The real meaning of allotments

Photo credit:   hockadilly

March 26, 2012 // By: David Boyle

There are now thought to be about six million people interested in having an allotment in the UK, with waiting lists as long as 40 years in one London borough. Many councils have simply closed their waiting lists, so the figure might be much higher. 

There has been very little thinking, in public at least, about what this means.  One argument suggests that it was emerging scepticism about mass food production, a suspicion about food additives, steroids in meat and chemicals on vegetables. 

Another suggests was that it was the demand among immigrant cultures for vegetables that were simply not available commercially.  A third argument suggests that it was a demand for fresh veg, and for something more authentic.

There is another argument that suggests that this is one of the first symptoms of the emerging Great Transition, of the growing realisation among people about just how vulnerable our economic and food support systems are – about one shock away from complete breakdown.

I’m sure it was all those, but it is something else too – which is closely related to the growing cultural importance of the Great Transition, and the way events and opinions are shifting way ahead of the politicians in Westminster.

The popularity of allotments is also a faint glimmering from a very old political tradition – the politics of asserting liberty and independence by going ‘Back to the Land’.

The Back to the Land tradition seems to have involved people declaring allegiance to nearly every possible political tradition: Radicals (William Cobbett), Tories (John Ruskin, or so he said), Socialists (William Morris), Liberals (Hilaire Belloc, to start with), Greens (Fritz Schumacher), even Blackshirts (Henry Williamson).   

These are all literary or artistic figures whose politics has been dismissed as maverick or peculiar because the establishment prefers to pretend that they represent no coherent political tradition.  Actually, they do, and the beliefs that hold them together is remarkably consistent:

 

  1. They look back to a great golden age of agrarian independence and equality, based on the rights to land, swept away in a great Original Sin – whether it was the Norman Conquest, the Enclosures, the Dissolution of the Monasteries or the Industrial Revolution.
  2. They urge a return to those peasant values of thrift and independence, based on a programme borrowing from the best of Medieval economics – whether it is common land, the guild system or the concept of the Just Price.
  3. They share a bitter scepticism about the conventional values of wealth, power and money, and the delusions of money as a measure of value.
  4. They blame the division between rich and poor on urban greed, the manipulation of money, and the theft from the poor of the means of livelihood on the land.
  5. They peddle an alternative interpretation of wealth: that creative human life, lived with work and life in harmony, and close to the seasons, is both spiritual and sacred.

 

Yes, it needs updating.  Yes, the melancholic tone of the tradition through the past century needs fusing with nef’s very positive sense of what can be done.  But is that beginning to happen now?

Here is the real question.  Does the huge popularity of the allotments movement mean that this underground tradition of political radicalism is making a quiet comeback?  And will it eventually provide a political driver to the Great Transition to a low carbon, high well-being economy?

David Boyle’s new book on the secret history of the allotments movement, On the Eighth Day, God Created Allotments, is published by Endeavour Press. 

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