The Guardian by Felicity Lawrence
Ordinary people increasingly shut out from the means of subsistence; a rich and powerful minority privatising and extracting rent from common resources – it is 800 years this week since the sealing in London’s St Paul’s Cathedral of the Charter of the Forest and these were the grievances it addressed. Its resonances today are so strong that this ancient document from 1217 is providing the inspiration for a new political settlement at events around the country.
The Charter of the Forest, the lesser-known but equally significant twin of Magna Carta, asserted the rights of ordinary people to access from “the commons” the means for a livelihood and shelter, whether it was grazing their livestock, cutting wood for housing and fuel, fishing and hunting, creating water mills, or sharing the other resources of the forest. It restricted the rights of the king and nobles to privatise and exploit the forest while guaranteeing the rights of the commoners. It represented an early constitutional victory for ordinary people over a wealthy elite, and as such was hugely influential in the writing of other constitutions around the world. The battles in England continued of course, and waves of enclosures across Britain through subsequent centuries stripped away many of the rights.
But now a movement to restore them is growing. Guy Standing, a professor of development economics, is one of those calling for a new charter of the commons, re-establishing the right of the property-less to a basic income, affordable housing, energy and water, and common ownership or control of the means of providing it. Standing founded the network for a universal basic income, more than three decades ago. Now even Silicon Valley tech companies have begun supporting the idea, seeing it as a way of inoculating US society against the danger of social unrest prompted by extreme and growing inequality.
This week’s revelations about the pervasive practice of tax dodging and abuse of secrecy jurisdictions in the Paradise Papers only serve to highlight just how skewed the system has become, in favour of the interests of the very rich and at the expense of everyone else.
Harking back to ancient principles as defined in the Charter of the Forest is not just an exercise in nostalgia. It is a way of breaking out of the dead end we have reached in politics over the past three to four decades. The deregulated free markets that neoliberal ideology promised us would generate wealth for all turn out not to be free, but rigged in favour of big corporations and elites. Oligopolies have captured sector after sector, while oligarchs have spirited away to tax havens resources that belonged to whole nations. Privatisation of key industries has allowed investors to collect rent in the form of inflated bills, even where they fail to maintain standards or infrastructure.
Meanwhile, the agreement at the heart of the postwar social contract, that work pays for a decent living, has been broken. Millions of people in the west work hard but do not earn enough to cover basic living costs or afford housing. The notion that the only alternative to market fundamentalism is a bureaucratic, inefficient state that leads in short order back to socialist totalitarianism has for too long stood in the way of change, paralysing even those politicians committed to change. So what would a modern “commons” charter look like?
Start with the link back to the Charter of the Forest. Ancient trees planted in public space belong to everyone, not just in the current generation but also in future ones. Local charters would recognise them as inalienable assets so that they could not be sold off to be cut down. But a 21st-century commons, as described by Standing and my colleague George Monbiot, in his visionary polemic Out of the Wreckage, would take in more than trees. Natural resources on which we all depend, such as water, air, energy sources, mineral wealth under land or sea should be held in common. Natural monopolies and strategic industries should be brought back in to public ownership.
Water utilities should be brought back under common control. Privatisation of water by the Thatcher government in 1989 has seen huge profits for foreign investors and a precious resource offshored through elaborate tax-avoiding structures. There is no real market here, you cannot go elsewhere if you don’t like what your local water company offers. Bills for ordinary households have risen dramatically, supposedly for investment, but the infrastructure remains leaky. The commons can embrace different forms of ownership and management, the principle only being that the value should revert to the public. In Denmark, for example, three-quarters of wind turbines are co-owned by local communities. In Germany a growing number of municipalities are buying back their local grids, and communities frequently own and profit from the infrastructure for renewable energy generation. A new charter would end rip-off energy bills for poorer consumers and reassert the right to affordable fuel.
Land is an inherently scarce resource, or as Mark Twain put it, they ain’t making it any more. Brexit requires a rewriting of the rules for agricultural and environmental subsidies to landowners, currently worth about £3bn under the common agricultural policy. A first principle of any new regime should be that subsidies only accrue to land whose ownership is transparent and registered onshore so that its owners pay tax. We need a new Domesday exercise in completing a full registry of Britain’s land. The campaigner Guy Shrubsole, who has tried to map ownership with exhaustive freedom of information requests, calculates 20% of land has never been registered and the vast majority of land in the UK is held in secretive aristocratic trusts.
Natural mineral resources are also part of the commons – and where extracting has a detrimental impact on the wider population, it is their interest that should prevail – whether it be leaving them in the ground to mitigate climate change or sharing the profits when appropriate. The Community Chartering Network has already scored a victory here, when its Falkirk group came together to draw up a charter of the communities’ commons assets and successfully opposed fracking for gas.
Standing, who is an economic adviser to the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, suddenly finds himself asked to talk about the commons to chief executives and hedge fund managers around the world. The elites are worried they have over-reached, that the gap between have and have-not is too great for their own safety. They are ready to make concessions. All we need now is politicians brave and radical enough to rein them in.