Plunder of the Commons:
A Manifesto for Sharing Public Wealth

By Guy Standing
Published by Pelican,£9.99 paperback
Review by Tim Barton

By the time you read this, we know that any policy for sharing public wealth is on the back-burner for several more years, if we’re lucky. It is not the only tragedy here: as Standing’s book illustrates, a tragic rape of the commons, our commons, has been taking place in fits and starts for centuries. After more years of extremist neoliberalism under fundamentalist capitalism using the terror weapon of austerity, there may be little of our public commons left.

Meanwhile, the more oafish end of the pro-Brexit spectrum are fist-pumping about how they ‘voted for no deal’ (they didn’t, it was not part of the referendum, or of Article 50) and now are ‘getting their country back’.

Getting something back implies having once had it. Although I and a few friends have discussed this delusion, Standing’s is the first published account I have seen that traces the English state’s treatment of its people and our common heritage in the context of Thatcherism and Brexit. Some readers will be aware of John Prebble’s excellent books on the English attrition of Scottish land rights, through war and enclosure. England fared no better, if mostly less bloodily. 

One of the rallying cries we heard from gaslighting, opportunist, power-hungry narcissists like Farage over the last few decades (from the rise of the Natural Law Party at least) has been ‘Magna Carta! Magna Carta!’, and indeed this obsession has been absorbed by a certain chunk of the ordinary plebiscite. Yet this is another deep irony – the Magna Carta was in essence a compact between royal estates and feudal fiefdoms to balance power in a way that may avert the permanent warfare between competing powers within our Isles (primarily England), just as Parliamentary reform after the Civil War era was about the same continuation of war through ‘peaceful’ means, by balancing the aristocracy, who had power in law but were often rather cash-strapped, with the rising mercantile class, who had power in the form of money but little legal foothold on our still adolescent nation. Is there something in common between these two periods? Naturally, neither had anything to do with you and I. Ordinary people had nothing under these historically lionised ur-myths.

So did we ever ‘have’ our country? These things are always relative, and at no point has there been a perfect compact between power and the people in the British Isles. The post-war rise of a safety net, and universal health care, can look like a positive period for many of us, but in terms of autonomous security was weak (one reason Thatcher’s selling off of council housing stock was so popular is that a few ‘Englishmen’ got their own ‘castle-home’). Much further back, we had no safety net but charity, and modern medicine wasn’t available, but we did have the kind of autonomous freedom the modern St George flag-waving Englander might recognise and seek (within severe limits) – in this populist sense ‘we’ ‘had’ ‘our’ country by right of subsistence on the common land. This was given by the Carta de Foresta (or Charter of the Forest). It was eroded and eroded from day one, not least under Henry VIII and later the acts of Inclosure. It was finally rescinded, a tattered ghost of its original self, as late as 1971, but in terms of an Englishman’s freedom was centuries dead.

So, the ‘Etonian’ and Oxford colleges (primarily, though also Cambridge) elites have more or less run the show top down – in parliament, the judiciary, and most other loci of power – for centuries, with occasional new blood grudgingly allowed in such as the crass 1980s City of London Essex ‘yuppies’. ‘We’ have never truly been represented, the thin guise of democratic institutions notwithstanding.

Nothing about ‘Brexit’, at least not the right-wing Brexit we are being served, can right this wrong: ‘we’ are getting nothing back, but do stand to lose much.

In 1992 Thatcher said: “it is terribly important that those who have been very doubtful about the European enterprise should have some kind of alternative strategy clearly set out […] I have always felt that the best answer for us was to be a kind of free-trade and non-interventionist ‘Singapore’ off Europe, seeking contact and understanding with the growth areas of the world, but I have a feeling that such a scheme is perhaps too revolutionary even for my fellow Euro-sceptics.” Well, no longer: people with a high profile in the Brexit farrago were not shy of boosting this freebooter’s paradise vision of a rich corporation playground for UK plc even before the referendum – people like Fox, Banks, Carswell, and Hannon. They plan to asset-strip the UK harder and harder for personal gain, and have said so: lower health and safety, lower pollution control, less workers’ rights, a for-profit private insurance-based NHS contracted out to globalist corporations. Frankly, those hardliners saying they want their country back won’t get it from the Tories, and their blind following of untruths promoted by opportunists like Farage and Johnson has guaranteed years of hardship for us all.

Standing’s excellent book shows how institutions such as the NHS should be deemed ‘public commons’, expands the concept of common ownership to include far more than land and illustrates vividly how the plunder of our commons was radically accelerated under Thatcher, but how in the last decade, with the coalition and then the Tories alone, far more has been stolen from us and sold to the highest bidder than was taken in the 1980s. His vision for change, like the Green New Deal, is eminently sensible and necessary, and best deferred after the 2019 December election results (permanently, if Labour can’t keep an at least vaguely ‘socialist’ leadership in this trying period). I regard Plunder of the Commons as a compulsory read, one that covers far more than I have here. 

Available at Printed Matter Bookshop and Bookbusters


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