Britain’s unelected head of state, Queen Elizabeth II, hosted an exclusive event to mark the “first steps towards modern democracy” at Runnymede on the western outskirts of London on June 15.
On that day, 800 years ago, Elizabeth’s 18th great-grandfather King John was compelled by rebel Barons and an army of commoners to seal the Magna Carta, a document viewed as central in the principles of civil liberties across the world. Next door to the 21st-century pomp and ceremony, commoners came in their hundreds for a free festival calling for real democracy that lasted the entire weekend.
“The official ceremony is about whitewashing democracy with their history of the Magna Carta, whilst they remove our remaining liberties,” says Phoenix, a member of the Runnymede eco-village that hosted the alternative event called Festival for Democracy, with the support of Occupy Democracy and the New Putney Debates.
Phoenix describes how the human rights gains that began with the 800-year-old document have steadily been removed with new legislation in the UK. With the end of legal aid, there is no longer equal access to justice, he says; extra rendition has also removed people's rights to justice through the law. Meanwhile, the criminalization of squatting removes historic rights to housing for the vulnerable.
Ahead of the action, I found the community building a wooden stage and pitching a marquee in their meadow that will host workshops on the commons and political alternatives, including Professor Guy Standing talking about the Precariat Charter.
Preparations were in full swing for a reggae stage and poetry tent, and new compost toilets were also being dug out. Straight down the hill from there, a massive greenhouse-type structure was being built, presumably for the dignitaries to mark the official anniversary of the document. Security services are already combing the area to secure it ahead of the event.
The Runnymede eco-village occupies a large proportion of a 65-acre former university campus. It was once a stately home, engineering college and national center for tree studies. Different world trees including the Californian Redwood tower over the acres of land and disused buildings, which could easily house thousands. From a clearing in the grounds, further up the hill, you can see Windsor Castle and Windsor Great Park.
In 2012, Occupy activists walked from London planning to build an eco-village in the Park, which is effectively the Queen’s 5,000-acre back garden. They were stopped by the police and served an injunction, so they eventually set up a camp on the Runnymede site.
The plan was to create low impact dwellings, grow food and rehabilitate unused derelict land. The activists called themselves Diggers 2012, following in the footsteps of the Diggers movement that reclaimed land after the English Civil War in the mid-17th century.
Three years on, there are over 50 permanent dwellings here, with buildings ranging from Saxon longhouses, tepees and octagon yurt structures to geodesic domes. All the buildings are made from recycled waste material and local wood. The camp is nestled among beautiful trees and lush undergrowth, and also includes ducks, chickens, gardens and communal bathhouses, with off-grid water heating systems fed by a natural water spring.
Authorities attempted to evict the eco-village on several occasions during the first six months, then gave up. Until now. On the anniversary of the Magna Carta, the camp will be in Guilford Crown Court once more facing eviction proceedings. However, the court's decision may not signal the end of the fight, as members of the camp have announced plans to resist potential eviction, using stashed supplies and tactics (like tree houses and tunnels) from the anti-road movements of the 1990s.
Talking about the eviction attempts, Phoenix asserts: “The establishment makes it almost illegal to live sustainably, off-grid and low impact. They want you to live in the cities, with high consumption lifestyles.”
“Civil disobedience and protest has a long and honorable tradition in this country – most if not all of our rights have come through these struggles.”
Britain has some of the world’s most unequal land distribution with 0.3% of the population, or some 160,000 families, owning two-thirds of the country. A key reason for the inequality traces back to the Norman Invasion of 1066, when swathes of land were gifted to the Norman Barons who fought alongside William the Conqueror.
At least one example of this legacy connects to modern day fracking, as Simon Greenwood owns land in Sussex around Balcombe – an area where industry and government have encouraged fracking – due to an inheritance of land gifted by Henry I.
But the eco-village is as much about reimagining the future as compensating the imbalances of the past. “This place is a beacon of hope. It’s been young people that have created this energy,” says Vinny, one of the camp's long-term residents.
“Society says young people are rubbish, lazy and apathetic, that they’ve got no skills. But you give them a saw and a hammer to build a home and then they build their fire. All they need is the environment to learn and to expand.”
The dwellings, huts and homes all have their own character. Vinny shows me inside one called the Fairy Cottage, integrated and merged into a tree, with a bespoke wooden floor and walls, overlaid on the outside with slates. The dwelling like many has a pot belly stove. Its builder is now studying in her native Denmark.
Vinny says that all his life he has wanted to be an instructor of bush-craft skills, but he didn't have the opportunities growing up in the East End of London. Like many on the site, he says the camp has provided a sanctuary to get away from the pressures of modern life.
“The eco-village is powerful. I’m just a little man from the East End. But this is an opportunity to use your voice. I live without money these days, I’m freer than I’ve ever been.”