Why are we waiting for an official right to roam, when we can start walking now?
By George Monbiot. Published in The Guardian 6th February 1998.
Any lingering hopes that this government will challenge the old dispensation have surely now been dispelled, as Tony Blair once again bends his knee to the oldest power of all, the country landowners. Even as the environment minister Angela Eagle was assuring the Commons on Friday that Labour had not dropped the idea of granting ordinary people the means to tread their native soil, some lubricious spider from Number 10 was telling journalists that Tony Blair was refusing to publish the White Paper on a right to roam in the countryside.
In the light of the government’s capitulation to the hunting lobby, we shouldn’t, of course, be surprised. New Labour knows everything there is to know about power and nothing about liberty, and no one knows better than the Number 10 slickers that the way to acquire power is to appease those who possess it already. No promise will stand which seriously offends the rich. No policy will fall merely because it tramples the poor.
A right to roam is not just a convenience for the 18 million people who visit the countryside every summer weekend. Our exclusion from rural Britain is the most manifest of class barriers. Forced to sneak around the fabric of the nation like outlaws, our dispossession from the countryside confines us, physically, to the margins of society.
As recently as September, ministers were touting the long-standing Labour promise of a statutory right of access. Since then, Tony Blair has played court to some of our most rapacious robber barons, including the Duke of Westminster, who was voted Britain’s worst landlord in 1996 and whose closely-guarded Cheshire estate was singled out by Chris Smith as a compelling example of the need for reform. When it comes to the disposal of power in Britain, little has changed in nine hundred years. If property is nine-tenths of the law, sucking up to property seems to be nine-tenths of politics.
So why do we still wait? All that stands between us and our rights is our failure to exercise them. Anyone who believes that Britain should be governed for the benefit of all of its people, not just the priveleged, should trespass in the countryside at every opportunity.
Simple trespass remains a civil, not a criminal, matter in Britain. You cannot be prosecuted, only injuncted off the land. The landholder or his representative can, in theory, use reasonable force to remove you, but reasonable force is a slippery subject in court, and several prominent gamekeepers have gone down for manhandling peaceful ramblers. In truth, all that holds us back is our own spineless culture of deference.
Nothing makes a day in the countryside more enjoyable than being caught trespassing. The landlord usually opens the exchange by telling you you’re lost. You should thank him for his concern, but inform him that you know exactly where you are, and bring out your map to prove it. You are trespassing on my property, says the landlord. On the contrary, you reply, you are trespassing on mine. The land does not belong to you, but to the Queen, who is, in this respect, the embodiment of the nation. Your property is merely a bundle of rights which pertains to this land. I too assert property here.
You then take the initiative. What harm, you ask, does the landlord suppose you are doing?
You will trample my crops and frighten the livestock. But I observe the Country Code, in every respect except keeping to the footpath. You will damage the wildlife. On the contrary, only when we can enter the countryside can we monitor and report the landlords’ daily pillage of Sites of Special Scientific Interest and Scheduled Ancient Monuments, as well as the wider damage they inflict on our common inheritance.You are intruding on my privacy. How much privacy do you need? Why does my wandering in a remote corner of your estate offend you, when the constant passage of people on the pavement past my house does no harm to me?
By this time the lord of the land, so sneering and dignified before, has either slunk away with sullen imprecations or is screaming abuse. You bid him the most cordial good day, and continue your walk. Our rights spring into existence the moment we assert them.