Modern day diggers

They’ve been breaking up the protest camp in Parliament Square. Can’t have the people take over a public space, after all. And it might upset the Queen as she drives by. Might scare the horses. But what is the point of Parliament Square if not to provide a place for alternative views? Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, argues, rather disingenuously, that he is only concerned at the other protesters get a fair crack of the whip:

The mayor respects the right to demonstrate – however, the scale and impact of the protest is now doing considerable damage to the square and preventing its peaceful use by other Londoners including those who may wish to have an authorised protest.

Ah, yes. The authorised protest. Those are the ones we want. The licensed demo. Anyway, I was interested to read about the set up of the democracy camp, which includes a couple of composting toilets and a vegetable garden. It reminds me of another protest broken up by the authorities some 360 years ago.

On 1 April 1649, around twenty poor men took possession of a plot of common land in Saint George’s Hill, Surrey. They became known as the Diggers, and the Surrey community was the first of around 34 communities which held property in common and sought to reclaim the land which they believed had been taken from them. They were inspired by the picture of communal living in Acts and by the garden at the beginning of the Bible. Their leader Gerrard Winstanley wrote: ‘All the men and women in England, are all children of the Land and the earth is the Lord’s, not particular men’s that claims a proper interest in it above others, which is the devil’s power.’ Winstanley called for land captured during the Civil War to be redistributed, for the ‘parks, forests, chases and the like may be set free to all that have lent assistance, either of person or of purse, to obtain it.’ That, he claimed, would ‘turn swords into ploughshares and settle such a peace in the earth, as nations shall learn war no more.’

A few months later the Digger communities were gone. Broken up by landowner-orchestrated campaigns of violence, harassment and arson, they abandoned St George’s Hill in August 1649. And in the years following the restoration of the monarchy, such dissenters and nonconformists were persecuted with all the zeal that the establishment could muster. When the authorities realised they were too numerous to suppress they decided that all churches should be registered and licensed. When protest is too loud to ignore, the next thing to do is to make it fill out forms.
Back to the London square. It’s clear that some people appreciate what it is:

“We like it, it is very nice,” said Ali Hamid, a 36-year old translator from Iran. “We have taken some pictures and we think it is a very good idea because parliament is right there and they can hear the protest.”