Soon after I arrived in the Forest last year, I went in to the Fountain pub in Parkend and was struck by the large painting of Warren James on the wall there. “Who’s he?” I wondered. So I did a bit of digging, and I am struck by how many lessons there are from his life for us now. He is a local inspiration.
For those who don’t know, Warren James led a rebellion by Foresters against exploitation by the authorities in London. In order to ensure a ready supply of wood for building ships Parliament in London passed a law in 1808 ‘enclosing’ the Forest, meaning that the ancient rights of Foresters were made illegal – such as being able to gather wood or graze sheep in the Forest. Not surprisingly, this meant that the Foresters themselves became much poorer.
Resistance to the law was muted because there was a promise made to the Foresters that the enclosure would only continue for a period of 20 years – that is, for as long as it took the oaks to grow big enough to withstand grazing. Sadly, that promise from London wasn’t kept despite Foresters presenting petitions to Parliament to have their rights restored. The Foresters continued to suffer, and this outraged Warren James, and he began to organise resistance to the Enclosures, which culminated in a rebellion involving thousands of Foresters tearing down the fencing that kept them out of the Forest.
Of course, the hand of the law came down hard on Warren James, and he was arrested, tried and sentenced to death for his resistance. Two weeks later, that sentence was changed to one of transportation for life, and Warren James was sent to Australia in 1832, where he died in 1841.
James was a committed member of my church in Parkend, and I have no doubt that his resistance to London was rooted in his faith. The Bible is quite clear that enclosure can be an evil (Isaiah 5.8) but a more fundamental Christian value is that we have to look after each other. That is exactly what James was doing, and this is what I think of when I think of ‘Forest Values’ – standing up for those who are struggling to make ends meet; insisting that promises are honoured; resisting the emissaries from London who choose which laws to enforce and which to ignore.
I am struck by the parallels that run between the issues that James faced and the ones that we face today. There is an economic struggle, driven by imperatives from an overmighty centre (consider that the steel plant down the road in Newport could be saved immediately if we come out of the EU without a withdrawal agreement). We have received promises from Parliament that this will happen, and then with the passage of time those promises are not honoured. In the meantime, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer…
The biggest difference between Warren James’ time and now, of course, is that now we have the vote. When we see an injustice, or a problem that needs to be solved, we can use our votes to effect a change in a situation. At least, that is the theory. We might be forgiven right now for thinking that our votes don’t matter as much as they used to – because, say, we didn’t know what we were voting for, or we’re just small-minded and intolerant bigots and therefore our views don’t matter.
Those who say such things don’t share Forest Values. Each vote has the same weight as any other, whether cast by rich accountants or poor carpenters. That is only fair – and fairness, alongside mutual help, respect for the law, dignity for all of us, and other values like these, are what I believe most of us hold to – and what I worry that those who follow London thinking have given up on. We can do better than this.
This is why I’m standing to represent the Forest in Parliament. I want to represent the values that Warren James stood up for – Forest Values, looking after all the people in this wonderful Forest of Dean.