National Trust in assault on modern Diggers
A strange case is due to be heard in Slough County Court later this week. The National Trust is seeking an order for possession against “Diggers2012 and Persons Unknown”.
The NT also wants a “perpetual final injunction” against the “Diggers” of Runnymede Eco-Village. A ruling in its favour would prevent any camps on Cooper’s Hill in Runnymede, west of London, near where the Magna Carta was signed in 1215.
So who are these Diggers and why is the NT so determined to evict a small and peaceful group of people? A couple of months ago a group of democracy campaigners occupied less than an acre of woodland just up the hill from the monument to the Magna Carta.
The land in question, previously part of Brunel university’s campus, presently belongs to a private property developer, which makes the NT’s action seem more arbitrary.
Campaigners set up tents and built a long house of logs, wattle, daub and cob. Despite torrential summer rains and evictions, they created a self-sustaining community.
Inspired by the revolutionary 17th century Diggers’ movement, they believe that everyone should have the right to live on disused land, to grow food and to build a shelter. “No country,” the eco-villagers insist, “can be considered free, until this right is available to all.”
By choosing Runnymede, they sought to invoke the spirit of the site, where almost 800 years ago, feudal barons compelled King John of England to sign a charter of rights which later passed into law. It was the first major challenge to the king’s claim to divine rights which placed monarchy above the law.
Despite the revoking of many clauses in subsequent centuries, Magna Carta is now part of the uncodified constitution of England and Wales. In the words of one judge, it is “the greatest constitutional document of all times – the foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot”.
But the issues of those days are not dead historical matters. Some 70% of the UK’s 60 million acres of land is owned by 6,000 landowners – 1% of the population. The top four landowners are the Forestry Commission, the Ministry of Defence, the royal family and the National Trust. Land ownership by a tiny minority remains at the heart of economic and political power.
As historian John Gurney writes:
The Runneymede activists’ demands might, at first sight, appear to present something of a paradox. On the one hand, they address very real twenty-first-century problems, among them today’s serious housing shortages and the reluctance of politicians of all major parties to take action to bring rents and house prices down to affordable levels. Allied to this is the issue of how best to promote viable strategies for sustainable living on an increasingly crowded planet.
This October, democracy campaigners are celebrating the anniversary of the Putney Debates of 1647, when the rank-and-file of the New Model Army challenged all the “grandees” who ruled the land. Two years later, political-religious campaigner, Gerrard Winstanley and his True Leveller followers took over vacant or common lands in south east England to cultivate land.
In an extraordinary experiment at early communism they shared the crops amongst themselves. But the experiment ended when landowners sent brutal thugs to beat the Diggers and destroy their colony.
As today’s True Levellers point out, the authorities may be irked by the possibility of a “rabble of common people” spoiling the party when the Magna Carta’s 800th anniversary is celebrated in 2015. In any case, challenges to landownership must always be put down, in case such a virus should spread at a time when squatting of any kind has become a criminal offence.
The Runnymede Eco-Villagers deserve support and protection just at a time when demonstrating an alternative to capitalism in crisis is vital. We salute their vision and courage.
A World to Win secretary
10 September 2012