Digging up the English Radical Tradition

By Joe Hardwick

In June 2012, a small group of young people calling themselves ‘Diggers2012’ left London and the corporatism of the capital and established an ‘eco-village’ on land in Brunel University’s Runnymede Campus: an area, they claimed, that was designated for the development of luxury homes and student accommodation, but was ostensibly terra nullius. According to newspaper reports, their initial destination had been disused farmland near the Queen’s estates at Windsor, but after clashes with the authorities the group—who at the time of writing in October 2012 appear to number fifteen—were forced to settle in fields not far from where King John signed one of the defining documents of the English political tradition, Magna Carta (see this Guardian article). In subsequent weeks the historical significance of the land provided a fitting context for the clashes that developed between the eco-village and the National Trust, which, after claiming that the Diggers had trespassed on their land (something the diggers deny), organised for an injunction that would allow them to evict the group from the Runnymede Estate. In addition to raising questions about the possibility of forming an alternative to the social, political and economic order, the conflict is one in which various institutions, values and images that have at one time or another been evoked as capturing a sense of Englishness and what it means to be English appear to sit in tension. Representative democracy, agriculture, the land, Magna Carta and, perhaps, the National Trust, might all conjure up images of England, but here they seem to be in conflict (The voice-piece for the Digger2012 movement is their website).

In branding themselves Diggers2012 the group are positioning themselves as the descendants of the English agrarian reformers who, in response to the excursions into common land by an entrepreneurial yeoman elite, moved in 1649—the year of the execution of Charles I—to establish ‘digger’ communities on common land at St. George’s Hill in Surrey and three other places in Buckinghamshire, Northamptonshire and Essex. The current diggers will probably hope that their own experiment in the idea that the earth is a common treasury from which each should benefit equally will be more long-lasting than their seventeenth-century forbears: through late 1649 and ’50 the settlements endured attacks from local yeoman and authorities, with the final nail in the coffin of the Surrey settlement coming in Easter 1650 when a gang led by the local parson tore down the digger homes. But in reclaiming the spirit of the diggers and the digger leader Gerrard Winstanley (who once wrote that the reform of land ownership would mean there was no ‘need of Lawyers, prisons, or engines of punishment one over another, for all shall walk and act righteously in the Creation, and there shall be no beggar’) the modern diggers are doing more than just drawing links between the inequalities of land ownership past and present, between the revolutionary ferment of the late 1640s and today, and between contemporary and historical disillusionment with the ability of the parliamentary political process to bring a more equitable future: they are also pointing to the enduring importance of a tradition of English radicalism whose counter-hegemonic ideas on liberty, democracy, land ownership and community have tended to lurk at the background, if not obscured entirely, during debates about English national identity or Britishness. Certainly the radicalism and extremism of the digger take on the English past and identity was for many a welcome relief from an Olympic summer where debates about national identity were crowded with those familiar English tropes of monarchy and fair play.

The recovery of this radical tradition extending from the 1381 Peasants Revolt, through the diggers and up to the Chartists and beyond was driven by a group of left-wing (if not communist) historians in the 1960s. While this group—the names of E.P. Thompson, Christopher Hill and Eric Hobsbawm are perhaps the most famous—had success in bringing this radical history to the awareness of the historical academy, left-leaning members of the public, and history undergraduates, they always had a much harder time communicating their thesis to a wider constituency. The main problem was that they could not convince the British public the campaigns for social justice of Winstanley, the apocalyptic millennialism of Joanna Southcott (‘O England! O England! England!…The midnight hour is coming for you all’),[1] the republicanism of Tom Paine or the proto-communism of Thomas Spence were genuinely an English tradition rather than something brought from outside to disturb England and her comfortable traditions of Magna Carta, parliamentary government and the separation of power in Kings, Lord and Commons (it is worth noting that none of the radical luminaries mentioned above got a walk on part in the Olympic opening ceremony).

This is not to say that the radical narrative has greater claim to represent true Englishness than those myths of identity that involve Morris Dancing, warm beer and ladies cycling to communion. As with all ideas about the existence of a native tradition the Marxist notion of a continuous English radicalism linking Winstanley and Wollstonecraft, Jack Straw and Thomas Spence had more than just a hint of myth about it. Though all were labelled radicals, it was not clear whether Winstanley’s ‘socialism’ (if he was a proto-socialist at all), bore any resemblance to modern socialism, and it was not clear that the ideas on republicanism articulated by the Thetford-born Tom Paine in the last decades of the eighteenth century were peculiarly English. All these ideas were worked out in a larger European, and American context.[2] Hence the English radical tradition is maybe just another example of one of the ‘invented traditions’ that Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, in a book published in the early 1980s, spotted elsewhere.

But regardless of the historical accuracy of the English radical tradition, it may be that the shadow of Scottish devolution, the rising political significance of the Englishness debate, and current efforts to shed Englishness of its right-wing and xenophobic associations will mean that the work of the Marxist historians and the characters they wrote about will once again come on the political and cultural radar of the English: certainly a group wider than the more than just the well-read and articulate members of the Diggers2012 movement. It might also be, as one commentator has pointed out, that those politicians who have favoured the deployment of the more inclusive ‘Britishness’—most notably those in the Labour Party, the supposed heirs to the radical tradition—might be forced by Scottish devolution and the break-up of Britain to embark on a new project of rethinking a more equitable, inclusive and possibly radical understanding of English national identity (also see this Guardian article).

[1] Southcott quoted in E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (1963), p. 422.

[2] Glenn Burgess and Matthew Festenstein, ‘Introduction’, in their English Radicalism, 1550-1850 (Cambridge, 2007), pp. 4, 6.

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