Halnaker Mill is in Sussex and was immortalised in a melancholic poem by Hilaire Belloc, who saw its dilapidation as a symbol of the ruin of English agriculture - and therefore England itself. But it isn't ruined now. It is nicely painted in white, and perfect for picnics, especially on a May Bank Holiday.
Belloc was not just bringing up a conservation issue here, and the usual English solutions to conservation problems would not have appealed to him.
There is a tendency for us to feel that, just because we have put up an information board, then somehow the heritage has been protected. Then we tend to add a second hand bookstall selling books about thatching, stuff about downland ways by H. J. Massingham and some rather elderly biographies of the Queen Mother. Et voila! Instant English heritage!
Actually, there isn't even an information board at Halnaker Mill and, in any case, Belloc's critique was much more fundamental.
There is a continuing, hidden tradition in English politics - it is particularly English - that regards agriculture as part of the national soul. It is related to Liberalism (Belloc was a Liberal MP) but it is not quite the same. It is melancholic where Liberalism was optimistic, rural where Liberalism was urban and Anglo-Catholic where Liberalism was primarily non-conformist. But there is a relationship because it is about how communities can sustain themselves in some kind of economic and political freedom.
It is important in Liberal Party history too because the agrarian radicals tended to go with Chamberlain and Collings in the split with the Liberal Unionists. They wanted to spread the ownership of land in the great Edwardian land debate when the mainstream Liberals wanted to tax it. I've written more about it in my ebook On the Eighth Day God Created Allotments (only £1.99!).
The agrarians were also sceptical of free trade when it came to agriculture. This is what the great Liberal Jesse Collings said a century ago:
“They say the land will not produce now. Has it lost its character? Take one article: how is it we buy every year £5,000,000 worth of cheese from the foreigner? Can England not produce this? How is it we purchase from £12,000,000 to £14,000,000 worth of butter? Is England not a butter producing country.”
It sounds modern, doesn't it. So I don't think this is just political archaeology, especially when we have a different kind of nationalism breathing down our necks in the shape of UKIP. The agrarian radicals can teach us something here which can help::
1. There need not be a rigid split any more between consumers and producers. This is what the futurist Alvin Toffler calls the new prosumers, and it provides a way that people can be more pro-active earning themselves the means to live - which underpins our freedom as well.
2. Communities and neighbourhoods could, and should, develop ways that they can kick-start their struggling local economies using existing local resources - wasted people, wasted land, wasted stuff - rather than indulging in the disempowering wait for central government or outside investors to bail them out.
3. The right to grow things for local consumption, as shown in places like Todmorden, is a way of revitalising much more than just the local economy. It can underpin local life in a whole variety of ways. See for example what is happening with the 'patchwork farm' near where I live in urban Crystal Palace.
So Belloc and his Distributists were right, at least to that extent, and we need to re-learn some of those political lessons if we are going to hammer out a non-technocratic approach to national revival that can have some populist appeal.
So in honour of this thought, and of Belloc - who is one of my heroes (I know, I know, he had major faults) - and in honour of the bank holiday just gone, here is Belloc's poem 'Ha'naker Mill':
Sally is gone that was so kindly,
Sally is gone from Ha'nacker Hill
And the Briar grows ever since then so blindly;
And ever since then the clapper is still...
And the sweeps have fallen from Ha'nacker Mill.
Ha'nacker Hill is in Desolation:
Ruin a-top and a field unploughed.
And Spirits that call on a fallen nation,
Spirits that loved her calling aloud,
Spirits abroad in a windy cloud.
Spirits that call and no one answers --
Ha'nacker's down and England's done.
Wind and Thistle for pipe and dancers,
And never a ploughman under the Sun:
Never a ploughman. Never a one.
Writing this post has made me think about how it might be possible to construct a Liberal populism and I shall return to this theme!