In development that feels strangely like kismet, an encampment of dispossessed young people who wish to opt out of the corporate system and reclaim a basic freedom of working the land, have made their way to Runnymede, a hallowed site in the history of the commons.
Runnymede is where King John signed the Magna Carta in 1215, settling the long civil war with barons and commoners, and leading to the Charter of the Forest that granted explicit commoning rights to commoners. Runnymede is therefore an appropriate place for contemporary Occupy-style encampments. It's where the king formally recognized that he was not above the law, and that the commoners have rights that must be respected. But history and king-like proxies have papered over such truths. (Peter Linebaugh's Magna Carta Manifesto is THE book to read on this subject.)
A group that calls itself Diggers 2012 is now trying to engineer a rendezvous between that past and a commons-directed future. After being forced out of their encampments in London, the Diggers are now establishing their own Runnymede Eco Village. (Thanks for the alert on this news, James Quilligan!) The Diggers want to secure their own right to the land and to develop their own autonomous system for self-governance and subsistence. Some want to create a banner, "We don't want workfare, we want landshare!"
After being shooed from one place to another, and suffering the destruction of their plantings, the Diggers decided to set up camp at Brunel University’s Runnymede campus, which has gone unused for six years and is poised to become a construction site for apartments. In The Guardian, columnist George Monbiot has a wonderful column about the encampment at Runnymede, which he described as “a weed-choked complex of grand old buildings and modern halls of residence, whose mildewed curtains flap in the wind behind open windows, all mysteriously abandoned as if struck by a plague or a neutron bomb.
The Diggers are off on an out-of-theway, unused piece of land. Not exactly a prime location on which to attract attention. But they are nothing if not determined to make a point and build another world. As one camper explained: “Like our forbearers, ‘The Diggers’ of the mid 17th Century, we too will face the same forms of oppression as we attempt to make use of the disused land. And like the Diggers, we are committed to continuing our mission to make use of the disused land in the face of brute force. So if the bailiffs come, we may go, but we may too come back and keep coming back. For you can tear down our structures and rip out our crops, but you cannot kill the spirit of our vision. We are not here to fight anyone. We know in our hearts that our activities are just and reasonable. So we will carry on.”
I find it fascinating that the Diggers are shrewdly (and accurately) linking the history of the rural English commoners with the plight of contemporary young people, also dispossessed, landless commoners. As Monbiot put it:
To be young in the post-industrial nations today is to be excluded. Excluded from the comforts enjoyed by preceding generations; excluded from jobs; excluded from hopes of a better world; excluded from self-ownership.
Those with degrees are owned by the banks before they leave college. Housing benefit is being choked off. Landlords now demand rents so high that only those with the better jobs can pay. Work has been sliced up and outsourced into a series of mindless repetitive tasks, whose practitioners are interchangeable. Through globalisation and standardisation, through unemployment and the erosion of collective bargaining and employment laws, big business now asserts a control over its workforce almost unprecedented in the age of universal suffrage.
The promise the old hold out to the young is a lifetime of rent, debt and insecurity. A rentier class holds the nation's children to ransom. Faced with these conditions, who can blame people for seeking an alternative?
On July 7, the Diggers held a “land rights and civil liberties” open discussion and picnic at the Magna Carta memorial, Runnymede. Some fifty people showed up. Notes from the meeting show some of the issues on the minds of today’s Diggers:
** The book ‘Who Owns Britain‘ by Kevin Cahill is an important reference of who really owns the country, the top landowners such as the 1%, Forestry Commission, MOD, the Church, The Crown etc.
** There was talk on ‘the fortress of law’, protecting the land ownership of the 1%. For example the injunctions writs and ‘contempt of court’ for camping we were served with the other day could have led to six months in prison.
** Apparently the government is again planning to have a massive forestry sell-off, this was massively opposed last time and we must link to groups and network and support action against this.
** If some of these camps are evicted then we need to build up more resistance, we need to choose our ground well with good research and scouting. There was discussion on creation of a New Charter of Liberties. We expect that over the months the camp may move many times. We also discussed being nomadic and moving before court orders, or sometimes when negative energies build up deciding to move. While obviously we are looking for a longer term ecovillage site.
** There has been discussion with the authorities and messages passed to the Crown Estate requesting communication, that all we require is disused land and to be able to get on with our ecovillage project. There was discussion on continuing the mission to set up sustainable low impact eco villages around the area including on the Crown Estate.
** We want to put out more information on the old and Ancient land laws/lores such as Celtic and Breton law, or indigenous peoples such as the Native Americans’ attitude to groups sharing or taking care of the land for future generations. Also raising awareness of the recent ‘declaration of Mother Earth rights’ at the Bolivia Earth Summit.
** It was pointed out we are dealing with a thousand years land empire that will resist any change to the unsustainable system. In 1649-50+ Diggers camps with hundreds of people each containing many ex-civil war soldiers were destroyed by the authorities yet their vision carries on to inspire us in the 21st century. We must be prepared for a long-term campaign to recognise land rights in this country and internationally.
** The number of people joining the movement will increase as the economic situation turns from bad to worse. With the welfare state being dismantled and people being forced to partake in Workfare schemes for the corporations for below minimum wage or nothing.
** More research into our ancient rights. Reference the code of Malmutius (land shared out with early Britons). Learning our history/herstory and being able to argue our rights/put forth our rights from the Forest Charter and the Magna Carta. The Norman law of 1066-1200 caused uprising and civil war that led to the reaffirming of our ancient rights with the Magna Carta and Forest Charter. Despite some modern legal claims, these rights are still in effect as they were made by the people as a sovereign body.
** The people granted sovereign rights to their leaders temporarily but ultimately retain those sovereign rights.
Monbiot had some sobering closing lines:
I remember a political postcard from the early 1990s titled “Britain in 2020,” which depicted the police rounding up some scruffy-looking people with the words, “you're under arrest for not owning or renting property.” It was funny then; it’s less funny today.
The young men and women camping at Runnymede are trying to revive a different tradition, largely forgotten in the new age of robber barons. They are seeking, in the words of the Diggers of 1649, to make “the Earth a common treasury for all … not one lording over another, but all looking upon each other as equals in the creation.” The tradition of resistance, the assertion of independence from the laws devised to protect the landlords’ ill-gotten property, long pre-date and long post-date the Magna Carta. But today they scarcely feature in national consciousness.
I set off in lashing rain to catch a train home from Egham, on the other side of the hill. As I walked into the town, I found the pavements packed with people. The rain bounced off their umbrellas, forming a silver mist. The front passed and the sun came out, and a few minutes later everyone began to cheer and wave their flags as the Olympic torch was carried down the road. The sense of common purpose was tangible, the readiness for sacrifice (in the form of a thorough soaking) just as evident. Half of what we need is here already. Now how do we recruit it to the fight for democracy?