The Wigan Diggers’ Festival with its live music, poetry, stalls, visual presentations and a beer tent is quickly becoming a popular event with trade unionists. It celebrates the life and ideas of Gerrard Winstanley. The Christian Communist was born in Wigan in 1609 and went on lead the Digger movement that took over land to run it as a “common treasury for all.”
Festival organisers are hoping their work will lead to a permanent memorial in Wigan town centre, where hundreds gathered on 7 September 2013 to see actor John Graham Davies play the role of Winstanley in a symbolic digging re-enactment of events in 1649. This saw Diggers take over common land at St George’s Hill in Surrey and their actions inspired others to do the same in their own localities.
Winstanley had welcomed Oliver Cromwell’s defeat, and execution, of Charles I in the English Civil War. He had though become increasingly frustrated when a strengthened Parliament refused to introduce radical changes to forever eradicate destitution amongst the poor. He believed everyone had the right to till the earth and wanted labourers to withdraw from working on private estates. His many published writings and programme began to attract increasing support.
When Winstanley sought to put his ideas into action he quickly attracted violent opposition from landowners that saw Diggers beaten, their houses burnt down and legal restraints applied to their occupation of the land. Defeat meant that for hundreds of years afterwards Gerrard Winstanley was hardly recognised as one of the great English radicals. This changed significantly when following the revolution in Russia in 1917; Lenin named the Wigan man as one of 19 leading revolutionary thinkers.
In more recent times, Tony Benn has praised the Diggers for having “established the clear outlines of democratic socialism,” while the late Eric Heffer felt they were important in reminding us “that socialism in Britain is not a foreign import.” The twenty-first-century Occupy movement protestors have also referred to the Diggers as one of the inspirations behind their actions. Meanwhile historians are gradually assembling additional facts about Winstanley and one of the talks at the festival this year was given by one of his relatives, Derek Winstanley, who has discovered that in 1621 the people of Wigan had dug up common land in a successful struggle to obtain access. Derek believes this example inspired Gerrard Winstanley when he moved to London to work as an apprentice cloth maker in 1630.
Unite members at the festival welcomed the chance to celebrate Gerrard Winstanley’s life with Steve Turner (Chair of the Unite political committee in the north west) saying, “we can learn lessons from his fight, especially as it highlights that land ownership remains far too concentrated in very few hands.”
A sentiment echoed by Andy Birchall, the chairman of a local Unite branch and a former coal miner turned trade union lecturer and who said” “I am very proud to come from the same town as Winstanley. Land should be a common treasure and the first thing the Labour government after the war should have done was to nationalise the land as part of socialist programme to own and control the means of production, distribution and exchange. I believe we must have a statue of Winstanley in Wigan.”
Surveying the large number of people enjoying themselves at the Festival, Steve Chik, a Unite printer who is chair of the organising committee, said: “I’d like to see this Festival become as important to the North West as the Tolpuddle Martyr one is to the South West and the Durham Miners’ Gala is to the North East. More people are coming each year and the atmosphere is great.”
Pluto Press has just published Gerrard WINSTANLEY: The Digger’s Life and Legacy. Written by Dr John Gurney the book is part of the recently launched Revolutionary Lives series that also includes biographies of some of the most inspiring people who have ever lived.