Time to rediscover the spirit of the Diggers

In 1649 the Diggers mobilized to cultivate common land. With Britain's self-sufficiency plummeting, it is high time to follow their lead and rediscover their spirit

by Michael Smith (Veshengro)

World Turned Upside Down (Diggers)
(Leon Rosselson)digger

In 1649
To St George's Hill
A ragged band they called the Diggers
Came to show the people' s will
They defied the landlords
They defied the laws
They were the dispossessed
Reclaiming what was theirs

We come in peace, they said
To dig and sow
We come to work the land in common
And to make the waste land grow
This earth divided
We will make whole
So it can be
A common treasury for all.

The sin of property
We do disdain
No one has any right to buy and sell
The earth for private gain
By theft and murder
They took the land
Now everywhere the walls
Rise up at their command.

They make the laws
To chain us well
The clergy dazzle us with heaven
Or they damn us into hell
We will not worship
The God they serve
The God of greed who feeds the rich
While poor men starve

We work, we eat together
We need no swords
We will not bow to masters
Or pay rent to the lords
We are free men
Though we are poor
You Diggers all stand up for glory

Stand up now

From the men of property
The orders came
They sent the hired men and troopers
To wipe out the Diggers' claim
Tear down their cottages
Destroy their corn
They were dispersed -
Only the vision lingers on

You poor take courage
You rich take care
The earth was made a common treasury
For everyone to share
All things in common
All people one
We come in peace
The order came to cut them down

Britain's self-sufficiency has dropped 10% in the past decade and this cannot be allowed to continue for our food security is at stake here. It is no good for the governments, successive governments, of this country to say that we are rich enough as a nation to buy all the food we need from abroad.

When Gerrard Winstanley and 14 fellow Diggers declared, in April 1649, that "England is not a Free People, till the Poor that have no Land, have a free allowance to dig and labour the Commons", little could they have known how poignant their message would still be more than 350 years later.

Between 1647 and 1650, low rates of crop production and rises in the price of wheat and oats caused widespread food shortages across much of Europe. At the peak of this crisis, the Diggers, aka "True Levellers", emerged as a movement for agrarian reform, calling for the right to cultivate common land. In 1649, a group of Diggers began cultivating vegetables on common land near Cobham, Surrey, but after a year of intimidation by local landlords and soldiers, the movement had disbanded. With the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, social and religious reformers such as Winstanley had momentarily lost their window of opportunity.

Windows of opportunity such as that have been flung open throughout history, mostly through revolution with land reform laws being passed in the first week of the French revolution in 1789 and five months into the Cuban revolution in 1959.

In other cases, instead of depending on government-initiated land reforms, people have taken matters directly into their own hands. One of the best examples of this is Brazil's Landless Workers Movement – el Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra abbreviated as MST. Since the first land seizures began in 1978, the MST has legally settled 370,000 families on 7.5 million hectares of unused land. Brazil's 1988 constitution was rewritten to include a passage which states that unproductive land should be used for a "larger social purpose". Would that not be nice also for other countries. We all would definitely be able to benefit here, not just as individuals but as nations.

Despite a series of land reforms and the actions of the MST, approximately half of Brazil's usable land is owned by just 1% of the population – one of the most unequally distributed land ownership patterns in the world. However, in Britain the situation is even more pronounced than that with around 0.3% of the population owning 69% of the land. This fact alone would cause little concern were it not that rising global food prices and decreasing national self-sufficiency, which as said, has dropped by 10% or more even in the past decade, that are putting tremendous pressure on the UK's food security.

With the little land which comes to market each year often priced beyond its productive value and more than 100,000 people on allotment waiting lists, a range of alternative routes to food production have sprouted. Community Supported Agriculture, Land Partnerships such as Landscope, and Community Land Initiatives such as Fordhall Farm, are among a handful of alternative approaches to gaining access to land in a way that is beneficial to both farmers and their local communities. But all these alternatives are still a drop in the ocean in terms of land use and UK food production, and considerable obstacles stand in the way of any enthusiastic farmers hoping to acquire land to produce food.

Allotments, however, are a statutory obligation on the local authorities and, in theory, they must make the appropriate land available for all that want a plot. AS I said, that is the theory of the law. In practice it is not being done. Rather council owned land is sold off to developers for houses; houses that are beyond the pocket of the ordinary working man.

A slightly more radical approach, but one much truer to the experience of the Diggers, is to reclaim abandoned or derelict land. This has been taking place for decades across abandoned villages in the Spanish Pyrenees and French Alps. A variety of networks, ranging from Longo Mai, which was founded in 1972, to the more recent Reclaim the Fields, are helping people to create land-based projects which focus on food sovereignty and autonomy from the dictates of large agribusinesses.

With youth unemployment reaching the highest levels since 1992, and the average age of farmers creeping close to 60, there is a tremendous window of opportunity being ignored by the current government. In the United States, organisations such as the Greenhorns and the Young Farmers Coalition have been critical in co-ordinating an accelerating movement of young farmers who play a key role in creating sustainable, sovereign and secure food production systems.

In Britain, a varied group of organisations and individuals all contribute significant resources in the effort to create such food systems, but struggle to make headway in the current economic and political environment. A movement such as “Reclaim the Fields” – which describes itself as "a constellation of young people and collective projects" – has the capacity to inspire a younger generation to experience the utopianism of the Diggers at a time when our food system is in desperate need of overhaul.

On the other hand we have so much derelict land that could be transformed into “communal gardens and -farms” even though it may be old brownfield and other industrial sites that we are talking about here.

You do not have to dig into the ground to grow fruit and vegetables and other crops. It is possible to do everything above ground in planters and on the large scale those can be the one tonne builders bags that are sent to landfill by the tonne every day. All that is needed is to get soil. And even in that case soil can be saved – to a degree – if the lasagna gardening approach is being taken.

Every housing estate could have its own communal garden and every old industrial site that has no uses for anything – and there are many of them that are beginning to become overgrown and falling apart – could become gardens and “farms”. All that is needed is the will to do it and especially here the will by the politicians, local and central, to let people do it.

You do not, like the Diggers, have to defy the law. It could all be done within the law if the governments, local and central, would just be prepared to let it happen and trust the people.

© 2011