Dartmoor Jan 21 – the positive energy of protest and the battle for our rights

Old Crockern, scourge of the greedy. Photo by Annie Mitchell

If Alexander Darwall, the landowner behind the wild camping judgement, had actually been hired to recruit numbers to the right to roam cause, he could not have done a better job. 3,000 people made the effort to travel to the village of Cornwood, climb the roads and tracks to Stall Moor, stand together in the January sun and demonstrate their love of the moor and the right to sleep under its starry skies and conjure the spirit of Old Crockern, scourge of the greedy.

If you have walked on the springy turf of the moor, stood on an ancient tor and watched the sun and scudding clouds paint the landscape of bracken, heather, bilberries a thousand different shades, felt the squelch of rich black mud beneath your boots, or marvelled at the micro-universe of lichens on the face of a granite slab, or the ancient, twisted form of a hawthorn dancing on a ridge, you will know that Dartmoor has a very special raw magic and power, even in its comparatively impoverished and abused state.

It was that shared experience and love that fuelled an atmosphere of energised defiance and optimistic camaraderie. But it was also more than that. It was another sign that people are beginning to wake up to the insidious, insistent erosion or removal of rights and freedoms and the steady accretion of power and wealth to a fortunate few.

It’s high time people realised that they cannot take rights for granted. We have been alarmed at the complacency with which their removal has been not just received, but accepted by the general public. The list is long and grim:

  • Freedom of movement: Brexit ended UK citizens’ rights to live, work, study and retire in any country they fancied in the EU. It ended the ease with which one could meet and marry an EU citizen and live with them here or anywhere else in the other 27 countries of the EU. Ending freedom of movement has been persistently trumpeted as a massive benefit of Brexit, but whilst Europeans are shut out of one country, we poor Brits face closed doors, reduced prospects, more onerous financial requirements to live, work, study and retire across the channel. This bitter deprivation has riven families and dashed dreams.
  • Right to peaceful protest: given that we have a government which daily commits acts worthy of protest, it is unsurprising that they should look for ways to shut protest down. The Police. Crime, Courts and Sentencing Act and the even more draconian Public Order Bill not only give the police powers to shut down or ban demonstrations on whimsical grounds but to pre-emptively shut down protests and arrest participants: in Sunak’s statement of his proposed strengthening of the powers, he boasts that:

“Police will not need to wait for disruption to take place and can shut protests down before chaos erupts. Police will not need to treat a series of protests by the same group as standalone incidents but will be able to consider their total impact.

Police will be able to consider long-running campaigns designed to cause repeat disruption over a period of days or weeks.”

Photo by Ben Long

The Russian/vested interest/fossil fuel-backed government is clearly targeting the likes of XR and Just Stop Oil and, for some reason, that apparently means that most people aren’t that bothered. Trying to save the planet is, after all, a very tiresome and disruptive activity, inconveniencing ‘normal’ life – or so the right wing press and the government would have you believe. But what if ‘ordinary’ people want to protest the closure of a hospital or a library? What if a joyous event like the one on Dartmoor was deemed illegal?

When you can’t protest for fear of arrest, you are truly not free.

  • Right to strike: Faced with rebellion from a whole raft of essential workers and civil servants, angry at their exploitation and the erosion of their pay and deterioration in their conditions, the government has rammed through legislation designed to curtail the right to withdraw labour… and all under the guise of minimum service standards. There are plenty of health workers who would be glad of an investment in the NHS and other services to restore minimum service standards in non-strike periods! Besides, the minimum levels were already being implemented as far as was humanly possible on strike days. As one hospital doctor told me, bitterly:

“What makes us mad is to be told to do things we are already doing by this government which has deliberately defunded the NHS and now thinks it can claim some sort of moral high ground by these measures.”

  • The Human Rights Removal Bill, as it is known by all those who recognise it for the absolute horror it is:
    Martha Spurrier,  Director at Liberty, said:

“The Rights Removal Bill weakens everyone’s rights. It allows the Government to decide who does and doesn’t have rights – turning fundamental human rights into privileges.

“Under the Human Rights Act, everyone in the UK should enjoy the same rights.

“And for more than 20 years it has protected everyone’s rights and helped them get justice when power has been abused – from soldiers to disabled people, victims of sexual assault, journalists, workers, and LGBTQ+ people.

“The Rights Removal Bill allows the Government to decide whose rights are more important than others’ and identifies people who will have fewer rights.

“It strips rights away from people challenging deportation, and their relatives – paving the way for the Government to ramp up its toxic hostile environment and remove the rights of non-British citizens.

“It doesn’t stop with migrants. The text of the Bill also removes rights from British soldiers serving abroad if they are treated badly by the Ministry of Defence – such as those who were injured and died when travelling in defective Snatch Land Rovers in Iraq and Afghanistan.

”As the Government has itself admitted, the Rights Removal Bill is a ‘complete mess’. Instead of pushing through this unpopular and unwanted Bill, they should instead be safeguarding everybody’s human rights.”

  • The Retained EU Law(Revocation and Reform) Bill: the bonfire of thousands of hard-won rights and protections for workers, consumers, the environment. These are EU directives that we helped design and for which we voted in the European Parliament, put in place to protect our data, our privacy, our safety, our job security and protection from exploitation, the air we breathe and the water we drink. Their obliteration is cited by the likes of Rees-Mogg as a Brexit dividend…a dividend paid only to those in a position to profit from the revocation of these laws.

My message to all those who were up on Stall Moor on 21 January and all those who wished they had been there or were unable to be there: hold on to your anger about the removal of rights. Hold onto it and channel it into campaigns that are challenging the government. Tell other people what’s going on. Stay awake! Awaken others! Don’t let apathy or inertia empower the dark forces which are destroying lives, stoking division and hatred and shoring up their own power and wealth. Everything is at stake, not just our right to enjoy the moor that we love so much. Don’t let Alexander Darwall’s recruitment drive have been in vain. Resist!

TAKE ACTION! Message from Guy Shrubsole:

The next week is crucial to build on Saturday’s momentum – this is an easy action: please send this letter the Right to Roam campaign has drafted to your MP, ideally by printing it out (it’s got a nice illustration) and putting it in the good old fashioned post – it’ll get more attention that way! https://www.righttoroam.org.uk/mpletter and printable letter at https://www.righttoroam.org.uk/_files/ugd/f11305_e7b73c28bd7a42ccaad378dfcc83cb7a.pdf