The Earth, the seventeenth century Digger Gerrard Winstanley famously declared, was made ‘a common treasury for all’. His vision of the original sharing economy, where everyone could occupy and work land for themselves, their families and their neighbours, was very quickly squashed by the powers of the time.
But his vision and legacy have lasted centuries, constantly resurfacing in new forms. The combination of a radical vision with direct, immediate action are what’s known as prefigurative politics: you might not have the power to change the system, but you can begin to model what a changed system might look like.
You don’t have to share the Diggers’ romantic idealism to recognise why the concentration of property ownership and the lack of fair access to food have become the standout problems of the early 21st century. It’s a global problem, with the World Bank increasingly concerned about the future of food; and a very British problem, with emergency food banks turning into the safety net the welfare state once offered.
When you face complex and intractable problems, you need prefigurative action as well as institutional change. And you need to begin to connect the two together. In the spirit of the Diggers, some prefigurative planting might help to get things moving.
That’s what happened nearly a decade ago in Todmorden. The tale of Incredible Edible Todmorden and its effects in changing the story of a small Yorkshire town is familiar to many, and one I’ve written about before.
The Incredible Edible movement has grown organically, with groups springing up across the UK and internationally. What it hasn’t yet done is fully demonstrate how food systems, and the powerful institutions that support and maintain them, can change. But that may be starting to happen. And where better to look than Wigan, birthplace of Gerrard Winstanley?
Wigan hosts an annual Diggers Festival, celebrating Winstanley’s life and ideas but also demonstrating how those ideas still strike a chord and inspire action among many people today. And this year there’s some real digging going on as Incredible Wigan starts to get its hands dirty across the Wigan borough.
Incredible Wigan is unlike other Incredible Edible projects in that rather than just being run by volunteers, it has the backing of the local council which sees it as a model for building local communities and rethinking local economies. Donna Hall, the council’s chief executive, sees Incredible Wigan as integral to its own ‘deal‘ with citizens, arguing that:
‘It reaches far beyond growing and eating locally produced food. It’s about creating a sustainable future and empowering local people to be self-reliant.’
Councils have been struggling with some of the worst austerity cuts imposed by central government, but still have the power and responsibility to articulate a vision for their communities and act on their behalf.
If that action includes bringing people together around food, supporting local food-based businesses and helping people to learn how to grow, cook and share food in ways that preserve resources for future generations, it can open up the conversations we need to have about land: who owns it, who can use it, how it can be used sustainably and who benefits from its use.
These conversations aren’t just starting in Wigan. The founders of Incredible Edible see the potential to change the narrative across the north of England, turning previously closed and impermeable institutions into agents that build people’s skills, pride and opportunities. Work has already started in prisons in the northwest, developing prisoners’ horticultural skills and providing fresh produce to share. And if it can happen in a prison, why not anywhere? The slogan ‘it’s green up north’ could catch on in even unlikelier places.
The idea of an Incredible North has a long way to go. But as Gerrard Winstanley said in 1649, ‘action is the life of all, and if thou dost not act, thou dost nothing’.
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