After 800 years, the barons are back in control of Britain, by George Monbiot
mark at tlio.org.uk
Tue Jul 17 11:53:12 BST 2012
As with his endorsement of Nuclear Power, George makes some fundamental mistakes here. Sure, the Lords are not elected, but they have been more honest and successful both in debating and amending the criminalisation of squatting act.
Party political whips have less force in the Lords and there is something rather good about a house full of independent minded landowners, some of whom are public spirited too.
They are not all the Dukes of Buccleuch or Westminster in the upper house and therefore, strangely, have a much greater moral conscience that the party funded three line whipped Commons. [ed.]
After 800 years, the barons are back in control of Britain
The Magna Carta forced King John to give away powers. But big business
now exerts a chilling grip on the workforce
by George Monbiot
The Guardian, Mon 16th July 2012
Hounded by police and bailiffs, evicted wherever they stopped, they
did not mean to settle here. They had walked out of London to occupy
disused farmland on the Queen's estates surrounding Windsor Castle.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, that didn't work out very well. But after
several days of pursuit, they landed two fields away from the place
where modern democracy is commonly supposed to have been born.
At first this group of mostly young, dispossessed people, who (after
the 17th century revolutionaries) call themselves Diggers 2012, camped
on the old rugby pitch of Brunel University's Runnymede campus. It's 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
The diggers were evicted again, and moved down the hill into the woods
behind the campus – pressed, as if by the ineluctable force of
history, ever closer to the symbolic spot. From the meeting house they
have built and their cluster of tents, you can see across the meadows
to where the Magna Carta was sealed almost 800 years ago.
Their aim is simple: to remove themselves from the corporate economy,
to house themselves, grow food and build a community on abandoned
land. Implementation is less simple. Soon after I arrived, on a sodden
day last week, an enforcer working for the company which now owns the
land came slithering through the mud in his suit and patent leather
shoes with a posse of police, to serve papers.
Already the crops the settlers had planted had been destroyed once;
the day after my visit they were destroyed again. But the repeated
destruction, removals and arrests have not deterred them. As one of
their number, Gareth Newnham, told me: "If we go to prison we'll just
come back … I'm not saying that this is the only way. But at least
we're creating an opportunity for young people to step out of the
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
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
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
But the alternatives have also been shut down: you are excluded yet
you cannot opt out. The land – even disused land – is guarded as
fiercely as the rest of the economy. Its ownership is scarcely less
concentrated than it was when the Magna Carta was written. But today
there is no Charter of the Forest (the document appended to the Magna
Carta in 1217, granting the common people rights to use the royal
estates). As Simon Moore, an articulate, well-read 27-year-old,
explained, "those who control the land have enjoyed massive economic
and political privileges. The relationship between land and democracy
is a strong one, which is not widely understood."
As we sat in the wooden house the diggers have built, listening to the
rain dripping from the eaves, the latest attempt to reform the House
of Lords was collapsing in parliament. Almost 800 years after the
Magna Carta was approved, unrepresentative power of the kind familiar
to King John and his barons still holds sway. Even in the House of
Commons, most seats are pocket boroughs, controlled by those who fund
the major parties and establish the limits of political action.
Through such ancient powers, our illegitimate rulers sustain a system
of ancient injustices, which curtail alternatives and lock the poor
into rent and debt. This spring, the government dropped a clause into
an unrelated bill so late that it could not be properly scrutinised by
the House of Commons, criminalising the squatting of abandoned
The House of Lords, among whom the landowning class is still
well-represented, approved the measure. Thousands of people who have
solved their own housing crises will now be evicted, just as housing
benefit payments are being cut back. 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
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?
More information about the Diggers350