Two-Pronged Fork

Simon Fairlie chapter7 at
Tue Jan 22 19:22:21 GMT 2013

The Two Pronged Fork
(reflections on the role of TLIO, published in The Land magazine,  
winter 2012-2013

In December 1994, at a packed meeting in Oxford, anti-roads activists  
confronted three senior representatives of Friends of the Earth,  
Greenpeace and the National Trust in a sort of debriefing process  
after Twyford Down. Speaker after speaker  castigated FOE in  
particular for failing to recognize that effective opposition to   
state-sponsored planet trashers requires a two pronged offensive: a  
direct action wing which embodies popular anger, and whose most  
powerful weapons are riot and humour; and a respectable lobbying  
organization who can use the spectre of public disorder to nudge   
governments in the right direction  and with whom governments feel  
comfortable negotiating. Charles Secrett, the recently appointed  
director of FOE, to his great credit acknowledged that it had made a  
tactical blunder in not working on this basis with direct activists  
at Twyford Down. By the time of the  Newbury Bypass protest, in  
1996,  mainstream environmental organizations were co-operating   
effectively with the protesters, and a combination of rioting,  
lobbying and academic research eventually forced the government to  
abandon its entire road programme.
The 1994 meeting was  also notable for a fiery speech from George  
Monbiot who argued that an entirely new movement was required, one  
that created positive alternatives, and that focussed on the control  
of land, for that was where power lay. Two months later Monbiot  
published “A Land Reform Manifesto” in the Guardian. “Political  
change does not take place” he said “until the opponents of  
government fight for what they’re for, rather than simply fighting  
what they’re against. Nothing of substance will alter until we tackle  
the continued enclosure of our land.” At the end of the article he  
announced an action to take place on April 23, St George’s Day, 1995.
This was the occupation of the abandoned Wisley airfield, close to St  
George’s Hill, the original site of the 1649 diggers, now a  
millionaires’ gated housing estate. Although it was  small, and  
nothing happened, the action was covered by a live broadcast on  
Newsnight. Out of it emerged the Land Reform Group, soon to be  
renamed The Land Is Ours. It was, as Monbiot confirmed, “a movement,  
rather than an organization. Anyone endorsing our statement of  
principle (‘The Land is Ours campaigns peacefully for access to the  
land, its resources and the decision-making processes affecting them,  
for everyone’) can join or set up a Land is Ours group of their own.”
The Wisley action was followed up  in 1996 by the “Pure Genius”  
occupation of a large  riverside site in Wandsworth, owned by  
Guinness and scheduled for a supermarket and penthouse redevelopment.  
A makeshift “ecovillage” appeared almost overnight, and was held for  
five months before it was finally evicted.  Thanks to Monbiot’s   
connections,  an effective press office and its  proximity to central  
London, “Pure Genius” received lavish press coverage, and there is no  
doubt that it was influential in sowing the concept of land rights at  
a critical moment.
Nothing that TLIO has done since has matched that. The 1999  
occupation of St George’s Hill for the 350th anniversary of the  
Diggers, was an activist’s action — great if you were a fan of  
Gerrard Winstanley, but barely relevant if you didn’t know who he  
was. The 2004 action to save Tony Wrench’s roundhouse in  
Pembrokeshire National Park, was brilliantly successful, but marginal  
to mainstream concerns. Recently there have been several land  
occupations — Kew Bridge, Runnymede, the Wilderness Centre — which  
all might acknowledge a debt to TLIO, but were organized  
independently. The most impressive of all — Occupy  LSX in the  
forecourt of St Pauls — had nothing whatsoever to do with TLIO.
Meanwhile the issue of access to land has steadily crept up the  
agenda, and can now be glimpsed in everything from assorted  
“landshare” schemes, to the government’s “community right to buy”.  
The Land is Ours can perhaps claim a  bit of credit for this — if  
only because of the resonance of the slogan — but more likely it is   
an idea whose time has come. The credit crunch has made everybody  
recollect that ultimately value resides in land, not in banks.
For the last few years The Land Is Ours banner has been kept afloat  
by a small core group, who have been more preoccupied with other  
projects, and who are mostly rurally based and find it difficult to  
meet up.  The embryonic network of regional groups that existed in  
the 1990s died away by the end of the millennium and the newsletter  
stopped publishing in about 2002, its address list being taken over  
by The Land. The movement has not been immune to sectarian  
squabbling. Despite George Monbiot’s advice that “anybody  can join  
or set up a Land Ours group of their own”, nobody  to our knowledge  
has done so for some years.
It was to address this torpor that in October 2011 the core group  
organized a gathering at Monkton Wyld Court in Dorset, for  anyone  
interested  in reinvigorating the TLIO movement. Some 80 people  
turned up. That encounter has now given birth to a new group which  
met for the first time in London in November 2012, and which  
hopefully will give TLIO and the principles it stands for a higher   
Some retrospective analysis  might be helpful to ensure that the new  
TLIO does not repeat the mistakes that have been made before. How,  
for example, has  TLIO performed in respect of the two pronged  
offensive identified by speakers at the 1994 meeting?  For the first  
few years, as well as organizing actions, TLIO acquired funding, ran  
an office and made some attempt to become an influential campaigning  
organization. But this was not followed through, and by the year  
2000, the office had closed, and TLIO saw its main role as organizing  
direct actions.
The usefulness of this approach must be questioned. Land actions tend  
to happen anyway, without any prompting from TLIO; the last action  
organized by TLIO was the occupation of a County Farm in 2006.   
Moreover, however inspiring they may be for participants, actions of  
this kind have little impact upon government  policy unless they are  
carried out in tandem with an articulate campaign with specific  
demands and the ability to whisper into the ear of people in power  
“you will get more of this anarchy unless you change course.”
There are, in the UK, competent bodies  campaigning on issues such as  
sustainable transport, protection of the countryside, waste  
reduction, climate change, animal welfare, civil liberties, prison  
reform — in fact virtually everything you can think of. It is both  
astonishing and lamentable that there is no organization whose  
mission is to safeguard and improve people’s rights to land  (with  
the exception of the Open Spaces Society and the Ramblers in respect  
of access  to commons and footpaths). There is nobody putting out  
press releases, and appearing on Newsnight or Farming Today when  
councils sell off county farms,  or developers privatize town  
centres, or  area-based agricultural subsidies jack up the price of  
land, or  draconian building regs make self-build unaffordable —  
nobody is pointing out that such policies are regressive because  
they  restrict people’s access to land, living quarters  and livelihood.
With the financial system in disgrace, now is a particularly good  
moment to initiate a well-funded  campaigning organization whose  
mission is to remind people that access to land is an essential  
component of an equitable society. Whether  the revived TLIO will   
take on this role remains to be seen. But one thing is certain: the  
message “the land is ours” may resonate, but it will never be  
translated into policy  unless such an organization finds its feet -  
both feet.		SF

Simon Fairlie
Monkton Wyld Court
01297 561359
chapter7 at

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