In December 2018, the British Army took control over a large area of common land in Cumbria. According to the Financial Times, this was the first ‘enclosure’ of commons in England for more than a century. But it happened a long way from London, where the media were already obsessed with the Brexit-related goings on at Westminster. So it was not widely reported, and left almost no imprint on the national consciousness.
That was a shame. The enclosure of common land was one of the major events of English history, and its recurrence in present-day Cumbria should have triggered deep historical resonances. It went unremarked at the very moment at which, if properly understood, it had the potential to shine a light on an important fact of contemporary British politics.
A conventional explanation for the UK’s current political turbulence, much favoured by political commentators, is that it arises from a clash between two types of democratic ‘method’ – representative democracy (through Parliament) and direct democracy (in the form of referendums). Igor Judge, a former Lord Chief Justice, writing in Prospect, says that the current Brexit impasse is simply the outcome of this conflict – ‘when both systems are employed simultaneously to resolve the same problem, the risk of accident is obvious‘.
On this view, the UK’s current crisis is one of constitutional mechanics. The mistake was for David Cameron to have employed the essentially alien mechanism of a referendum, which sits ill with the British tradition of parliamentary democracy. This led to a grinding of the constitutional gears which can only be resolved either by Parliament reasserting control or via a second referendum. Had Cameron avoided the unnecessary innovation of the first referendum, none of this would have happened.
This would, if correct, be comforting. Mechanical problems can be fixed by technicians. A constitutional problem caused by politicians can also be resolved by them. But in truth, the crisis is deeper, wider and more fundamental. It is a crisis of legitimacy, going at its heart to the question of public trust in the UK’s democratic institutions, and indeed to the matter of their essential trustworthiness. It is here that a very brief history of the English enclosures offers a pointer to the source of the malaise.