Britain's Very Own Taliban: Oliver Cromwell's Puritans Were Fundamentalists Who Banned Christmas, Outlawed Holly and Covered Up Their Women. (NS Christmas)

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Oliver Cromwell, the man who banned Christmas, is back in vogue. After Simon Schama's elegant TV account of Britain's one and only military dictator came Channel 4's 90-minute-long defence of "the brave, bad man" of the civil war. So strong is the current interest in the late Lord Protector that a feature film about his life is in production. Tim Roth is to play Cromwell, while Dougray Scott, the star of Enigma, has been cast as the parliamentary general Sir Thomas Fairfax.

Oliver Cromwell, born in 1599, dead in 1658, sometime MP for Cambridge, creator of the New Model Army, military genius, regicide and, finally, king in all but name, is one of history's great dividers. He brought peace after a decade of war, united England, Scotland and Ireland under one government, and stole Jamaica from the Spanish. He also committed unspeakable atrocities in Ireland and turned Britain into a soulless war state where Easter and Christmas were cancelled, Boxing Day sports prohibited, and ivy, mistletoe and holly outlawed, Taliban-style, as "ungodly branches of superstition".

Cromwell is responsible for a deeply divided legacy -- as one contemporary put it: "Never man was higher extolled, and never man was baselier reported of and vilified than this man."

In this historical divide, the left has always seemed to know whose side it was on. The fight for the socialist commonwealth was historically identified with the Puritan "Good Old Cause". Cromwell might have been a son of a bitch, but he was "our" son of a bitch. R H Tawney best summed it up when he wrote: "The Puritans, though unpleasant people, had one trifling merit. They did the job, or at any rate their job."

As the Labour Party owed more to Methodism than to Marx, so the Cromwellian lineage was there at its birth. Its very foundation place, the Memorial Hall, Farringdon Road, London, is a monument to one of the defining moments in Puritan history -- Charles II's ejection of Nonconformists from the Church of England in 1662. The spirit of radical Nonconformity was deeply felt by Labour's first leader, Keir Hardie. As Raphael Samuel has shown, Hardie regarded temperance, purity and clean living as prerequisites for the life of a true socialist. Hardie himself was more than a little puritanical: a lifelong campaigner in favour of abstinence, a champion of vegetarianism and a zealous advocate of the closure of music halls.

Hardie's puritanism enabled him to draw on the same religious rhetoric that drove the civil war combatants. He addressed striking railwaymen in the 1890s with all the biblical fervour of Cromwell rallying his cavalry on the eve of Marston Moor. "Come out from the house of bondage, fight for freedom, fight for manhood, fight for the coming day when in body, soul and spirit you will be free to live your own lives, and give glory to your Creator."

Ramsay MacDonald was similarly infused with the Roundhead spirit and, in 1912, published "A Plea for Puritanism". "With the Puritan, character must always count," he informed the troops of the nascent Labour movement. "The Puritan can no more ask what has private character to do with public life than he can ask what has theft to do with honesty."

Reverence for Cromwell was one of the few socialist traditions that survived the transition from old to new Labour. Frank Dobson, a politician whose career symbolises the difficulty of that passage, is a leading light (along with Lady Antonia Fraser) of the Cromwell Association. And Dobson shares the same machine-politics admiration for the Roundheads that Tawney expressed. "For me, it boils down to this," he responded to a question about Cromwell's actions at Drogheda. "He was on the right side in the civil war and, because of him, the right side won. He changed the course of English history, and changed it for the better."

Shamelessly, even those on the wrong side of the Labour divide have sought the benediction of Huntingdon's favourite son. …