In the footsteps of Wat Tyler

Today's militant ramblers and architectural conservationists inherit a great British tradition: a belief in the public realm
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The Independent Online
The Government's decision to sell the Royal Naval College, Greenwich, has unleashed a powerful tide of protest from British people of all ages and backgrounds from around the country who feel, rightly or wrongly, that this is a sale too far. It is one thing for a succession of Conservative governments to sell the nation's family silver through ideologically charged programmes of privatisation, but quite another to put the house up for sale with it.

In its defence, the Government says that it is seeking only a leaseholder for the Royal Naval College. Yet a lease of 150 years is tantamount to a sale in most people's reckoning, particularly in a country in which the right to buy and to own property, much of it in a state of negative equity, is apparently sacrosanct.

The Greenwich sale appears to offend us for at least three reasons. First, the Government is treating a masterwork by our greatest architects, Sir Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor, as if it were no more than a liability or public nuisance, when in fact it is one of our most important national treasures.

Second, it has chosen to advertise this world-class asset through an estate agent's brochure and a glossy advertisement in the property pages of Country Life, as if it were no more than a Georgian rectory for private sale somewhere in the Home Counties. Will St Bartholomew's Hospital be treated the same way when the Government, despite a million signatures calling for its retention, rids itself of this ancient public benefice for redevelopment into offices? St Bartholomew's, it might be remembered, includes many listed buildings, including a gatehouse designed by the office of Christopher Wren.

Third, by offering Greenwich for sale, the Government is openly encouraging the transfer of one of our greatest public buildings into private hands.

It is the last of these that vexes us most. Although a nation of committed property owners, we nevertheless have somewhere, deep down, a natural belief in the idea of buildings and places that we have agreed to share and which belong to the public realm. Our national and municipal parks, rivers and footpaths are obvious examples. So, too, are what survives of our ancient forests, village greens and commons. More questionably, our national railways and utilities - Post Office, gas, water and electricity supplies, our schools, libraries and hospitals - are, or have been, a part of this public realm, what our ancestors would have known as the Commonwealth.

As our ancestors thought of forests and village greens as common land, we tend to think the same today of properties such as the Royal Naval College. And, yet, although we can be sentimental over properties such as Greenwich and express concern for what appears to be the inexorable erosion of the public realm, we are also passionate devotees of the idea of privacy: private homes, private schools, private enterprise. In short, we face a very British paradox: we are torn between the poles of personal freedom and the collective good.

The Englishman's home, famously, is his castle. Together with its much- cared-for garden, these private castles, large and small, cover what was once common land, giving their owners an obvious pride in ownership. Yet, somewhere in the collective imagination, we remember the centuries- old struggle to keep common land out of private hands.

Enclosure of common land was deeply unpopular, leading to riot and open rebellion. Common land was enclosed as part of the long transition of British agriculture from subsistence farming to what we would now call a market-oriented industry. Enclosed commons meant profitable pasture. They also led directly to the rise of the banks, the revoking of the laws of usury, and the triumph of private capital. By the same token, enclosure meant the end of ancient rights enjoyed by serfs and peasants. Among these were the rights to raise cows, geese and pigs and to cut timber for fuel.

Despite its modernising and profitable impact (for the few), enclosure was a slow process in medieval England, not least because of a 200-year shortage of labour following the Black Death. Not only was there a labour deficit and a glut of land, but the English peasantry was armed, aggressive and versed in military skills. When the mob, enthused by the preachings of John Ball and led by Wat Tyler, seized London in 1381, it was a force that had been galvanised in the wars with France.

"When Adam delved and Eve span," the mob chanted, "who was then the Gentleman?" The gentlemen, or landowners, won slowly but surely as the population grew and labour shortages became a thing of the Dark Ages. By the 17th century, agricultural labourers were by and large passive, hungry and unarmed.

Protest on an intellectual, moral and philosophical level developed, critically, at this time and had blossomed by the outbreak of the Civil War. By then, a third of England was still common land. Many 17th-century writers encouraged the ancient, and not unfounded, belief that the Saxon English had enjoyed a golden age of freedom and equality before the invasion of William the Conqueror and the subsequent imposition of what they called the "Norman yoke" and the privatisation or enclosure of land.

As Thomas Randolph wrote in 1638, "I'th'golden age, no action could be found/For trespasse on my neighbours ground." In other words, all land had been held in common. This gave rise to the notion of the Noble Savage, encouraged by reports from America of tribal Indians who refused to believe that man could own land.

As the masque writer John Ponet put it in his Short Treatise of Politicke Power (first published in 1556, but reprinted at the time of the Civil War): "Mine and Thine, were then unusde/All things common: Nought abusde." Much later, Proudhon would say: "Property is theft."

These were the arguments taken up by radical Puritans during Cromwell's Protectorate, most famously by Gerrard Winstanley and the Diggers. "Did the Light of Reason", asked Winstanley, "make the Earth for some men to engross up into bags and barns, that others might be opressed with poverty?" The Diggers believed not and set out, spade in hand, at St George's Hill, Surrey, in April 1649 "to renew the Ancient Community of enjoying the fruits of the earth, and to distribute the benefit thereof to the poor and needy, and to feed the hungry and clothe the naked."

Unlike Margaret Thatcher, the Diggers believed that there was such a thing as Society. "Leave off this buying and selling of land and the fruits of the Earth," proclaimed Winstanley, "so let it be in action amongst all, a Common Treasury."

The Diggers disappeared without trace, yet had an immeasurable influence on the early Labour movement in Britain. They were, however, unable to stop the enclosure of common land which reached a peak, through Acts of Parliament, between 1740 and 1860.

Enclosure only finally came to an end in the 1870s, not because of a sudden desire on the part of the ruling classes to leave something in the pot for the rural poor, but because of the rise of a powerfully articulate middle-class protest.

The urban middle classes demanded unfenced countryside to walk in on weekends and holidays. They were the beneficiaries of capitalism and the free champions of private property and yet, like John Ball, Wat Tyler and Gerrard Winstanley before them, they, too, mythologised the golden age of pre-Conquest Britain and shared the same heroes - Arthur, Alfred, Hereward the Wake, Robin Hood and all those, romance or fact, who fought rural battles for the freedom of the common man.

So they fought the Battle of Berkhamsted Common in 1886, saving this ancient common land from enclosure. They saved Epping Forest from being felled shortly afterwards. And, they lent their support to the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, founded by William Morris: the Victorians accepted that architecture as well as land was a part of our collective national heritage.

Most importantly of all, in 1895 an Act of Parliament established the National Trust to protect our ancient countryside, coastline and historic buildings from further destruction by private greed.

The trust began what we know today as "heritage"; it was not a campaign to raise the living standards of the poor. Even so, early socialist thought, the embryonic heritage lobby and the battle to save common ground were woven together, loosely and artlessly, into an apparently and peculiarly English paradox.

Today, the National Trust, a notably successful part-private, part-public national charity, has a membership of 2.2 million, representing the enormous desire that exists in Britain to hold the best of our heritage in terms of buildings and land in common trust for the nation and for future generations.

This concern has been extended throughout the 20th century to include our public services and utilities. We are ambivalent about the future of our water supplies, buses and national railway network, believing somehow that private management will make them more efficient, and at the same time worried that, once out of public hands, they will be prey to greedy profiteers with little, if any, sense of the common good.

Organisations such as London Transport under the aegis of Lord Ashfield and Frank Pick in the Thirties gave us a public transport system universally recognised as second to none. Held in common trust, Pick's London Transport made it its duty to provide the very finest engineering, design, art and architecture. Many of those buildings are now listed as part of our national heritage.

"Industry and manufacture", wrote Pick, one of the greatest British businessmen of this century, "are for the service of the people, not for the profit of the capitalist." A Puritan in the vein of Cromwell, and even of Winstanley, Pick believed that "the Day of Judgement is every day" and that, therefore, there was no excuse for any member of society not to do his or her best, in whatever role, at all times for the common good.

Our concern with who owns and runs our common services and public utilities is keen at the moment, but in the long term the question of who runs our utilities and services will appear a more transient one than what has become the perennial issue of who owns and cares for the land and buildings which we hold in common store and which are deeply embedded, like Greenwich, in the national pysche.

This history explains why in the Nineties we are witnessing the unlikely, yet fruitful, marriage between National Trust members in tweeds and brogues, New Age travellers, hippie tribes and militant ramblers. Together they are fighting the construction of roads and the uprooting of meadows, footpaths and pastureland for superstores, agro-industry and shopping malls.

It is remarkable to look back and see how effective the British have been in preserving coastlines, ancient meadows, footpaths, bridleways and buildings. And it is fascinating to see how buildings and property that are still privately owned - stately homes and even Buckingham Palace - have been opened to the public. Even so, new forms of land enclosure in the guise of roads, giant shops and retail complexes continue, if not unabated, then in the teeth of steadily mounting opposition.

Among the people campaigning today for the preservation of common land are those who also send their children to private schools. Somewhere, as this apparent paradox illustrates, there is a Digger in all of us. We are, it seems, as much the inheritors of Cromwell as we are of William and Mary and the Hanoverians - who enclosed the lands and yet who also gave us the Royal Naval College, too.