The left in Britain has a great narrative of loss in the story of enclosures. The rich stole the land of the commoners, forcing them to be wage slaves at best, forcibly urbanised slumdwellers dying from disease at worst. The narrative was written strongly and passionately by Marx, and many of the best social historians have amplified it since then. It pre-dates him, for the Diggers were also fighting back against the theft of land, demanding it be a common treasury for all. But Marx has a uniquely strong influence in leftist thought, so I think it’s worth dwelling on his influence here.
Because there’s something Marx didn’t see and never got the chance to talk about. And even those who saw it with their own eyes didn’t always recognise it for what it was: a reclaiming of the land that people needed, on a very large scale. I have a sneaky suspicion they didn’t see it as the happy ending to the enclosures story because it didn’t fit the narrative of loss they had known and loved for so long. But also they didn’t see it because it didn’t look like millions of people living off common land again.
But here’s the thing: living off the land is brutally hard work, and most people today don’t want to do it. They haven’t wanted to do it for a long time. In an urbanised population where the food we eat can be provided by a small fraction of the population (plus labour in other countries), people don’t want pannage or turbage rights. What they want from land is a place to live.
When you realise that, you understand that the construction of council houses was the greatest re-commoning of land that the UK has ever seen. Sure, it wasn’t fields and woodlands, but what people needed was a place to live in a city, and the end of slum landlordism. And they got it: in 1979, 42% of the population lived in social housing, mostly in urban areas. To achieve that, the state went on a massive compulsory purchasing spree, appropriating vast tracts of urban and edge-of-urban land, often very much against the wishes of the landlords.
This happy ending comes with some corollaries. The designation of large areas for slum clearance would turn out to be a double-edged sword. Communities were broken up, and buildings we would later come to revere were destroyed in their thousands. Furthermore state ownership is not quite the same as common ownership, and alas is easier to reverse. Nonetheless large areas of our cities were taken under public control and good quality housing built on the land and rented out at below market rent. Tens of millions of people enjoyed such housing.
That is an astonishing achievement for one of the most capitalist countries in the world. It is one of the great achievements of the labour movement in the UK, and to some extent it is recognised as such. What I am arguing here is that it should also be recognised as the revenge of the people for the theft of the commons. And that isn’t a narrative I see very often. The narrative of loss is still the one that predominates: we lost land to enclosures and we never got it back. I think that’s a great shame, because it portrays us as helpless in the face of the assaults of capitalism. I think it’s worth saying that ‘we’ got our land back. It wasn’t the same land, but that doesn’t matter: it was the land we needed at the time.
There is, alas, a final twist to the tale, which the reader has seen coming. Thatcher’s ‘Right to Buy’ cleverly enclosed once again, and not only that, vast amounts of land owned by the public has been sold off in what has been called The New Enclosures. Half of all publicly owned land has been sold off, including large housing estates such as the Heygate in south London. That is shocking, and a great loss to us all. The ability to turn that land into commonly owned rather than publicly owned land has been lost, or at least it will now be very difficult.
But I think it’s important to understand that the story of land in the UK has not only been one of loss. There is not only enclosure. There has not only been theft of the land. There was also the time when we took the land back. Let’s remember the story of enclosures with that in it.