Land, democracy and 21st century Diggers

The New Putney Debates are once again bringing the British public together to talk as equals about power and liberty. A debate on land cuts to the heart of the crucial issue of ownership.

6 November 2012

“I see enclosure as a lens through which one can understand what’s been going on in this country over the past 1000 years.”  

Dressed in white and back, George Monbiot makes for an unusual priest. Huddled over cameras and laptops, his flock looks equally unlikely. Tonight’s gathering, the seventh and perhaps most accessible event in the New Putney debates series, is here to revisit the relationship between land and democracy. It’s not rocket science. As George said, “It all goes back to the Norman yoke, a peculiar concept in which the person at the top takes everything and then decides what the rest get.”

The chosen venue, St Mary's Church, is sacred in more ways than one. It’s an old church for a start. Not just any place of Christian worship but one dedicated to Mary, the mother of Jesus, a symbol in her own right of redemption, of salvation from error and evil. It is also housed the original 1647 Putney debates that arguably paved the way for England’s constitution. Here, more than three hundred years ago, Christianity embraced communism and certain rights, such as freedom of conscience (thought) and equality before the law, were declared sacrosanct.

“In the eighteenth century, a big body of law was created to justify and extend seizure of land. Fifty new capital offences were created to stop hunt sabotage. Game laws became completely oppressive, even lethal instruments. You could get hanged for painting or pulling down a fence or for chasing off deer.”

Such a long time ago, it feels unreal. Today, there’s no need for such brutal tactics, our culture has become more civilised. Also, with 70% of Britain’s land owned by less than 1% of the population, it would appear that there’s not much more left to plunder. Turns out though, appearances are deceiving.

“Taxpayers today, people who can’t afford it, pay the Duke of Westminster almost a million pounds every year in land subsidies. And Cameron’s government has voted against European laws seeking to put a size limit on such subsidies, on the grounds that this would impede further land consolidation. It’s amazing that we put up with it.”

Clearly, there’s still some way to go until total domination. So what is the insecure and dissatisfied landowner to do until then?

“Even the scraps are being rounded up, as with the squatting laws. Squatting goes back long before the Norman conquests when cotters could live in temporary, makeshift cottages on land they didn’t own. This fundamental survival strategy has now been terminated.”

Later, Simon from the Runnymede Diggers spoke. The group take their name and inspiration from the Protestant agrarian communist movement that arose out of the Levellers, radicals that helped forced the original Putney debates. Simon described how the current planning system only allows agricultural labourers to live on land and to do so only in exceptional circumstances. In their four and a half months living on a piece of unmanaged and disused woodland close to where the Magna Carta is thought to have been sealed, these 21st century Diggers have been evicted several times and received a number of injunctions. Their defiance of these court orders means an arrest warrant for contempt of court could be issued against them at any time. As Simon set out,

“Enclosure takes many other forms beyond the physical and legal or metaphorical fences. You see it in the privatisation of state-owned assets, with an oligarchy seizing them at way below their market price. You see it in language. We don’t have natural resources anymore. We have ‘natural capital‘‘ecosystem services‘‘green infrastructure‘. Market terminology is used to justify the parceling out and enclosure of the wealth of the nation in the hands of the few. It’s the greatest privatisation project ever conceived and it’s against the law of God or basic principles of common justice.”

Questions start surfacing. How can you have freedom of conscience when you have lost control of communication, of your very language? Equality before the law in the absence of social justice? Democracy without the means for self-determination? The answer has to be, you can’t. Which logically and emotionally then brings up the question – what next? Simon's answer:

“We have the right and duty to start seeking to reclaim a much broader ownership of our common treasure but also of all the things that follow on from the physical economy, that are fruits of nature.”


Our common treasure. Commonwealth. Common wealth. After Simon, Natalie Bennett, the new leader of the Green Party, quotes Churchill on land monopoly, and proposes replacing council tax with Land Value Tax, a tax on the unaccrued value of land. It sounds technical until she starts putting it in numbers: cost of the Jubilee line, £3.5 billion; estimated value increase along land close to the line, £10 billion. Instead of borrowing the money to construct this line, the government could more sensibly have funded it by levying a 35% tax on the landowners. The remaining 65% profit for sitting pretty can hardly be called a bad deal. In a world where the lack of such actions has left increasing numbers of people disenfranchised and dispossessed, getting something for nothing might also be called indecent.

“The planning of land is another issue that is being enclosed. We have lost our common right to have a say in what happens to land. We have no say in how those who possess almost everything work.”

Question time and someone brings up another level of enclosure, one originating from beyond the nation state: international trade agreements and global corporate rights. The same themes emerge again and again: decision-making, political and democratic, rights of people being curtailed or terminated by those seeking to prevent any challenge to their rights of ownership.

Groups break out to discuss salient points. They describe enclosures that weren’t mentioned, such as temporary enclosures in parks during festivals, and advertising. How do we go about reclaiming things that have been seized and privatised? Maybe we can use targeted occupations when we’re aware that an enclosure is about to take place. Or maybe we don’t pay for resources that should be common, like water bills. There should be no taxing on the essentials for living. Lambeth was brought up as an example of co-ownership and economic democracy. One participant mentions a recent Oxfam study showing that the land acquired worldwide over the last decade (8 times the size of Britain) and used mostly for speculation, could have been used to feed almost a billion people.

Another group talks about the tragedy of private ownership, a play on one of the cornerstones of neoliberalist philosophy, the tragedy of the commons. There’s a lot of talk about how to counter propaganda, a language that leaves no room for dissent, communication that frames content so that it longer appears strange or abnormal. Other relevant points made: unregistered land, vacant buildings, inheritance tax, environmental concerns, the joys and challenges of learning to live together in communities, the importance of taking vital resources out of ownership and putting them into shared stewardship, the significance of unlikely supporters such as Mervyn King. Meanwhile, across the ocean, land is being reclaimed at a grassroots level. Closer to home, some Spaniards have retained reclaimed land for decades.

Tools for thinking and action, people, networks and working models. We have it all, along with the answer.

Our land.

This piece was first published on the Occupy London blog.

The full video of the event can be found here.

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