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Squatting? It's a choice between homelessness and a criminal record, says Laurie Penny

Moves to outlaw squatting in empty houses should be an outrage on the left.

The police called some of them "scum". Many of them who are not already among Britain's tens of thousands of homeless people will shortly become so, following today's ratification of Clause 26 of the Legal Aid bill, which criminalises squatting in empty houses.

And yet, as officers moved in against the impromptu demonstration outside Parliament on Monday night -- dragging and forcibly removing many -- the demonstrators sat down, linked arms and sang "Happy Birthday". "It's one way to defuse a situation like that," said a 26-year old squatter, who did not want to give his name.

The passing of this amendment, tabled in the face of overwhelming public pressure, means that most of the 20,000 citizens who currently live in empty or abandoned housing stock in Britain will be forced to choose between homelessness and a criminal record -- maximum sentence is a year's jailtime and a £5,000 fine.

I have written before about the misrepresentation of squatting in the press, but given that there are over half a million empty properties in Britain, half a million "hidden homeless", five million people currently on the housing list and tens of thousands more facing homelessness as a result of government cuts to housing benefit, according to leading homelessness charities, it should be a point of outrage on the left that the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties have thrown their support behind the anti-squatting amendment.

This, however, is a campaign that has, from the start, been about turning the property-owning middle classes against the poor.

The tabloid narrative, pushed most heavily by the Evening Standard, has been that decent, hardworking homeowners come home from holiday and find their houses invaded by filthy reprobates who are somehow protected by law from being evicted. In fact, in the few incidents where occupied buildings are squatted, there is already legislation in place to criminalise those who threaten homeowners in this way, under the terms of the Criminal Law Act 1977.

This new amendment would make it an offence to squat any empty residential building -- even if it has been abandoned for years. With rents going up, wages going down and homelessness a very real possibility for tens of thousands of people, one can understand why a government determined not to actually fund infrastructure investments like housing projects would want to stop desperate people getting any ideas.

Actual cases of hostile home takeovers are incredibly few and far between. A government consultation on the proposed changes to the law found that out of thousands of respondents, over 90 per cent agreed that no changes were necessary, whilst just ten wrote in to say that they had been "victims" of squatting.

Most squatters do not pose a threat to ordinary homeowners, but they are a potential embarrassment to a government whose best response to the housing crisis is to make homelessness illegal, which is rather like solving a food shortage by making hunger illegal.

Squatting an empty property is an act of defiance, a reclamation of psychic space, and it is no accident that police have focused on raiding squats and other "alternative" communities while searching for dissidents and student protesters this year. Many, although by no means all, squats have become centres for alternative thought, in which people attempt to live outside of the restrictions of capital and consumerism, building new kinds of community. Most have no more illicit aims than running free mother-and-toddler yoga sessions for local residents, but that's exactly the kind of Big Society organisation that's punishable by a night in the cells in David Cameron's Britain.

Squatting is an ancient right, enshrined in the British tradition of the Commons -- or it was, until today. In Cameron's Britain, there is no room for diggers and dreamers, no space for the destitute and homeless who make lives for themselves in the cracks between capitalism. The confiscation of that right will make thousands homeless, for no better reason than spite.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder