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I was the Head of Policy and Public Affairs at UNISON Scotland until my retirement in September 2018. I now work on several policy development projects, so all views are very definitely my own. You can also follow me on Twitter. I hope you find this blog interesting and I would welcome your comments.

Thursday, 26 September 2019

Plunder of the Commons


Public wealth takes precedence over private riches. This is a policy prescription from what became known as the Lauderdale paradox. The Earl of Lauderdale in 1804 argued that there was an inverse correlation between public wealth and private riches such that an increase in the latter often served to diminish the former.

This is one of many classical ideas that underpin a new book by Guy Standing, 'Plunder of the Commons: A Manifesto for Sharing Public Wealth'. While most people are familiar with Magna Carta, there was a second document, scarcely known today, but at the time of its sealing was regarded as equally fundamental. This was the Charter of the Forest, which was about the rights of commoners to use and manage common resources. The Charter was also among the first environmental law statues as it placed implicit limits on the exploitation of natural resources.


Standing takes the principles of this Charter and looks at how they have been abused over the years, and then applies them in a modern context. He starts with how common land has been captured by private interests from the enclosures to the Highland clearances and modern-day encroachments - leaving most land in the hands of the very few, not the many. Common land today makes up only 7% of Scotland and 5% of the UK as a whole. The tenth Duke of Buccleuch is Britain's largest private landowner. As the descendant of an illegitimate son of Charles II, he inherited 277,000 acres, for which he did not do a day's work.

Land ownership continues to be concentrated in a few hands. For example, over 33,000 small-to-medium-sized farms have closed down since the mid-2000s. Forests, public parks, National Parks and even village greens have been whittled away into private ownership. This has a wider impact. For example, parks save the NHS £113 million a year as a result of fewer visits to the doctor. They also reduce heat in built-up areas and help manage run-off from heavy storms.

The book gives many other examples of how 'The Natural Commons' have been destroyed or privatised. Urban trees, water, seashores, air, sky, wind, and the minerals beneath our feet. Fracking without the landowner's permission is a recent example. Put simply; privatisation has paved the way for a pervasive colonisation of what had been commons.

Standing takes a similar approach to other, less obvious 'commons'. These include the 'social commons', public services that are provided outwith the private market and have been built up over generations. The 'civil commons' shows how access to justice (charges, legal aid, etc.) has been whittled away, and even criminal justice has been privatised. 

The arts, sport, the mass media, public libraries, art galleries, museums, concert halls and public places for performances are all part of our 'cultural commons'. He shows how the depletion of the cultural commons in the twenty-first century has been extensive and devastating, accelerated by the prolonged period of austerity. Concerns over the use of big data are covered in his' knowledge commons'. He argues that everyone should have access to adequate information and shows how corporate interests have captured information through enclosure, commodification, privatisation and ideological capture.

What I like about this book is that while providing excellent analysis, it also provides solutions - 44 of them. The final chapters offer a modern Charter of the Commons, to promote an ecologically sustainable society in which security, freedom and equality can flourish. There are too many to list in a blog post. However, a key recommendation is the establishment of a Commons Fund, sourced by levies on the commercial use or exploitation of the commons. These levies would also give all citizens a sense of collective ownership, even if some cost them personally.

Private wealth should be the starting point for the fund as it has increased at the expense of public wealth. Only 4% of tax revenues in the UK come from wealth. Standing proposes a progressive tax on inherited wealth or a general wealth tax, which already exists in a number of countries. Other sources of income include a Land Value Tax, Carbon Levy, Frequent Flyer Levy, Cruise Liner Levy, water use and others. These all have the advantage of encouraging less environmentally damaging activity. 

A Digital Data Levy addresses the use of our personal data by companies that are adept at tax avoidance, putting little back into our economy and public services. A similar approach is suggested to intellectual property rights, including an end to subsidies for Patents.

A number of us are sceptical that Basic Income will work without it being funded at a meaningful level. Standing argues that the Commons Fund could be one route to such a Basic Income. He also argues that a Basic Income also comes with an obligation to be an active citizen.

Overall, this is a very welcome, and concise, contribution to the debate about ownership, public services and inequality. I'll finish with this paragraph from the concluding chapter:


"The commons are our collective heritage. They cannot be alienated legitimately unless we, as citizens, decide that is what we wish, recognising that we are custodians for future generations as well as ours. Privatising and commercialising the commons, and most particularly colonising them, amounts to theft. It is a form of corruption intended to generate rental income for a few, from newly created 'property rights'. And it is regressive. The loss of the commons most affects those who rely on it the most."

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