In the name of freedom, we have been exposed, to a greater extent than any other European nation, to a deadly pandemic. In his speech in Greenwich on 3 February, Boris Johnson lambasted governments that had “panicked” about the coronavirus, inflicting “unnecessary economic damage”. His government, by contrast, would champion our right to “buy and sell freely among each other”.
But as always, the professed love of freedom among those who represent the interests of the rich in politics is highly selective. If the government valued freedom as much as it says it does, it would do everything in its power to maximise the liberties we can safely exercise, while protecting us from harm.
In other words, it would take up the call to open London’s golf courses to public access. As the author and land campaigner Guy Shrubsole has discovered, there are 131 golf courses in Greater London, covering 11,000 acres. But they are open only to those who pay fees to play and to members, while millions of people swelter in tiny flats or edge round each other in minuscule parks, desperate for a sense of space and freedom. The government would also take up the call for private schools to open their playing fields and extensive grounds. And it would open London’s locked green squares, and designate other tracts of private land in and around our cities for public access.
But a core purpose of conservatism is to defend private property from public use, and to extend private ownership and exclusive rights into realms previously enjoyed by all. And no form of wealth is more fiercely contested than land.
Throughout the history of these isles, exclusion from the land has been a major source of social conflict. It remains so today. Last month, Johnson extolled the “ancient, inalienable right of free-born people of the United Kingdom”. But before the pandemic began, his government proposed to criminalise trespass in England and Wales. This is the opposite policy to Scotland’s, where there is now a comprehensive right to roam.
In November last year, Johnson announced an expansion of police powers to stop and search people without grounds for suspicion. These powers have long been perceived by people of colour as a form of collective harassment in public places, impinging on their free movement. Black, Asian and minority ethnic people are on average eight times more likely to be stopped and searched by the police than white people.
Some young black men have the sense of living in a permanent state of partial lockdown. The government’s own assessment shows that an expansion of stop and search powers has “at best, only minimal effects on violent crime”. In fact, as a primary cause of both the 1981 and 2011 riots, the policy is likely to exacerbate it.
Until 1984, police stop and search powers were exercised under the remarkably brutal 1824 Vagrancy Act. Beggars, hawkers, sex workers, Gypsies and Travellers, rough sleepers and anyone “not giving a good account of himself or herself” could be arrested and summarily sentenced to three months’ hard labour. Astonishingly, large sections of this barbaric law remain in force , and it is still sometimes used by the police against homeless people.
Police powers to move people on are necessary during this pandemic. But well into the first half of the 20th century, they were used as a form of social control, securing public space for “the right sort”, while excluding “undesirables”. They were a source of great resentment in Victorian England, and commemorated in several satirical ballads, various of which had the title Move on There. One song complains that “swells” (rich and extravagant young men) could get away with anything, while those without the means to bribe the police were “collared”.
Today, much of what looks like public space in our cities is in fact privately owned. Many of these pseudo-public spaces are patrolled by security guards, enforcing opaque rules. As a homeless man interviewed by the Guardian observed, most people wouldn’t notice the difference between a publicly and privately owned open space. But “to me, the difference is everything, because I’m not the sort of person they want over there”. Typically, in these places, homeless people are moved on, no music or photography is allowed, and political gatherings are banned. In some of them, the only acceptable activity appears to be spending money.
There’s an interesting parallel with urban parks in the 19th century, many of which were also then privately owned. As the historian Katrina Navickas documents, the owners typically banned music and political meetings. The Salvation Army, then an extreme temperance movement, waged its wars against people enjoying themselves in any public places, sparking confrontations that sometimes turned violent.
Last year, the Guardian revealed that some London housing estates were excluding children in social housing from playgrounds used by richer residents. The developers of one estate had been granted planning permission on the grounds that its playground would be available to all, after which it replaced a gate with an impenetrable hedge to shut out the poorest residents.
We might look for freedom in the countryside, but for centuries it has been the scene of extreme exclusion and injustice. Here, enclosure (the seizure of land from commoners) violently deprived many people of their liberties. The labouring poor were forbidden to live in “close parishes“, where their homes were ripped down by the lords of the manor, to avoid liability for poverty relief. As a result, until the late 19th century in some places, people were crowded into filthy, dilapidated cottages sometimes an hour’s walk from the fields in which they worked, for which they were charged astounding rents.
Today, we have no right of access to 92% of England. The great majority of the accessible land is in the north-west of the country, a long way from where most people live. While in London four times as many BAME people are stopped and searched as white people, in Suffolk they are 17 times more likely to be stopped, and in Dorset, 25 times. Is it any wonder that, despite government efforts at persuasion, so few people of colour visit the countryside?
For the moment, our freedoms have to be restricted. But when the lockdown ends, let’s celebrate by demanding a right to roam on open land in both cities and the countryside. Let’s have a legal definition of public space, in which peaceful use and assembly is established as a universal right. The freedom to roam is as fundamental a right as freedom of speech. When the pandemic is over, let’s make this the free nation Johnson boasts about.
o George Monbiot is a Guardian columnist