A coalition government is cutting public spending and slashing the already sparse means-tested benefits.
Working people are paying the price of the banks’ and capitalism’s failings following a massive slump.
It sounds like today, but this is a description of Britain 82 years ago, when on the morning of Sunday April 24 1932 400 ramblers set off from Bowden Bridge quarry below Kinder Scout in the awesome and beautiful Peak District.
This was the start of the famous Kinder Trespass.
Singing, chatting and laughing, the trespassers scrambled up towards the Kinder plateau where the mood changed dramatically.
Waiting for them were the Duke of Devonshire’s gamekeepers armed with sticks. Protecting the keepers were the police.
In the scuffle one keeper was slightly hurt and pushed aside. The ramblers pressed on to the plateau.
Here they met up with another group of trespassers from Sheffield. This group had set off that morning crossing Kinder from Edale.
Five ramblers were arrested by the police. Next day, Benny Rothman (below), leader of the trespass and a Cheetham Young Communist, and four other ramblers were charged with unlawful assembly and breach of the peace.
Rothman had a previous conviction — he had been jailed earlier for chalking slogans welcoming the Daily Worker’s launch in 1930.
A Jewish engineer, Rothman was deeply involved in the anti-fascist movement, fighting Oswald Mosley and his blackshirts on the streets of Manchester.
He remained a communist, trade union activist, conservationist, campaigner and lifelong supporter of the Daily Worker and the Morning Star until his death, aged 90, in 2002.
Another key figure in the trespass was Ewan McColl, communist, actor and folk singer.
His song — Manchester Rambler — written to celebrate the trespass, has become an anthem for all those demanding more and better access to the countryside. It is still being sung today:
I’m a rambler. I’m a rambler. From Manchester way.
I get all my pleasure the wild moorland way.
I may be a wage slave on Monday,
…but I am a free man on Sunday.
The politics of 1932 had surprising parallels with today, not just a coalition imposing austerity.
Just as now, the government was more interested in preserving exclusive shooting estates than giving ordinary people free access to the countryside.
Young unemployed or underpaid people from northern mill towns, with little or no money, sought free entertainment walking the high countryside, most of which was private shooting estates and grouse moors.
Frequently turned away by gamekeepers protecting the private shoots, members of the Lancashire branch of the British Workers’ Sport Federation (BWSF) decided they would make a public mass trespass on Kinder Scout, the highest point in the Peak District.
Many of the BWSF were members of Cheetham Young Communist League and advertised their Trespass in the Daily Worker (forerunner of the Morning Star).
All the arrested trespassers pleaded not guilty and were remanded to be tried at Derby Assizes.
The carefully selected jury consisted of two brigadier generals, three colonels, two majors, three captains and two aldermen — all country gentlemen.
Five of the six accused were found guilty and were jailed for between two and six months. Benny Rothman received the longest sentence.
The arrest and subsequent imprisonment of the trespassers unleashed a huge wave of public sympathy and ironically united the ramblers’ cause.
Previously other, more respectful, bodies like the Ramblers and Holiday Fellowship had strongly opposed militant action and the trespass.
Public opinion, however, was shifted by the reports of the trespass and the prison sentences.
A few weeks’ later more than 10,000 ramblers — the largest number in history — assembled for an access rally in the Winnats Pass, near Castleton, and the pressure for greater countryside access simply grew and grew.
That pressure led, in 1949, to the first legislation of its kind — The National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act — and to the establishment of Britain’s first national park in the Peaks.
It led directly to the Countryside and Rights of Way (CRoW) legislation as well as the access to the ountryside that we enjoy today.
Those of us who care deeply about the British countryside and the ability of ordinary folk to access and enjoy it owe a huge debt of gratitude to those brave trespassers.
Our present Con-Dem government claims to be the “greenest government” ever but in reality they are an environmental disaster team.
They order the destruction of buzzards to protect the very same shooting estates that the trespassers so hated.
They try to shoot badgers at the behest of commercial farmers, but then slash spending for organisations like the National Parks and Natural England, the first line in what should be the defence of the countryside.
Even worse, sweeping job and funding cuts at the Environment Agency are likely to permanently cripple our ability to cope with environmental disasters at a time when floods are becoming more and more frequent.
The right to enjoy Britain’s landscape was never just handed down freely — it had to be fought for. Like most things working people enjoy, it was the result of political struggle — activities like the Kinder Trespass.
That fight must continue today. Where are those brave trespassers today?
We need them more than ever.
This article first appeared in the Morning Star 27 April 2014.