debate on the Agreement recommenced at the end of that following year. At the Whitehall Debates, Ireton once again took the lead in attempts to preserve the rights and privileges of the supposed ‘gentry’ of the land; and once again, he and the party of the Grandees showed themselves to be far from averse at manipulations to force their views upon others.
At this moment, though, occurs our crucial event of chance. On his deathbed, a soldier, whose name is still unknown to history, sent a packet of papers to Overton and Lilburne about uncommon orders at Hampton Court for the night at which the Tyrant escaped. The anomalies at first seemed trivial: a change of sentry-duty, to a soldier under Ireton’s command, with Ireton’s own signature and seal undoubted upon the written order. At this, though, Overton’s suspicions were aroused: to adapt Monsieur Pasteur’s phrase, his mind was prepared for this moment of chance. He initiated a search of the Army’s records, which returned the fact that the substitute sentry had himself had died early the following day – not in battle, but from a ball to the throat, supposedly from his own musket, during the urgent march to Canterbury to take arms against the supporters of the Tyrant. The inexplicable change of sentry, the unexpected escape, the suspicious death of the sentry himself? – given the impact it had had on the previous debates upon the Agreement, that was too much coincidence to ignore.
Lilburne, as we know, then published a pamphlet upon the matter; and although the firm evidence that we would expect of the forensic philosopher of today was not available to them, the message therein was more than sufficient to enrage the populace of London. Accused of treason and worse, Ireton was forced to flee the country forever, and died in Belgium, dissolute and friendless, some twelve years later. And although not directly implicated in the affair, the credibility of his father-in-law, Oliver Cromwell, was likewise besmirched. Most members of the New Model Army, whether officers or rank-and-file, declared themselves betrayed by both men, and refused to serve under Cromwell again: he was forced to resign his commission, and return to civilian life, without the able support of his previous right-hand man Ireton.
With Cromwell and Ireton both out of the picture, the Grandees’ objections to the Agreement soon fell to the ground. It was then adopted by Parliament, and, as we likewise all know, became the constitutional basis for all relations and law within the land, as the Commonwealth of England. And also, of course, for the trial and subsequent execution of the Tyrant, for murder and for treason, early the following year, leading to the period we know now as the Interregnum.
Although somewhat disgraced by Ireton’s treachery – “tarred with the same barrel”, as we would say today – Cromwell’s skills could not be ignored, and he was invited to take the part of Protector of the Commonwealth, the final adjudicator for any irresolvable clash in Parliament – that rare yet essential task that is the key constitutional role of the Monarch today. He served well in that role, for a decade, placing his inimitable stamp upon the nation. Yet the claims of the former royalists could not be ignored, and on his death, the scene was set for the Restoration – though with the monarchy constrained and restricted, to prevent any return to the excesses of the Tyrant, and for the most part under the sovereignty of the people as a whole.
Those are the events that led to the world that we have today. The Commonwealth has greatly expanded since then, of course, first to the Commonwealth of Great Britain and Ireland, uniting all four countries under a common bond, and thence eventually to our broad Greater Commonwealth across the world.
Yet imagine, if you would, a world in which that one moment of chance was missed; in which the package was not delivered to Overton, or that he failed to understand its import; and in which the Grandees succeeded in their aim to prevent the Agreement becoming the law of the land, and instead to reshape the bloodied country into a form more of their own choosing, maintaining the separations between the rich and poor of the land. What would such a world look like? How would it differ from our own? With your indulgence, I shall use the notion of a ‘timeline’ for diverging universes, to illustrate the differences that I have seen implied during my researches to date.
The first and most obvious difference would be in relations between people. In our own timeline, of course, near universal male suffrage applied from the date of the adoption of the Agreement, with similar female suffrage delayed, to our shame, until some sixty years later, during the reign of Queen Anne. We could perhaps describe that engagement of everyone in their own Commonwealth as government of the people, by the people, for the people.
And in our time, we who consider ourselves ‘gentlefolk’ do so through force of morals, a code of behaviour through which we relate with all others regardless of their work or way of life. For us, to be gentle with others is a choice – in general, a wise choice, but a choice nonetheless. Yet at that time, to belong to the self-styled ‘gentry’ was far more a matter of wealth, in land or property acquired through military force in maybe centuries past, through often-dishonest trade with others, or even through outright piracy in Elizabeth’s time. It was this unfair and societally-divisive system of property and arbitrary privilege that the Grandees sought to protect and preserve.
Under their proposals, the only people entitled to vote would have been men alone, and only those men who controlled property or lands worth at least two hundred pounds at that time – an astonishing sum of perhaps one hundred times or more compared to what any ordinary peasant could raise. This would have led to a Parliament composed solely of wealthy men – often very wealthy indeed – and thence to a government of the rich, by the rich, for the rich.
In essence, the model proposed by the Grandees was little different than that which had gone before, other than that the country was to be run by, and for the exclusive benefit of, a somewhat different set of parasites and thieves. If a restoration of the monarchy had occurred at some stage in the future of that timeline – maybe even the same as in our own, as no doubt many amongst the royalist party would have fervently desired – then it would have been, as the French say, “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.”
The ordinary people would have had no say in matters of government – indeed, their position would have been little different from that in feudal times, as near-serfs whose supposed role in life would have been to enrich and glorify their ‘master’, much as we still see in the lands of the Tsar. And when, for example, the Diggers claimed those unused lands at St George’s Hill, and the local landowners raised against them a small private army of ruffians, we might have expected that that Parliament would have sided with the landowners – not with the Diggers, as in our timeline, which in turn led to the expansion and improvement of the common lands that became so important to our nation’s survival in the succeeding century.
Indeed, we might instead have seen the ‘gentry’ become ever more emboldened over time, maybe seizing even the common lands as their own private property – unthinkable as that might seem today. And since such wants are ever limitless, they would not have been sated by possession of everything within a single country: we know that Cromwell was in the midst of preparations for an invasion of Ireland at the time, with Scotland no doubt next, yet prevented from doing so only by an Army revolt when the facts of Ireton’s treachery became known. Then onward and ever onward, indulging in imperious adventurism worldwide that might have rivalled or even overtopped the colonial excesses of our neighbours across the water. The near enslavement of the ordinary people; the maintenance of a system of taxes that, for the most part, were all but inversely proportional to income; the continuation of the practice of conscription; the arbitrary monopolies assigned to favourites of the Tyrant; these would all have made such adventurism ever more likely, and ever more extreme – to the profit of the ‘gentry’, no doubt, but to the misery of all else.
Those concerns expressed within the Agreement about ‘equality before the law’ suggest, too, that the law of that time was far from equal, and that instead there would have been ‘one law for the rich, another for the poor’. With control of all legislation in the hands of the rich alone, as the Grandees had intended, we might expect to have seen this tendency further exacerbated over time, perhaps to extremes of impunity for the richest of the rich, even for the worst of crimes – as again we have seen enacted over the centuries, and on occasion even still unto the present day, in some of our neighbouring nations.
All of that, combined with the continuance of the death-penalty even for minor crimes such as theft, might also have emboldened the rich to create an ever-harsher criminal code, in which the preservation of their own private property would have had priority not only over the well-being and livelihoods of ordinary people, but even over their very lives. Barbaric indeed as that would seem to us today, it seems likely that all of these would have been real outcomes of the Grandees’ actions against the Agreement in those days of so long ago.
However, perhaps the most surprising differences to our time would have arisen from the loss of one of the lesser-known provisions of the Agreement, the abolition of tithes. As the name suggests, these payments to the Church represented a tenth of each person’s annual income – an intolerable burden on the general populace, who were often also forced to make up any shortfall in their ‘master’s’ dues. In our timeline, the abolition of tithes broke the power of the Church at a single stroke, and gave us the religious freedoms that we have today, in which each person’s faith is a personal matter, never to be imposed by others from outside.
Yet we should note that the Church of that time was also an instrument of the state, a key means of social control. Given the Grandees’ known antipathy to some of the more insightful religious movements of the time, such as the Quakers and Ranters, we could expect to have seen active suppression of those movements – to the detriment of the moral character of the nation as a whole, and perhaps even more in the morals of business relationship that are so central to all trade within the Greater Commonwealth of today.
Even more, though, it would have been the continued dominance of the Church’s attitudes towards others that could have caused the greatest pain. The two areas of greatest concern would have been its suppression of all other modes of thought than those of the Church itself, and its endemic antipathy towards women in general, and women of independent thought and action in particular. With such views in the ascendant, we might never have seen the works of such noted alchemists as Isaac Newton, and the collaborations that gave rise to the first viner technologies of two centuries ago. We would have lost fully half of our scientists, philosophers and enginers: we might never have seen the astral brilliance brought to us by astronomer Caroline Herschel; or the poetical science and mathematics of Ada Lovelace; or, further back, the knotwork nexus of Patience Heatherstone, the foundation-stone of every viner’s work. Worse, without such women at the helm, the disaster of the Plague might well have been attributed to some imagined retribution of the Deity, rather than viewed as matter of medicine; and many thousands – nay, millions – of lives might well have been lost to pestilence, even unto the present day. Worse still – and I apologise for any distress this may cause – it is probable that the Church’s endemic insanity of witchhunts, and their concomitant torture and murder of so many innocent women, might well have continued for decades, if not centuries, had the Agreement not become a central part of our nation’s life.
Imagine also, if you will, the impact of all of this upon our cultural life. In the rebuilding of London after the Great Fire, Christopher Wren might now be known as an architect of churches, rather than the magnificent Meeting Halls that grace our city to this day. Jane Austen’s scathing wit might have been pointed not at the follies and foibles of professional women, but at powerless maidens wasting away their young lives awaiting the advances of a suitably-rich suitor. In a world in which coal-steam would have been the only technology of power, and that existing solely for the private profit of ‘the owners’, William Blake might well have penned dark diatribes against ‘dark satanic mills’, instead of his beloved paeans of praise to a country life made comfortable for all by viner-beasts. And in our own time, Charles Dickens might rail against not the pointlessness of possessionism amongst everyday folk, but at the grinding poverty of an urban poor whose plight we can barely imagine today.
All of this divergence from the world that we know could well have have been our fate, just from inattention at that one moment of chance. Ladies and gentleman, chance matters, to all of us; and we need to prepare and keep ourselves ready for whenever the right moment of chance might happen to pass our way.
I thank you once again for your attention and your time, and hope that we shall meet once more on some future occasion in these hallowed halls.
(That’s it on this story-fragment. Over to you for any comments and suchlike, if you wish?)