Thousand Year Struggle for Land

The Land Reform Movement in this country is being spearheaded by, among others, George Monbiot, Fellow of Green College, Oxford, and anthropologist, journalist and social historian. Here follows the text of a talk he gave at the Rainbow Centre in London, on 4th November 1994:



The fight we’re engaged in has been going on for a thousand years. When the Normans first came to this country, this land was a free land. You could settle where you wanted; you could cultivate any patch you wanted. When you had settlement and when you had cultivation on that place, that place was yours for as long as you stayed there. In those days, people made their own entertainment. They sat around the fire and they told each other stories. And they made music; and they danced and they sang and they clapped their hands, and everybody participated. Everybody was a part of it. There was no one who could not tell a story, and there was no one, while the story was being told, who wasn’t called upon to respond in some way.


It was something which belonged to the ordinary people. In those days, God, gods, goddesses, spirits – they were inside you. And they were all around you. They were truly omnipresent. In those days, to a much greater extent than today, you could be the way that you were, and you could be the person that you were.


Today, seventy-five percent of the land in this country is in the hands of one percent of the population. Instead of sitting around a fire, we’re sitting around a box, with the flames inside it resolved into concrete images which have even taken away from us the power of imagination. And we’re called upon to do nothing but simply sit there passively and watch the stories of strangers. They’ve told us what we should be. They’ve told us how we could behave.


And they’ve even put God in a box. They have told us that God lives in here, in this house – a church – and you can only get to Him through the priesthood, elected by a group of people who, all the way along this process, have been taking over the common resource for their own benefit. And this, throughout the whole of British history, has been a smaller and smaller group of people as time has gone by. They’ve taken political power.


In the old days in this country, this system wasn’t far off that which you can find in north-eastern Kenya today among the Turkana nomads, or in the highlands of New Guinea among the Dani people – or indeed in northern Brazil, among the Yanamami. The people of the tribe would sit down together every single evening, discuss what needed to be discussed and make their decisions by consensus.


Today, of course, we depend on six hundred people to make decisions for sixty million people. Our power – our control over our day-to-day lives – has been wrested from us. Every process I’ve been describing comes down to one thing – there is one word that sums it up. And that is Enclosure. What we had, what was our common property, has been enclosed – has been annexed by a small number of people for their benefit. And ever since this process of enclosure started, people, ordinary people, who had lost their resources – be those resources land, be they political power, be they culture, religion or psyche – the people who had lost their resources fought the enclosers.


This began with the harrowing of the North, when William the Conqueror repressed the people who had risen against him and risen against the fact that he’d divided the whole of Britain among a hundred and eighty barons. It continued through the Peasants’ Revolt when in 1381, one hundred thousand people took London, protesting against the continued removal of their rights – their enslavement on what were their own lands – by the new lords of the land. It continued in every century, right up till today. But it has never had the capacity to produce such vast and sweeping change as our movement has right now. And the Criminal Justice Bill, far from bringing us to an end, is exactly what’s going to make us stronger than ever before.


For a start, it’s a clear sign of the absolute weakness of the government. That it has to respond with repressive measures because it’s the only way to try and contain the situation; because people are so angry, people are so ready for sweeping change which the government doesn’t want to give. But for a second, and uniquely among this form of repressive legislation, it serves to unite its intended victims rather than to disperse them.


Last week, I was with one of the heads of the Gypsy council, and the Gypsies are now forming alliances with Travellers in a way that they never did before. They used to hate each other. They’re forming alliances with roads protesters, with ravers, with hunt saboteurs – with every group of people who could possibly be affected by this new legislation. And this new legislation is doing us the biggest favour that we could ever have!


Now I call it “new legislation,” but it’s not new legislation at all. There are precedents to the Criminal Justice Act going all the way back through history. And when you look at it – when you look at how it’s been drafted and what it’s been drafted in response to – you find that it’s absolutely continuous with the processes of repressive law and order which have taken place ever since people tried to resist the enclosure of their resources.



In 1647, in the midst of the British civil wars, the country went through the most exciting and dramatic period of political change, and potential political change, up till this day – up till 1994.


What had happened was that the New Model Army, Cromwell’s army, had drawn upon the ranks of the dispossessed – people who’d been kicked off their common lands by a new class of entrepreneurial landlords who had taken advantage of the new way of dealing with the land introduced with the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII; to throw off the people who were previously working there as commoners, and indeed as serfs on the manorial lands, and to give them no status whatsoever; to take away even the small rights that had been left to them: the rights to use common land, the rights to graze their animals, to collect wood, to collect turf, to keep themselves alive; the rights, in other words, to survival.

And all these had been enclosed.


And what happened was that, following the enclosure, these vast numbers of dispossessed people, hundreds of thousands, were roaming around the country extremely pissed off. And they were convinced – quite wrongly as it turned out – that Cromwell’s army was going to provide the answer to all their woes. They were convinced that by fighting the old regime, they would bring in the new regime they wanted.


What they didn’t realise, at the outbreak of the Civil War, was that the colonels – the heads, the commanders, of the New Model Army – were the very people who had dispossessed them. They were the new landed class who had no qualms whatsoever about kicking people off the land.


But the peasants gradually, slowly, bit by bit, took over the New Model Army, until by 1647, their ideas had spread so far through the ranks of the army that whole regiments started to call themselves this word – which still has such powerful connotations today. They started to call themselves Levellers.


The Levellers were people who started off simply as the rural dispossessed, and their intention was to level the land by pulling down the fences – by pulling down the hedges which had divided them from the property that was theirs, which was their rightful property, and by retaking the places that had been taken from them by the land lords, by the barons, by the aristocrats of Britain. But they soon began to extend these ideas from the levelling of the land and the reclamation of the land as a common resource, to the levelling of society.



And these were the first people in Britain to advocate the Universal Franchise, that every person should have a vote; advocate the sovereignty of Parliament, that the decisions of the people made through Parliament should be paramount; the abolition of the monarchy; the abolition of the House of Lords. We still haven’t got there. And in 1647, all these ideas were out in the open.


They also said that everyone had a right to land, that no one had a right to exclude people from that land; that the land was God’s and people were really the sojourners upon that land to use as they saw fit. And they said that private landed property was a Norman abomination which contravened the law of God. And they went from levelling the land to levelling society. And in 1647, they became so powerful that Cromwell was forced to concede many of the things they wanted.


And in 1648, they formed the bulk of the first Rump Parliament. They were on their way. Diggers, the people who called themselves the True Levellers, started taking over the lands which were unused, which were the unused property of land lords, and started to dig. They started to plant crops. They said that everyone had a right to do so.


One of their leaders, Gerard Winstanley, said that everyone had a right to education – men as well as women – the first time this idea had ever been introduced. And he said that all people were equal under the sun. These were dramatic, radical ideas in a place which had been characterised by the enclosure of power since the Norman Conquest.


In 1649, Cromwell finally got the upper hand. Two regiments of the New Model Army, calling themselves the Constitutional Levellers, rebelled and mutinied in Burford in Oxfordshire. Cromwell went in. He crushed the mutiny, rounded up the ringleaders, and shot them. The movement didn’t disappear, it went underground. And in 1660, when the monarchy was restored (because a parliament that Cromwell had set up was simply unable to sustain itself after his death), the greatest threat to the restoration of the monarchy, the greatest threat to the aristocrats who were trying to reimpose their order once more upon Britain, were the people who were now the subversives of society: the Levellers, the Diggers, the Quakers, the Ranters, the Seekers – and half a dozen other groups like that. And these people were regarded as such a threat that, in 1662, the government brought in a whole new raft of legislation. The first of these laws was a law against the Quakers.


Now the Quakers, according to the government, were gathering, I quote, “gathering in great numbers to the general terror of the land and the endangering the public peace and safety,” having ecstatic gatherings of thousands of people, making a lot of noise – and very probably some rhythmic beats as well. And the government introduced a law saying that anyone who attended one of these ecstatic gatherings had to pay either a fine or get three months in prison. This was exactly the same, of course, as the legislation which Michael Howard has introduced today.


In the same year, talking of 1662, legislation was introduced to stop the “rogues, vagabonds and sturdy beggars” roaming from place to place in the countryside and seeking parish welfare funds. There was a law to build new workhouses and new houses of correction – all in the same year – and there was a law to force errant fathers of “bastard children” to pay maintenance so that they wouldn’t rely on the parish. Now when the government said it’s going “back to basics,” it’s really going back to basics with this one. It’s going back to 1662! It’s going back to one of the most repressive and reactionary periods of British political history!


And it crushed the movement then. It crushed it because the movement was already in decline – because the Levellers and the Diggers and the Quakers, to a lesser extent, but the Ranters and the Seekers and the rest of them were already more or less a spent force because Cromwell had shat upon them from a great height. But the difference between them and today is that, today, the emergence of the movement coincides with the repressive legislation.


And this means that we are becoming powerful just as they are expressing their weakness. And their very expression of weakness is adding to our power to put things into the place which they deserve to be. And that means reclaiming what is our common property.


Now what makes this movement powerful is that not only are we continuing to fight the classical enclosures which still take place day by day in this country. The building of new roads which is taking away the common land from people, taking away their common space, taking away the air they breathe, their common property. Out of town superstores which are taking the hearts out of city centres; indeed shopping centres in those city centres which are taking common streets which were everyone’s to roam – putting them inside a dome with a security-guard at either end to say you can come in, and you can’t. Removing common property without anyone’s – ordinary people’s – behest; just taking away this common property and enclosing it for the benefit of a few people.


But what I find so powerful about the movement, and what gives this movement real guts, is that it’s not only fighting those continued enclosures, but is simultaneously releasing itself from enclosure. Where’s the television in here? We’re back to participation. We’re back to a resource which is our own – which is our own word of mouth. We’re back to a form of communication in this movement that everyone can participate in.


We’re back to making our own music. Instead of getting your music in a box – an enclosed space if ever there was one – and plugging it into another box, and having it coming out of another two boxes, we’re making our own, here. And the lovely thing is that virtually everyone can play something, and virtually everyone who comes into this movement does.


And as far as we are able, we’re recreating our own organisation. We’re recreating a political structure which responds to our needs – to our decisions – rather than the decisions of people totally removed from us, who none of us have ever met, over whom we have no day-to-day control at all. And the more we declare UDI, the more we can remove ourselves from that political mainstream, the more we will be able to reassert the common political power which has been denied to us.


And we’re on the road, we’re getting there, and we’re getting there very fast. It’s really moving now; and nothing is moving it along faster than the Criminal Justice Act.


This place and many like it, right across the country are becoming a focus for a whole group of people. I mean not just people like us, but a lot of people who haven’t yet been able to step over the threshold.


It’s got this enormous romantic appeal, because it represents, for all the people of Britain, the freedom that we’ve all lost. It represents what we’ve been alienated from.


And for the first time since 1647, we’re a real threat to the lords of the land.


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