Civil disobedience, hard work and time

We tend to forget how long it takes for the dreamed of, planned for, struggled for change to actually take place. It is very easy for activists to feel disheartened and defeated after the early exhilarating stages of a campaign, or the excitement of an act of civil disobedience. It’s a long slog and much of it is just sheer bloody minded persistence. The anniversary this week of the mass trespass on Kinder Scout in 1932 reminds us how very long it can take. I don’t just mean the 68 years from 1932 till the Countryside and Rights of Way Act was passed in 2000, but all the centuries of struggle by poor and oppressed people for equal rights to the land, appropriated by the wealthy and powerful for leisure and profit. The line of dissent runs through the Peasants’ Revolt in the 14th century, which conjures the names of Wat Tyler and John Ball, through to Wynstanley and the True Levellers in the 17th, with radical writers such as Blake and Thomas Paine in the 18th, and the 19th century liberals and radicals who founded the Open Spaces Society keeping the energy flowing. We’re talking 700 years and there is still work to be done on the issue of open access for all.

The trespass on Kinder was an act of civil disobedience. It was planned and advertised and organised, one group coming from Manchester, another from Sheffield. Hundreds made the walk, there were some scuffles with keepers, six people were arrested and charged with riotous assembly and five imprisoned. But a few weeks later thousands did the same, such was the inspiration and strength that it produced, and many years later new laws on access to open land began to be drafted. The centuries of protest and writing and preaching and talking and pamphleteering seemed to culminate in this iconic action – a few hundred men and some women (who were kept back from the actual trespass) speaking truth to power, saying it is our land too. Rosa Parks on a seat on a bus, black students at a lunch counter, the crowds in Tahrir Square last spring, Occupy at St Paul’s – all are events which, like the crest of a strong wave, contain beneath them the persistence of many people fighting for change over a long time, and it is still ongoing. It is not just the act of civil disobedience alone which changes things, it is the work, the planning, the effort, the time – and the support and desire for justice of those who cannot take part in this one event – which the act represents.

Like many other actions of resistance and dissent, the trespass was remembered in song, “The Manchester Rambler” by Ewan MacColl. A version, combining another song, by John Tams and Barry Coope is worth a listen, not only for their beautiful voices but for the line “nothing changes, it all stays the same” ringing like a warning bell.