Common Tales

The New Putney Debates Blog

The Plunder of the Commons…

A call has been made for a Charter of the Commons for the 21st Century to be created to reverse the attacks that have been made on “those things that belong to all of us and to none of us…things that come to us from society”. The call was made at a packed meeting of 500 people in London by Professor Guy Standing to launch his new book Plunder of the Commons; a manifesto for Sharing Public Wealth.


Guy Standing, also author of the best-selling The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class, has advised the UN and governments around the world on labour and social policy. He participated in the celebrations of the 800th anniversary of the Charter of the Forest in 2017, speaking at meetings in Runnymede, Sherwood Forest, Lincoln and London organised by New Putney Debates.


He also proposed the establishment of a National Commons Fund, to be sourced mainly from levies on the commercial use and exploitation of the commons including the oil, natural gas and minerals in the ground, as well as the renewable commons such as the forests, air and water, and even from ideas. There would, for example, be levies on frequent flyers. He said the fund should raise £200bn a year.


He called for a revival of the commons ethos, and for the creation of new commons based on communities of interest and communal forms of management that respect customs of sharing and preserving natural, social, cultural, civil and knowledge resources.


Guy harked back to the 800-year-old Charter of the Forest, the little-known and in many ways more important companion charter to the Magna Carta, because it was a charter for the common man, laying out the rights of ordinary people to access and use the forests and countryside to survive. It was also the first environmental charter, he said. The two charters were the foundation stone of our constitution and severely curtailed the power of the monarch and his favourites to enclose the forests for hunting.


Many people, Guy said, didn`t understand the full meaning of the expression “the commons” nor the extent that they had been plundered, particularly since the time of Margaret Thatcher`s government. Thatcher herself, he said, had contempt for the institutions of society which she correctly saw as standing against the market. She had encouraged individualism and selfishness. The rise of neo-liberal policies and the growth of private wealth meant that public wealth had declined.


The privatising of school playgrounds and the right-to-buy housing policies were just a form of stealing from the commons. Worst of all, he said, was the privatisation of water, another form of commercialising the commons, especially as no less than 400,000 acres of land were given to the new water companies. He said there were now more leakages of water than before, none of our rivers are fit for swimming, and around £18-19bn had gone abroad since the privatisation, as most of the companies are foreign-owned.


Guy went on to explain his five different categories of the commons:


  1. The Natural Commons, the commons of popular imagination, the woods and forests, the land, the rivers, the lakes, the seashore, the air we breathe. These have been under severe threat for centuries from governments, rulers and the rich as they are enclosed and privatised for individual profit. “One lesson from history is clear: once the commons are lost, they are extremely hard to revive or restore”, he said.


  1. The Social Commons are described as the facilities and amenities essential to normal living that are provided outside the market, built over the generations and paid for through taxes, donations and voluntary commoning. These include the services of the welfare state, healthcare, public transport, parks etc. The social commons are under attack from all sides…and the effects of austerity have been particularly pernicious for the poor.


  1. The Civil Commons…the right to justice, universal, and based on due process and equality before the law. Enshrined in the Magna Carta as the principle of proportionality in the punishment of a crime, punishment for misdemeanours should not deprive the person of their livelihood. The Charter of the Forest stressed the importance of LOCAL common law. The civil commons had been under great threat in the 17th and 18th century oppression of working people, from the enclosure of their lands. The civil commons have also been ignored by governments in events such as: the Peterloo Massacre, the transportation of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the suppression of the chartists, vicious class-based actions against the General Strike, and even the Tottenham riots. Justice was now out of reach of commoners, Guy said. And the police cuts, probation cuts, private prisons, the bedroom tax, the hostile environment policies, the administration of private justice in privately-owned public spaces (POPS) were other examples of attacks on the civil commons.


  1. Cultural Commons. Access to the creative and artistic sides of life, to art, sport libraries, theatres has been severely curtailed, particularly over the last 10 years with the huge cuts in local government grants.


  1. Knowledge Commons. The informational, intellectual and educational commons are all shrinking. And the information commons, in spite of its great potential to open up the access to knowledge to all, are dominated by a handful of “technological leviathans”, Google, Facebook, Amazon etc, who capture, organise and commodify information. This is a form of enclosure, Guy said. These companies have suppressed the competition by simply buying up any start-up enterprise that could become a rival or take the technology in different directions.

    Guy Standing signing copies of his book



Guy includes at the end of the book an example of how a Charter of the Commons for the 21st Century might look. In the preamble he writes: “The commons are our collective knowledge and our traditions of sharing in society. They are of most value to those on low incomes, the property-less and the precariat…To reduce inequality and strengthen citizenship it is vital to revive the commons….the commons can only be safe if there is strong democratic governance”.


The draft charter goes on to detail 44 articles. Article 2 calls for a new Domesday book with a “comprehensive record of the public and private ownership of land, including a map showing all commons and Open Access land”. Other articles call for the abolition of subsidies based on the amount of land owned, the restoration to common ownership of the water companies, a carbon tax, and many others relating to the five categories of the commons.


Caroline Lucas said at the meeting that the book was a hopeful one, published at the right time when climate strikes were taking place and in a time of great disillusion in the neo-liberal project. Do we want to live in a society of fear or one of kindness and care, she asked. And she spoke up for basic income as an anchor, and as right for everyone. Government inaction, she said, was leading to climate catastrophe. The interests of the planet were not compatible with continued exponential growth. The digital commons were a democratic resource owned by the people…but now the big tech companies were harvesting and selling our data. How can we bring Google and Amazon into public ownership, she asked.


David Lammy, Labour MP for Brent, said the book was a manifesto to bring people back together post-Brexit. The absence of what we should share leads to a toxic atmosphere. Local amenities have been decimated, he said. He cited the recent loss of the youth service commons and the impact on young people, including the increase in knife crime, that followed. A big factor in the crisis of mental health, he said, is the loneliness caused by neo-liberalism `s emphasis on individualism. The book gives us a new vision for developing a counter-culture. “We must revolt”, he said.

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The 6 Tolpuddle Martyrs remembered

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn with a wreath to lay at the grave of James Hammett

Thousands of trades unionists and their families descended on the tiny Dorset village of Tolpuddle, near Dorchester, in July, to celebrate the lives of the six famous farmworkers from the village. The Tolpuddle Martyrs were transported to Australia in 1834 for administering a secret oath amongst themsleves as members of the Friendly Society of Agricultural

Unison members and band on the march through Tolpuddle

Labourers . An early form of a trade union, the Society was in fact legal, but in the eyes of the local landowners and of Squire James Frampton in particular, their real crime was to have formed a trade union to protest about their meagre pay of 6 shillings a week and to resist it being reduced even further.

With the Swing Rebellion fresh in their minds, the ruling classes were determined to stamp out any form of organised labour ,or sedition as they called it. Spies were employed to get information about the six and the local landowners even sought the advice of Lord Melbourne the Home Secretary in London. The martyrs were sentenced to be transported to Australia for 7 years.

Transportation was brutal, and few ever returned from such a sentence as the long harsh voyage in hulks and the rigours of slavery took their toll. But after the sentence, the working class rose up in support of the six. An 800,000-strong petition was handed in to Parliament and a huge demonstration marched through London. The new trade union movement sustained the families of the men with voluntary donations, and after three years, the government relented and the men returned home with free pardons as heroes.

All the big unions, Unite, Unison, GMB, RMT, NUT, NASWT, ASLEF had large delegations, led in many cases by bands, at the festival. And there were many other smaller delegations. There was also a big contingent from the Kurdish communities in Britain who came with banners, placards, flags and two giant balloons to join in the procession past the thatched cottages of the village. They were demanding freedom for Abdullah Ocalan, a Kurdish leader and one of the founding members of the PKK, the Kurdish Workers Party, that has been fighting for a separate Kurdish state. Ocalan, who was captured in Kenya in 1999 with the help of the CIA has been held in a Turkish jail since the turn of the century. He remains a leader and is currently putting forward a new initiative for a political solution.

Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party, laid a wreath at the grave of James Hammett, who was the only one of the six to return and live in Tolpuddle. Corbyn gave the main speech in front of the Martyrs cottages, outlining the measures that a Labour government would take to reverse the years of Tory austerity.

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Hebden Bridge Land Justice Network camp 10-13 May 2019 Impressions of the action camp on the grouse moors

By Dave Dewhurst

Ever come back from an event, met someone who was there too, and it’s alternative reality?

For me it was brilliant, mostly.

Since 2017 LJN had quietly debated and researched where the best place was to have a land occupation and effectively show up the farce of English land control. A lot of explorers got muddy. Warley Moor rose out of the mists. Hebden Bridge locals said that its owner, with twenty-five square miles of grouse moor to their north, was regularly flooding them. The RSPB and others had already sued against burning the moor for the grouse (highland chickens) between their release from domestic pens and getting riddled with lead shot. Richard Banister, owner of the Boundary Mill discount store chain, had spent a million for a mob-handed team of barristers to defend himself – successfully.

Grouse moors are ecologically hazardous and problematic on many levels. They have an online reputation level with ocean plastic. If you worry about your blood pressure don’t search it.

The protestor’s problem with them is that they have poor public transport links and dropping a campsite there has ecological issues. So you really want a nearby grass field, and if you are going to supply over a hundred people for a Friday to Monday weekend you want heavy duty vehicles too – at least a minibus.
On the Thursday an advance team brought in big tents and supplies. I’d borrowed my mum’s Nissan Micra and met the minibus at the nearest car park (Hardcastle Crags – scenery ***** ). I followed the minibus with my cargo of banners, sphagnum moss and some boxes. Soon we passed the National Trust notice saying, ‘Authorised Vehicles Only.’ As a Member I decided to authorise myself.


I have often wondered how occupations like ‘Reclaim the Power’ might persuade a farmer that their field is just right for their purpose. Being there helps. I guess charm, clarity and a clear departure date contribute too. And you’re not going to choose a site where livestock and humans would threaten each another. But the tenant farmer will have a landowner who sees things more starkly. They seem to line up with Marx about inevitable class conflict. We have to choose who we upset least. Protesting about an inconvenient reality is inconvenient.

The geography from Hardcastle Crags to two kilometres north is increasingly rugged. Ahead was a farmhouse with dogs and double gates across the path. I hid (I think) the transport behind a wall and continued with rucksack, pop-up tent, furled banners, a box and our eight metre New Putney Debates timeline trying to look legitimate. It worked with the dogs, and after quarter of a mile I found an abandoned wheelbarrow with some camp-like stuff in it. This implied I was on the right track and let me ferry my burden less like a Mr Bean tribute act.

Just short of the camp was an average one-in-two, rock-strewn slope probably designed to test camels, so I was impressed to see the main tents up, one big enough for a circus. Respect to everyone for just negotiating their own baggage there, even more to those with the energy to trundle in water, food and all the gear for over a hundred people over a long weekend. On Friday night there were already over sixty tents.

The first evening’s entertainments were the usual obscure (to me) and brilliant performers plus the famous Commoners’ Choir. (Yeah, this is meant to get you to search it.) As there was a no drugs policy and limited alcohol (I know) it is a tribute that they achieved the usual merging with humanity euphoria supposed otherwise to be exclusive to religion and football.

Most workshops ran in pairs throughout Saturday. – Land Reform in Scotland, Hunt Saboteuring, Farming and Food Sovereignty, Ending Public Land sell-offs, Political Parties’ statements on Land Reform, Greening Rojeva, art etc. When you’re performing it’s hard to remember or absorb which bits who in the rest of the line-up delivered, and it all merges into an unattributed revision of political ‘common sense’ and a collective high. Trawling our website & LJN’s gives you the gist. As Lao Tsu almost said, the best workshops have you thinking that you figured it out for yourself. I remember the NEF talk on the economics of housing complemented the joint session with David King and myself; we were working towards a consensus on necessary land reform legislation.

We billed it as ‘identifying priorities for action’ so as not to scare people who thought drafting parliamentary legislation wasn’t utterly joyful. Trouble is when you’ve got thirty-five bright committed people in a circus top – all ages, multinational–they’ll be on different squares and not all in the same game. To start with a vote on our menu of 18 reforms which we’d elicited (or inserted) in earlier consultations would be cargo-cult democracy.

Before you start a topic, teachers and trainers are told to find out what the group knows or believes already. The collective intelligence of the audience is more than the platform – but it can embrace more nonsense as well if you just add the lot up. It’s easier for the platform (actually David and I squatted on the ground too) if people feel faintly ignorant; it’s harder if they’ve already found magic bullets (Land Value Tax, land nationalisation, veganism ..) that you have nuances over (especially as they might be more right than you are).

So facilitators try to modify the control and teaching model of political education to something like ushering or herding but have the implicit fear of being stampeded. The full democracy feature is tricky. Equal air-time just doesn’t happen for groups over seven; the number of direct, one-to-one links between thirty-five people is 595 (for 1000 it’s 499,500). But hey, our tribes negotiated this for millennia before oligarchy set in; even Machiavelli said democracies work better, just about.

Tentatively we started with a ‘go-round’ giving people a sentence to introduce themselves and say why they were here. Next, we told people to get into groups of five with people they didn’t know already, and many of them did. We handed the seven groups our eighteen-point list to discuss, enlarge, ignore or prioritise. For twenty-five minutes David and I hovered, looking wise, and got ourselves tea.

The feedback was far too good to summarise neatly. The points were all affirmed pretty much. Land Reform from the Ground Up If we agree that we want to work towards a situation where land is used and managed for the common good what do we need to do?

  1. Community, co-operative, non-profit organisation Right to Buy, with Land Fund.
  2. Right to roam and access for non-motorised recreation in rural areas, limit private space in urban areas.
  3. Land in public hands: Stop sale of public land to developers and use this land for the common good, e.g. public housing, gardens, farms, co-operatives, end right to buy for individuals.
  4. Agricultural tenants’ right to buy? Or encourage co-operative farms?
  5. Food strategy for local authorities including the provision of more allotments.
  6. Challenge large landholdings: limit the amount a landowner can own, taxation to make it less viable to own large tracts of land.
  7. Establish a Land Commission with an aim to promote land reform and develop a land use strategy.
  8. Democratise land decision-making, e.g. landowner engagement and community planning. Make it easier for communities to participate in planning and to challenge decisions.
  9. Reform subsidy system so that it encourages smaller farms.
  10. Tax incentives or penalties to deliver public environmental benefits on all land, e.g. agriculture based on agro-ecology principles, preservation of wild land, peat bog restoration, afforestation, limit grouse moors.
  11. Stabilise the price of land by limiting speculation or investment demand, e.g. land banking, hoarding and taking up options, buy to leave, buy to let, higher taxes on investment properties and second homes, change inheritance tax in agriculture so that it is not exempt
  12. Decriminalise squatting.
  13.  Rent controls and tenants’ rights.
  14.  Land value tax on empty, derelict or unused buildings, e.g. empty homes and land to discourage unproductive land use.
  15. Taxation to capture increases in land value.
  16. Free and easy to use land registry so that anyone can see who owns or has a controlling interest in land.
  17. Tax incentives and subsidies to promote land use that benefits the wider community, e.g. get rid of any subsidies or exemptions for sporting estates
    Residency requirement for ownership of land and/or banning ownership of land by companies based (and or beneficially owned) in tax havens and secrecy jurisdictions
  18. Other?

Unusually, nobody had a strop for or against Land Value Tax. The most memorable ‘Other’ was ‘Massive Rewilding’. Different clusters of points got prioritised. One group hardened the language. Some began to unpack the details. One reminded us of the waterways in ‘right to roam’. Another reminded us that instilling and protecting legislative changes was a mass cultural enterprise and that who actually sat on the Land Commission was crucial. No dukes wanted.

People were gratifyingly enthusiastic and stayed talking at the end even though the hail had stopped. In one promo draft I had written, ‘Expect to leave both clearer and more confused’ – which I bottled and changed to ‘critical’. Either way I reckon we all did. If you’ve really got the grit to get in the water now check the joint LJN/Monbiot document commissioned by John McDonnell and hopefully to be endorsed by other parties. It’s good stuff but more to think through.

Then there was Sunday, and it was. This was mostly a walk on the moors. We’d hoped to elevate the ecosystem by planting the sphagnum moss but technical questions, like the right time of year, suspended this. We toured the grouse moor noting the amazing number of traps around designed to kill anything else that might kill grouse apart from humans. What the moral response is when encountering usually painful instruments of death you can imagine.

Basically I had a lovely walk, except that at some remote promontory two of the group broke into an argument about transgender rights. As it looked like this could go on for hours my fell-walker safety training internally cried out, ‘For God’s sake get the group somewhere safe; then sort it.’

You listen. You hope you’re learning. You wonder if you could intervene to get a more constructive tone. I shut up….and walked on. Eventually the group moved. Different people later evidenced various stress,– or anger? Certainly uncertainty.

There are only so many competing narratives where you’ve time to think it through yourself. Earlier discussions and decisions had preceded the outbreak. There was brief debate at the last morning assembly on Monday, with I suspect, more people concerned about the logistics of getting away. Mostly we await the contemporary consensus. I can say nothing dispositive (good word, check it). You can glean perspectives on line if it’s actually going to change your stance. Human rights and responsibilities are crucial; land rights are part of that. There’s no consensus without all parties feeling they are really heard. Otherwise oligarchy wins. Figure what you will do best.

What other realities were there? Austerity seems to be making the police a threatened species but there were sightings. People were assigned to talk to them. They went away. They came back and no one wanted to talk. They went away. I don’t know. I guess deploying hordes to a moor is down to the landowners following the privatisation agenda.

The entertainments schedule diverged a little due to a social media squall, but most of us were oblivious, conserving our batteries. A row arose about the plight of the tenant farmer whose field we used. People claimed that the land owner was some peer, not Mr. Bannister. As the ownership is still not publicly registered you can only make your best guess. Various people saw it as unfair on the farmer. My feeling is that it was a lot less hassle than being a tenant and having to comply with your boss. How would you make effective protest convenient?

Two of us had a brilliant swim towards the end of the fell walk, doubtless made more brilliant by its stress cure virtue. I hope we’ve brought the world closer to land justice but the vibe that stays strongest is the great human beings (and occasional dog) you encounter, agree to contact and do things later, and sometimes actually do.

My appreciation to the farmer (and possibly sheep) who shared their field. He probably didn’t need us to say we would leave more fluently if the blockades were shifted. The clear-up was meticulous. I’d planned an extra night to help clear up but it was fast enough to leave it to the core crew, for whom also mega appreciation.

They made a wicked omelette.

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From Traitor to Folk Hero

From Traitor to Folk Hero

Kett’s Rebellion was a revolt by thousands of peasants in Norfolk in response to the enclosures of the common land by the local landowners. Robert Kett who was himself a farmer of means became the leader of an army of about 20,000 farm workers which camped for 6 weeks outside Norfolk. In fact the “camp men” as they were called outnumbered the population of Norwich, the second largest city in England at that time. The rebellion was the most serious of a number of uprisings in Cornwall, Norfolk, Kent, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire that threatened the status quo in the 1540s during the reign of Henry VI. Continue reading →

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