Green peace: Foley links allotments with protest. Photo: From "London Allotments" series, Tom Nicholson
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Land and freedom: the political history of British allotments

“Digging for victory” during the Second World War is well-covered ground but  the precedent was set three decades earlier when the government sleepwalked into a food crisis during WWI.

Of Cabbages and Kings: the History of Allotments 
Caroline Foley
Frances Lincoln, 224pp, £20

In the introduction to her latest book, Of Cabbages and Kings, Caroline Foley sets out her stall. “The history of allotments touches on wider events and is shaped by forces that may seem unconnected to today’s allotment gardener. It is a story of greed and power, of hunger, protest and the struggle for a fairer society.”

This is a big ask for a relatively short book. The first part deals with “kings”, beginning with the feudal system established by William the Conqueror (Foley concentrates on England; different land tenure pertained in the rest of Britain). She goes on to look at the Black Death, the Peasants’ Revolt and subsequent protests, along with the inexorable spread of the enclosure movement, the process that ended rights such as cultivating arable crops on strips in open fields.

The vast range of subjects and timescale have the author swooping in and out of the centuries and, although she writes very clearly, the result can be bewildering. While considering the agricultural improvers of the 18th century, she introduces the writings of Sir Hugh Plat. His pamphlet on the setting of corn was published in the 1590s. The sense of bewilderment is exacerbated by some of the images, which have been selected for their subject matter rather than with consideration of time and place. Thus a Rowlandson drawing appears alongside a description of the medieval peasant and, most jarringly, a medieval illumination of a traitor being hanged, drawn and quartered is presented next to the penalties for Tudor itinerants. The punishments meted out to 16th-century beggars were harsh but never quite so drastic. This reader sometimes felt like Alice in Wonderland.

In the second part of the book, “cabbages” are introduced with an account of the development of the allotment movement and here the ground is firmer. The term “allotment” first appears in land allocations in the 1790s and one of the early movements for their provision was organised by aristocratic philanthropists such as Sir Thomas Bernard and the memorably named Society for Bettering the Conditions and Increasing the Comforts of the Poor. This philanthropy was nevertheless tempered by a care to try to curb the rising poor rates.

Later, in the 19th century, some of the most vociferous proponents were of humbler backgrounds, such as the pamphleteer William Cobbett and the agricultural worker-turned-MP Joseph Arch. Efforts to get government legislation for the compulsory provision of allotments by local authorities were consistently defeated until the end of the century when, as a result of the extension of the parliamentary franchise, attention had to be paid to rural labourers. Lord Onslow is quoted here as implying in 1886 that the cultivation of allotments could now be considered a leisure activity but the evidence from oral history and from social commentators such as Seebohm Rowntree suggests that, right up to the First World War, many households depended on the food they grew to survive and cases of malnourishment were reported both in the countryside and in towns.

The book comes to life with the account of allotment gardening during the First World War. “Digging for victory” during the Second World War is well-covered ground but, as Foley points out, the precedent was set three decades earlier when the government sleepwalked into a food crisis. It was only during the Christmas period of 1916-17 that Cultivation of Lands Orders were issued through the Defence of the Realm Act and land was acquired for smallholdings, market gardens and allotments, while private households were urged to turn their gardens over to vegetable cultivation. Not only was this described by one commentator as “the most drastic statute of land reform”, but it also augured a revolution as all classes of society, especially in urban areas, turned their hand to allotmenteering.

Although there were to be peaks and troughs in the taking up of plots, with a high point reached in the Second World War, the social particularity of allotment cultivation was at an end. Today, there are long waiting lists for allotments and Foley points out that the legislation concerning their provision might buckle under the pressure for land to be put up for development.

Cabbages and kings are introduced in a poem recited by Tweedledum and Tweedledee in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass. The Walrus also refers to “talk of many things”, and many things are indeed discussed in Foley’s book. She brings up a host of interesting topics but does not have the time to look into them in much depth. This is a shame, for the role that “ordinary” garden history can play is only beginning to be appreciated properly. With honourable exceptions, writers have concentrated on the artistic and botanical aspects of great gardens and this tendency is reflected in academia, where many garden history departments have been amalgamated with those of landscape and design.

One area of ongoing research – in studies carried out by Jeremy Burchardt and Jacqueline Cooper, cited by Foley – is the fascinating period before the introduction of the concept of allotments in the 17th and early 18th centuries. This was a time when many communities had not been enclosed, yet there was recognition in bequests that land should be set aside for the benefit of the poorest, either for them to work, or to rent out, with the income used in their relief.

Another area that is fertile for further digging (horticultural puns come all too easily) is urban allotments. It is clear that allotments were being cultivated, particularly in the poorer parts of London, from the mid-19th century onwards and possibly earlier. As a result of research into local archives, a picture of these is gradually emerging.

Does Foley succeed in showing the connection between allotments and the story of protest and struggle for a fairer society? Although she introduces the 19th-century Chartist movement, she does not mention that it was initially opposed to allotments because it was thought that they represented a distraction from the drive to achieve parliamentary reform. The provision of allotments was undoubtedly the direct result of the iniquities of enclosures – but their connection with the fight for equality remains to be proven. 

Margaret Willes is the author of “The Gardens of the British Working Class” (Yale University Press, £25)

This article first appeared in the 29 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, British jihadis fighting with Isis

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Leader: Labour is failing. A hard Brexit is looming. But there is no need for fatalism

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit.

Democracy depends on competent opposition. Governments, however well intentioned, require permanent and effective scrutiny to meet the public interest. For this purpose, the role of Her Majesty’s Opposition was enshrined in law 80 years ago. However, at present, and in the week Article 50 is invoked, this constitutional duty is being fulfilled in name alone. (The Scottish National Party speaks only for the Scottish interest.)

Since re-electing Jeremy Corbyn as its leader, the Labour Party has become the weakest opposition in postwar history. It lost the recent Copeland by-election to the Conservatives (a seat the Tories had not held since 1931) and trails the governing party, by up to 19 points, in opinion polls. The Tories feel no pressure from Labour. They confidently predict they will retain power until 2030 or beyond. Yet as the poll tax debacle and the Iraq War demonstrate, prolonged periods of single-party rule run the danger of calamitous results – not least, this time, the break-up of Britain.

Under Mr Corbyn, who formally lost the confidence of 80 per cent of his MPs last summer (and has not regained it), Labour has the least impressive and least qualified front bench in its history. Its enfeeblement has left a void that no party is capable of filling. “The grass-roots social movement of the left that was supposed to arrive in Jeremy Corbyn’s wake has not shown up,” the academic Nick Pearce, a former head of Gordon Brown’s policy unit, writes on page 36.

In these new times, the defining struggle is no longer between parties but within the Conservative Party. As a consequence, many voters have never felt more unrepresented or disempowered. Aided by an increasingly belligerent right-wing press, the Tory Brexiteers are monopolising and poisoning debate: as the novelist Ian McEwan said, “The air in my country is very foul.” Those who do not share their libertarian version of Brexit Britain are impugned as the “enemies” of democracy. Theresa May has a distinctive vision but will the libertarian right allow her the time and space to enact it?

Let us not forget that the Conservatives have a majority of just 15 or that Labour’s problems did not begin with Mr Corbyn’s leadership. However, his divisiveness and unpopularity have accelerated the party’s decline. Although the Unite general secretary, Len McCluskey, elected by a fraction of his union membership, loftily pronounced that the Labour leader had 15 months left to prove himself, the country cannot afford to wait that long.

Faced with the opposition’s weakness, some have advocated a “progressive alliance” to take on the Conservatives. Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and the nationalist parties are urged to set aside their tribalism. Yet it is fantasy to believe that such an alliance would provide stable majority government when nearly four million people voted for Ukip in 2015. There has also been chatter about the creation of a new centrist party – the Democrats, or, as Richard Dawkins writes on page 54, the European Party. Under our first-past-the-post electoral system, however, a new party would risk merely perpetuating the fragmentation of the opposition. If Labour is too weak to win, it is too strong to die.

The UK’s departure from the EU poses fundamental questions about the kind of country we wish to be. For some on the right, Brexit is a Trojan Horse to remake Britain as a low-tax, small-state utopia. Others aspire to a protectionist fortress of closed borders and closed minds. Mr Corbyn was re-elected by a landslide margin last summer. The Leave campaign’s victory was narrower yet similarly decisive. But these events are not an excuse for quietism. Labour must regain its historic role as the party of the labour interest. Labour’s purpose is not to serve the interests of a particular faction but to redress the power of capital for the common good. And it must have a leader capable of winning power.

If Labour’s best and brightest MPs are unwilling to serve in the shadow cabinet, they should use their freedom to challenge an under-scrutinised government and prove their worth. They should build cross-party alliances. They should evolve a transformative policy programme. They should think seriously about why there has been a post-liberal turn in our politics.

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit. At present, the mood on the Labour benches is one of fatalism and passivity. This cannot go on.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition