More Broken Promises

Where is the right to roam the government pledged?

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 9th January 1999.

Iraq, Mr Blair told us, had to be bombed because Saddam Hussein is “a serial breaker of promises”. If the fickleness of a country’s leader is now regarded as sufficient justification for blowing up its installations, we in Britain had better start building some bomb shelters. To the inglorious litany of the promised freedom of information act, integrated transport policy, hunting bill and banning of tobacco sponsorship, and pledges not to build the disastrous Birmingham Northern Relief Road and Cardiff Bay Barrage, we can add yet another broken promise. By the end of 1998, Mr Blair swore, he would announce a decision on a right to roam in Britain. I knew he was crossing his fingers.

Perhaps one of the reasons why British people spend so much time and money discovering other countries is that we are forbidden to discover our own. On the unfenced beaches, steppes, savannahs, forests and mountains we visit abroad, the human spirit is freed from its chains and bounds, like an unleashed dog, with joy. Regrettably, the more we seek our own freedom abroad, the more we constrain other people’s, as the tour operators working on our behalf export our own venemous ethic of enclosure. Like the robber barons running shoots on Britain’s grouse moors for wealthy visitors, travel companies all over the world seek to secure for themselves and their clients exclusive access to what once belonged to everyone, shutting out the poor, placing the rights of property above the rights of people.

The loss of freedom is the hardest thing to explain to someone who has never experienced it, which is why wealthy and powerful people often call for prison sentences to be increased. They fail, too, to understand that being allowed to march along a public footpath is no substitute for wandering as we will through woods and commons, along beaches and over downs, up mountains and beside streams. In many places, public footpaths are fenced on either side, and we, the battery citizens of a broiler house state, remain trapped within the narrow regimentation imposed by the pavement, the municipal park and our tiny back gardens.

The countryside – the great majority of Britain – becomes hostile to human life, a land in which we have no place, to which we cannot belong. Excluded from it, we imagine that what happens there is none of our business, and stand by while landowners wreck our common inheritance, ploughing up Sites of Special Scientific Interest and bulldozing ancient monuments. The narrow application of property rights, the mean-spirited demarcations our physical exclusion sustains are among the reasons why Monbiot’s first law of the countryside seems to apply so widely: that there is an inverse relationship between the attractiveness of an English village and the attractiveness of the society that inhabits it.

All this was going to change. Before the election, the Labour Party pledged repeatedly that we would get a right to roam. After the election, the Duke of Westminster took tea at Number 10, and the promise, we were told by a minion in the PM’s policy unit, was no longer valid. This was news to the Department of Environment, which, partly because polls show that 88 per cent of people want one, was still committed to the policy. In February last year I met John Prescott at a Labour environment conference and asked him what was happening. The answer was as irascible and unequivocal as ever: “‘Ow many more bloody times do I ‘ave to tell yer? There will be a right to roam!”

Prescott’s department launched a consultation, but, as Blair’s pet spiders spun their webs around it, it became weaker and weaker, until it offered a choice between the proposals the government had promised, and a series of voluntary and plainly ineffective measures drawn up by the Country Landowners’ Association. To Tony’s consternation, it drew a massive response in favour of the right to roam. But still he will not act.

Now, like other progressive promises the government has broken, the best hope for our right to belong to the nation lies in a private members bill, which is likely to be debated in March. It’s then that we’ll know whether British people will be allowed to roam their own land, or whether we’ll continue to have to go abroad to experience that rare, enlivening sensation called freedom.