Back to 1662

The Government’s repressive new laws contain eerie similarities to statutes passed hundreds of years ago

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 26th October 1994.

To the authorities, the people squatting in the woods a few miles from Bath, disrupting the upgrading of roads, were “filthy ruffians” living “without government or conformity in idleness and dissoluteness”. This may seem a quaint way to express a common perception, but the dissolute roads protestors were not the Dongas of Solsbury Hill but the colliers of nearby Kingswood, monkey wrenching in 1714.

The colliers and the other squatters and vagabonds who joined them in the woods complained that the new roads were damaging the environment – furze and heather were being cut for road repairs – and were being turnpiked (or privatized) and upgraded only for the benefit of the rich in their wheeled carriages, rather than the poor, who travelled on foot or by horse. Dressed absurdly in women’s clothes and high-crowned hats, they destroyed the structures erected by the turnpike trusts – the road construction companies of the 18th century.

Direct action against changes in the use of the countryside is as old as people’s exclusion from the land: the activists fighting the roads programme today extend the ancestral struggle for political rights more faithfully than any others. But the tradition in which they are engaged has a corollary: throughout history the enclosers of the land have drafted laws restraining the dispossessed. The clauses of the Criminal Justice Bill addressing hunt saboteurs, roads protestors, travellers, ravers and squatters are in some cases so uncannily similar to the laws of an earlier age that one cannot but wonder whether, for want of ideas, the government has raided the House of Commons library.

The first, though least satisfactory, congruity emerges in 1723, when the Black Act created fifty new hanging offences, for crimes as momentous as painting one’s face or chasing deer. The aim of the new law – repressive even for those times – was to stamp out Britain’s first recorded hunt saboteurs.

Windsor Forest – which then extended to Reading in the west and Sandhurst in the south – was the King’s most treasured hunting ground. It was also the home of thousands of people, embracing farms, villages and private manors. The Forest had been mismanaged by George I’s corrupt officials, and when the King complained at the lack of deer, they sought to make up for their incompetence by persecuting the villagers. They curtailed people’s customary rights to graze their animals and gather fuel in the Forest, and enforced severe penalties for poaching.

The people exercised their only available means of resistance: they took direct action. Blacking up their faces, wearing fancy dress, they chased away the deer, damaged the orchards and fish ponds belonging to the King’s officials and assaulted the gamekeepers. It was not, of course, the hunting itself that the Blacks objected to, but their exclusion from land they felt was rightfully theirs. The severity of the punishments was a measure of hunting’s importance as a perquisite of the privileged. The Criminal Justice Bill suggests that its significance has scarcely diminished.

The Black Act was later enlarged and amended to deal with protestors outside the royal forests and chases, but in most cases it was used as a brutal and unnecessary adjunct to the Riot Act. This was passed into law in 1715 by Walpole’s deeply unpopular government to deal with mobs whipped up by the Tories, but it soon became the principal legal instrument for suppressing enclosure riots.

Throughout the 18th century, peasants gathered to protest against their dispossession from the land, setting light to hayricks and trying to pull down the landlords’ houses. When an officer of the law deemed that a riotous assembly had formed he could warn the crowd of the provisions of the Riot Act. If the people did not disperse, they could be arrested. In 1994, when an officer of the law deems that a trespassory assembly has formed, he can warn the crowd of the provisions of the Criminal Justice Act. If the people do not disperse, they can be arrested.

But both the Black Act and the Riot Act were isolated measures, originally drafted to deal with specific public order problems. Neither was, as the CJB arguably is, an attempt to constrain social change by eliminating certain ways of life. For that we need go further back, to a crisis of authority and an abandonment of age-old beliefs even more profound than those of the last thirty years, and the attempts of a bruised aristocracy to uphold the status quo.

The New Model Army drew upon the ranks of the dispossessed. Before the Civil War, enclosure riots had been taking place all over England, as peasants were forced from or cheated out of their place in the countryside, largely by a new class of landed entrepreneurs. The rioters aimed to “level the land”: to pull down the hedges and fences excluding them from their commons and open field systems. Many of them believed that the parliamentary army would address their complaints.

They found themselves, ironically, serving under some of the very men responsible for their misery, but their ideas so inspired the army’s rank and file that, by the end of the first Civil War in 1647, the Levellers had effectively taken control of entire regiments. Extending their analysis from the enclosure of land to the enclosure of liberty, they called for the universal male franchise, sweeping law reforms, the abolition of the House of Lords and the sovereignty of Parliament: for the levelling, in other words, of society as well as hedgerows.

In 1649 groups of “Diggers or True Levellers” occupied commons all over England and argued the right of every man to dig the ground and grow food. Their spokesman, Gerrard Winstanley, insisted that the land belonged to everyone, and that private property was a Norman invention contravening the laws of God. He called for equal education for all people, women as well as men.

No period of English history has ever held such potential for sweeping social change. For a few months the Levellers almost took the country: in 1647 the government was forced to concede some of their demands, and in 1648 their notions sank deep into the ideology of the first Rump Parliament. But then Cromwell, the Huntingdonshire squire, bit back. In 1649 he routed two mutinous regiments of the New Model Army, calling themselves the Constitutional Levellers, and executed their leaders. The Diggers were beaten up, their crops were destroyed and their huts were burnt. The movement went underground.

In 1660, following Cromwell’s death and Parliament’s inability to perpetuate itself, Charles II was invited back from exile. Almost all the gains made by Parliament were immediately reversed, and the government slid back towards the basics of traditional autocracy. Viciously reactionary, premised upon the prestige of the sovereign and the maintenance of the status quo, it feared above all things the radical and Nonconformist groups still roving the land.

The Levellers, though hidden and dispersed, continued to raise minor rebellions. The Quakers had evolved similar ideas: they rejected secular authority, social distinctions and the exclusive ownership of land. “Masterless men” dispossessed by enclosure and squatting the woods and commons, disseminated notions of anarchy and agrarian reform. In 1662 the ruling aristocrats, anxious to protect their position and their lands, drafted new laws designed to mop the dissidents up.

The first of the Statutes at Large recorded for that year is an act for preventing “Mischiefs and Dangers” by Quakers. Accused of assembling themselves “in great Numbers … to the great endangering of the publick Peace and Safety and to the Terror of the People” the Quakers could be punished for their ecstatic gatherings with a fine or three months imprisonment. Only a laughing God could have prompted Michael Howard to impose exactly the same penalty on 20th century ravers.

A couple of months later, a law was introduced prohibiting “Rogues, Vagabonds and Sturdy Beggars” from settling in makeshift dwellings in the countryside, or from moving from place to place in search of parish welfare funds. The same law called for the building of more workhouses and Houses of Correction. In a further provision, it forces errant fathers to pay maintenance for their “Bastard Children” in order that the parishes should no longer have to provide for them.

There is, despite these congruities, a fundamental difference between 1662 and today. By the time those old laws were drafted, the radicals were already in decline. Today the rise of the radical movements and the political backlash are taking place simultaneously. The new Levellers are on the move, the government is at its weakest, and there has seldom been a better chance that repressive legislation will unite rather than disperse its intended victims. The non-conformists – who seem, despite all odds, to be achieving what the Kingswood colliers could not – are broadening their vision. They present, for the first time in one third of a millennium, a serious challenge to the lords of the land.