The law of the forest and the freedom of the streets

‘What the f*** do you think an English forest is for?’ raged Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron, when served with a notice to move his caravan from its woodland clearing, in Jez Butterworth’s 2009 anti-Arcadian play, Jerusalem. The kids who come there, he claimed, are safer than at home. This is where the wild things are. The opening stage direction: ‘England at midnight’.

Butterworth’s explosive ‘state of the nation’ drama raised many questions about the state of the nation. In a highly urbanised society, talk of the ‘meaning’ of the forest today might seem anachronistic. Yet it raises anew the spectre of waking up to find that many historic freedoms–about rights to roam and freely associate (and on occasions run foul of the law)–have been subtly suborned, or deleted.

As the 1215 Magna Carta is being celebrated, it is a good time to remember its significant addendum, the 1217 Charter of the Forest. The Forest Charter formalised the right of unbonded men to access and use of the goods of the royal forests (grazing, fuel, food), while implicitly assuming the right to wander freely in the landscape as well as providing a place of refuge for those cast out of the social order. Forest sentiments still run deep, it would seem. It was public protest against the sale of Forestry Commission woodlands which prompted the first political turnaround of the present Coalition government in 2011.

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The perils of Turkish presidentialism

With Recep Tayyip Erdoğan sworn in as Turkey’s first popularly elected president last August, the debates on adopting a presidential system have once again come to the forefront in the run-up to the Turkish general election in June. The most important implication of the election will be whether it will lead to a formal move toward presidentialism in Turkey’s constitution.

Prior to the election, Turkey’s political system was admittedly complex. In 2007, Abdullah Gül, Erdoğan’s predecessor, was the last to be elected under the former system, in which parliament elected the president. He took office following a strained process between the Justice and Development Party (AKP), the Turkish Armed Forces, and the Republican People’s Party (CHP). The first presidential election in April was boycotted by the CHP. The Chief of the General Staff of the army made statements expressing the wish for a sincerely secular president, and published an e-memorandum warning against emerging disputes regarding the secular nature of the Turkish republic in the context of the election. Eventually, the AKP called an early general election in July, after which the presidential election was re-held in August.

As a further response to the crisis, the AKP held a referendum in October, ensuring the popular election of the president. Thus, Turkey remained a parliamentary system with a ceremonial president until the first popular presidential election was held, and Erdoğan was elected last year. Now, the system has become semi-presidential with both a popularly elected president and a prime minister responsible to the legislature. Crucially, the president does not hold substantial executive powers.

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Oxford’s Elisabeth Kendall on Jihadism and the use of poetry

What is it that turns peace-loving Muslims into militant Islamists? There are many answers to this complex question. One angle that might not naturally spring to mind is poetry. Yet this is what Dr Elisabeth Kendall argues in an interview for BBC Radio 4’s “The World This Weekend” with Mark Mardell.

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Devolution in the North of England: time to bring democracy and people into the debate?

In the wake of the Scottish independence referendum, the ‘English Question’ has gained new political traction, emerging as one of the most crucial issues underpinning the debate on the future of the Union. In spite of its result, the Scottish vote has certainly shed light, with a renewed emphasis, on the presence of a growing democratic deficit across and within the nations of the UK, and in particular in England. This, in turn, has triggered a new interest both within political elites and the wider society on the role and place that England should have in the context of an increasingly decentralised UK.

For the for the first time, all the main traditional parties have overtly embraced the narrative of the English Question – putting it at the core of their political discourse, and offering alternative ways to address it. The Conservatives have proposed the introduction of ‘English Votes for English Laws’ as a means to tackle the West Lothian Question. At the same time, they have also sketched a ‘new regional agenda’ for England, advocating devolution to create a ‘Northern Powerhouse’ to boost economic development in the north of England and also proposing the introduction of directly elected mayors in northern cities such as Manchester (with others to follow) if the party wins the 2015 general election.

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How to run TV debates in a multi-party system

Today, the people of the Netherlands vote for their provincial governments. On face value, the Dutch middle legislative tier has limited powers. However, the results of these elections will also determine the composition of the Eerste Kamer, the Netherlands’ legislative upper house. Elections are also simultaneously held for the Water Board, arguably the most important institution in the Netherlands given its responsibility for water levels, dyke planning and maintenance and other such responsibilities that keep the population’s feet dry. All in all, it’s an important day at the polls.

According to modern conventions, important elections require a TV debate between party leaders, but this is easier said than done in a political system where eleven parties (plus an assortment of regional parties and independents) are represented in the political system. The Dutch have arrived at an innovative solution, running a series of one-on-one mini debates featuring two party leaders at a time.

Last night’s ‘TV debate’ featured nine debates in total, each discussing a different topic, and each lasting a little less than ten minutes. The leaders of the six ‘main’ parties (VVD, PvdA, CDA, D66, SP and PVV) each had two opportunities to debate, while the leaders of the six ‘small’ parties (Green Left, Christian Union, 50+, Party for the Animals, Reformed Political Party and Independents) each had the chance to debate once. Topics debated ranged from energy policy to health insurance.

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Inefficient, unaffordable and scarce: Demographic change will worsen the UK housing crisis

In the next 20 years alone, the UK population between 65-84 years will increase by almost 40% and the number of over 85 year olds by more than 100%.[1] It is predicted that the effects of demographic change on the health and welfare system as well as the labour market will be drastic. The rapid ageing of society also has dramatic effects on available affordable housing and only a well-planned policy response can prevent a national housing crisis.

Elderly people occupy almost a third of all homes in the UK. The vast majority of elderly people (over 73%) own the house they[2] live in.[3] The English Housing Survey 2012 has found that almost 50% of homes occupied by their owners have at least two bedrooms that are not considered ‘necessary’.[4] Elderly people often live in homes that are too big and too expensive to maintain. This not only increases their risk of slipping into poverty due to high utility bills, but is also an inefficient distribution of available housing space. Until 2032, the number of over 85 year olds living alone will grow by 244%, which will result in 40% of all households being occupied by only one person.[5] These trends will create shortage of affordable housing necessitating a well-designed and quickly implemented housing policy to tackle this looming crisis.

Alleviation of the housing shortage is complicated by is a lack of retirement and care homes in the UK. With the number of very old and frail people increasing rapidly, the demand for housing options with available carers and nurses will rise dramatically.[6] Local councils are reluctant to approve plans to build retirement homes because of the additional burden this would create on their health and social care facilities. The UK government needs to create incentives for local councils to approve the building of retirement properties [7] as well as support for communities that have a particularly high proportion of elderly citizens. Currently, only 1% of the elderly in the UK live in retirement homes, compared to 17% in the US.[8] According to the London-based think tank Demos, almost 60% of people of the age of 60 and above are interested in moving.[9] Hence, we need to offer more and better housing alternatives for elderly people. This would not only serve the interests of the elderly, but it would free up houses for large numbers of young people currently unable to find or afford a home.

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Secession and liberal democracy: the Catalan case

In Spain, the 1978 Constitution was the legal outcome of a political transition to a democracy, following the horrors of civil war and dictatorship. Among other things, it established a territorial model – the so-called “Estado de las Autonomías” (State of Autonomous Communities) – which was in principle designed to satisfy the historical demands for recognition and self-government of, above all, the citizens and institutions of two minority nations: Catalonia and the Basque Country. This territorial model occupies an intermediate position between the classic federal and regional models of comparative politics, but has more regional than federal features.

Yet thirty-six years later, many Catalan and Basque citizens and political and social actors show a deep disappointment regarding the development of this territorial model – in terms of collective rights, political recognition and self-government.

A movement for change

In recent years, support for independence has increased in Catalonia. Different indicators show that pro-independence demands are endorsed by a majority of its citizens, political parties and civil society organizations. This is a new phenomenon. Those in favour of independence had been in the minority throughout the 20th century. Nowadays, however, demands of a pro-autonomy and pro-federalist nature, which until recently had been dominant, have gradually lost public support in favour of demands for self-determination and secession. The following graph shows this recent trend.

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Does the new Penguin edition of Magna Carta miss the point?

“No free man [homo liber] shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land,” says Chapter 39 of Magna Carta.

It put King John under law. It should do the same to government now. And, with an eye to the future and interpreting even more deeply, those last two phrases might lead to law that comes from equals and law that begins with land, not the state.

A phrase from chapter 7 of Magna Carta, “… and she shall have in the meantime her reasonable estovers in the common,” introduces us to the principle of the commons which should become the material basis of our economies of equalization based on land.

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