A chapter from Squatting in Europe: Radical Spaces, Urban Struggles
Moving Towards Criminalisation and Then What? Examining dominant discourses on squatting in England
On March 31, 2011, an Early Day Motion was proposed in the
House of Commons by Mike Weatherley, Conservative Member of
Parliament for Hove. The motion read ‘This house believes that squat-
ting should be criminalised’. This was the latest step in a series of events instigated by Conservative Party outrage at gypsy and New Age trav-
eler land occupations in the run up to the 2009 General Election. It
is expected to result in a revision of the trespass laws which will make
squatting illegal. In this article, I will document and analyse the recent
discourses around squatting which have been both been created and
exploited by politicians and journalists.
I outline and explain several dominant discourses, concentrating
on media stories from national and local newspapers in Brighton and
London. These discourses exist in the media but (as will be seen)
both shape and are shaped by the attitudes of the general public, in a
reflexive loop. The stories fluctuate in emphasis and effect, although
recently most stories have tended more to the negative perception of
squatting and its protagonists. With the onset of proposals to crimi-
nalise squatting there seems to have been a noticeable shift in tone,
which is due to a multiplicity of factors and cannot be said to be ac-
Before moving forward, I would like to make two quick procedural
Firstly, a comment on the use of the word ‘England’. It might be
thought simpler to speak of squatting in the United Kingdom, but
the UK consists of England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and
some islands. In Northern Ireland and Scotland, the law is different and
there is no legal basis for squatting (and it seldom happens). It also seems
unfair to include Wales when discussing only English newspapers and
therefore I speak only of England, in particular Brighton and London.
There are squats throughout the UK both in the countryside and the urban
environment, but these two cities are often mentioned in the media, so
I concentrated upon them.
Secondly, regarding sources, I have been tracking squatting stories
in the media for the last two years. For this piece I refer to the most
pertinent articles, and tend to focus on four newspapers (all dailies).
These are the Daily Mail (a right-wing tabloid), the Guardian (a left-
wing broadsheet), the Daily Telegraph (a right-wing broadsheet) and the
Brighton Argus (a right-wing local newspaper).
Critical Discourse Analysis
Following the work of Norman Fairclough, I will take an approach
to discourse analysis grounded in linguistics and applied to social theo-
ry. Discourse is taken to be spoken or written language use, which can
be examined as a form of social practice (1993: 138). Discourse analysis
explores the frequently opaque relations between discursive practices
and wider social and cultural structures. Such practices “arise out of and
are ideologically shaped by relations of power and struggles over power”
(1993: 135). The relations can be described as opaque since they may
not necessarily be comprehensible to those participants producing the
Drawing a demarcation between ‘critical’ and ‘descriptive’ analysis,
Fairclough investigates the ‘ideological-discursive formations’ which
exist within an institution (1985: 739). He claims that it is usually a
simple matter to identify one ideological-discursive formation which is
clearly dominant and others which are dominated. When one ideologi-
cal-discursive formation becomes dominant and remains unchallenged,
then the norms which represent the background knowledge will slowly
become naturalized and therefore become the norms of the institution
itself. They will also become completely opaque to the language users
The institution is taken to be a “pivot” between the higher level so-
cial formation and the lower level social event, “an apparatus of verbal
interaction” (1985: 749). I will argue later that the views represented by
mainstream media discourses on squatting can be broken quite simply
into several ideological-discursive formations, with one clearly domi-
The important point to recognise here is that Fairclough has identi-
fied a manner in which language use (itself shaped by prior knowledge
and experience) comes to reinforce the ideological-discursive forma-
tion. In this way, “discourse makes people, as well as people make dis-
course” (1985: 750). Fairclough’s analysis is theoretically supported by
the work of Foucault, who suggests that “power is everywhere; not be-
cause it embraces everything, but because it comes from everywhere”
(1979: 93). An important corollary is that there is space for change,
in that ideological-discursive formations can be altered. However, the
domination of a particular framework can of course be dangerous, since
then the background knowledge becomes fixed to a certain ideological
perspective which can be difficult to change.
Language is recursive. It both forms and reflects opinions. With dis-
courses on squatting, it is possible to observe how the media stories
both form attitudes and manipulate them, by drawing on stereotypes.
As Fairclough comments, “it is vital that critical discourse analysis ex-
plore the tension between these two sides of language use, the socially
shaped and the socially constitutive” (1993:134).
To give an example of such an analysis, Fairclough examines the
script of a television series which involves the questioning of a woman
(who is the victim of rape) by two policemen and discovers implicit
propositions suggesting that the policemen hold sexist attitudes as part
of their background knowledge, which then shapes their behaviour in
the context of the dominant ideological-discursive formation (1985:
In another example, Fairclough studies extracts from Lancaster
University’s undergraduate prospectuses for the years 1967-8, 1986-7
and 1993. In the light of the increasing marketization of higher educa-
tion structures generally in the UK, he discovers how the discursive
practices themselves have become marketized through textual analysis
and also in terms of social practice. As he comments, “the 1967-8 entry
gives information about what is provided on a take-it-or-leave-it basis.
In the 1993 prospectus, by contrast, the promotional function is pri-
mary; it is designed to sell the university and its courses to the potential
applicant” (1993: 156).
In both cases then, by close attention to the text Fairclough can
extrapolate conclusions. The suppositions here are that communication
through language is a type of social interaction, which is structured, and
further that this inherent structure can be affected by language itself.
These seem perfectly reasonable assumptions to make since language
clearly does affect the domains of discourse which are constructed. As
Giddens observes, “there can be no theoretical defence for supposing
that the personal encounters of day-to-day life can be conceptually
separated from the long-term institutional development of society”
How an ideological-discursive formation is
constituted regarding squatting
There is an interesting discrepancy between public views of squatters
in the Netherlands and England. The modern wave of squatting began
at the same time (the late 1960s and early 1970s) in both countries,
spurred by the need to provide housing in a time when many buildings
stood empty. Even though as Paul Chatterton observes there is a “long
history of the dispossessed building their own housing and infrastruc-
ture through the emergence of self-managed squatter settlements”, re-
cent discourses around squatting have diverged considerably in the two
countries (2010: 240).
In the Netherlands, the squatter is known as a ‘kraker’, after the
verb ‘kraken’ (‘to crack’) which came to be used colloquially as meaning
‘to squat’. Krakers are known as responsible, trustworthy people who
occupy buildings to protest at speculation, provide housing for those in
need, set up social projects, preserve monuments and take advantage of
emptiness to sidestep queues for housing, on Pruijt’s fivefold typology
(2004a). Drug-users and thieves who may use squatting as a pretext for
stealing copper pipes from a building are lumped together under the
term ‘junkie’ rather than ‘kraker’. The dominant ideological-discursive
formation is clearly one that is favourable to squatters and one in which
squatters (particularly those in Amsterdam) have been recognised
as actors participating in city planning (Pruijt, 2004b). However, as
Owens notes, this recognition was only won through hard work since
“squatting’s political nature is not given. Activists had to battle over
the meaning and purpose of squatting in order to make it their own”
(2008:47). Dutch squatters are expected to have researched the history
of the building (for example finding out who the owner is and whether
there are any planning permissions granted), behave non-violently un-
less provoked and to have cordial relations with the police.
All of this is very different in England, where the stereotypical view
of squatters is more along the lines of drug-addicted criminals who shit
in buckets, trash buildings and generally cause disturbance, as repre-
sented fictionally in Doris Lessing’s novel ‘The Good Terrorist’ (1985)
and various media stories. In illustration, I can point to reports in the
One entitled ‘Websites give guidance for how to squat in Brighton’
reports upon the existence of squatter advice networks. Regarding a re-
cently evicted squat, it accuses the squatters of causing £20,000 of dam-
age and leaving faeces in every room of the building (May 10, 2009).
That year, May 1 had just seen a successful anti-arms trade protest by
a group called SmashEDO and the article features a photograph of a
mournful owner looking through a broken window with SmashEDO
scrawled on a wall. Leaving aside the question of how damage amount-
ing to £20,000 can be done to an empty property without a wrecking
crew, it seems there is a political subtext to this story.
Another article has clear political overtones, which mask the fact of
an illegal eviction. ‘Inside the home of amateur anarchists’ reports on
a police raid on a squat as part of the security drive (termed Operation
Otter) in the run up to the Labour Party Conference which took place
in Brighton in 2004 (September 24, 2004). Three people were arrested
on suspicion of burglary before being released the next day, by which
time the house had no doubt been re-secured by the owner. There ap-
pears to have been no real security threat, with rooms being described
as “typical of those occupied by many students, littered with books,
videos and clothes” (ibid).
In both these stories, squatting appears to be the superficial topic
through which other political points can be made.
Steve Platt tracked media perceptions of squatting from the 1960s
to the 1990s and notes that whilst squatters often had media coverage
to thank for successes, the relationship was a stormy one. During the
Coverage could at times be almost unrelievedly hostile. It
was one thing when squatting involved ‘respectable’, self-evi-
dently ‘deserving’ cases of homeless families occupying empty
council properties, often as part of a well-disciplined campaign
led by people who were not themselves homeless. It was quite
another when the squatters were perceived to be less respect-
able and deserving – single people, ‘outsiders’, ‘hippies’, ‘dos-
sers’ or drug-takers, people without the same steady eye for
how their image might play in the media – particularly if they
turned their attentions towards empty privately-owned prop-
erties or were seen to have some sort of wider political agenda
I shall return to the discussion of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ squatters later on,
here I would simply note that Platt’s analysis is still valid today. I shall
now examine reports about squatting in the English mainstream media,
primarily newspaper articles written at the national and local level and
websites from various groups. I will first analyse media stories about
squatters characterised as ‘millionaire’ squatters (since they are occupy-
ing properties worth £1 million or more). Next, I will analyse the divi-
sion between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ squatters. This is followed by a discussion
of how such discourses were affected by the proposed criminalisation
Beginning in the late 2000s and continuing up to the present day,
the mainstream media (by which I mean the daily national newspapers
and their internet news sites, local newspapers in London and Brighton
and in addition the BBC news website), have regularly featured news
stories concerning large, expensive houses which have been squatted.
These stories tend to relate who the mansion belongs to and what the
squatters think about their new, temporary utopia. A couple of times
a month, the discourse of the ‘millionaire’ squatters reliably reappears.
Until quite recently, when other factors appear to disrupt the tone,
there tends to be some sympathy for the squatters which could be ex-
plained by the framing of the squatters as slightly mythologised ‘Robin
Hood’ figures, taking back for the people what has been stolen from
them by the ultrarich. Whilst private property is sacrosanct under capi-
talism, it appears that there is a boundary beyond which there is a cer-
tain public sympathy for those who squat houses worth millions which
are standing derelict. The need to protect private property is coming
into conflict with a basic belief which frames emptiness as itself crimi-
nal when people have a need for housing.
This tension is also apparent in France. According to Thomas
Aguilera, writing in this volume about Parisian squats, “private prop-
erty is fundamental and constitutionally protected. It means that the
juridical institutions cannot allow an illegal occupation if an owner
complains. On the other hand, the right to housing is also fundamen-
tal (even if it is less than the right to property in the hierarchy of the
French constitution)” (page 210).
For example, in Brighton, a £1.75 million property called Fife House
(once owned by Edward VIII) was occupied in December 2008. In the
Daily Mail, a journalist surmises that neighbours “fear it is only a mat-
ter of time before the invaders start throwing wild parties” but allows
the squatters to retort that they are caring for the property (December
Groups squatting large expensive properties in London have includ-
ed the Really Free School, the VHS Video Basement, the Da! Collective
and the Oubliette. The Really Free School occupied properties at 5
Bloomsbury Square, 34-35 Fitzroy Square, 6 Rathbone Place and 48
Whitcomb Street, and I shall examine them in more detail later on.
The VHS Basement take the stance of non-cooperation with main-
stream media, with a public message on their blog entitled ‘Dear
Guardian Wankers’ in answer to an enquiry from a journalist:
We are not interested in any sort of coverage from the main-
stream media. Aside from the fact that they are usually fac-
tually incorrect, and make everyone come across as complete
wankers, we see any news articles or similar as detrimental to
the squatting movement. It is articles like this that have, and
will lead to the laws being changed, making it much harder for
squatting to exist at all (December 21, 2009).
Such a response suggests that these squatters are aware of the negative
discourses around squatting and have decided to follow a policy of non-
cooperation with the media. Presumably the thinking is to not make
matters any worse by aiding the creation of such narratives. However,
the question must be asked how possible it is to step outside of the nar-
rative. For all its attractions, non-cooperation leaves no room to create
alternative narratives (hard as that may itself seem to be).
The Oubliette (‘dungeon’ in French) is an arts collective which
has squatted properties such as an old language school in Waterloo, a
Mayfair mansion left empty for twelve years and two former embas-
sies near Green Park. Their spokesperson, Dan Simon, claims that the
group is not squatting but rather using each temporary space to run an
arts project which needs no funding from either the public or private
sectors. He states that in each place the group has attempted to make
contact with the owner, proposing that they run the arts project until
whatever time the owner requires the use of the building again and
offering to maintain the building, with the twin benefits being that
neighbourhood property values do not fall as a result of dereliction
and the need for paid private security is removed (Guardian, December
21, 2009). In this sense, it seems that the collective are attempting to
import the notion of a brokered anti-squat deal from the Netherlands,
where it has often worked successfully. They are also working to change
the ideological-discursive formation around squatting at root, with a
redefinition of their actions.
So it seems that squatters might battle the dominant ideological-dis-
cursive formation, which is negative towards them, by either refusing
to participate (VHS Basement) or by redefining what is meant by the
term ‘squatter’ (Oubliette). Both reactions are in some way challenging
the legitimacy of the current dominant framework.
It is not surprising that the Oubliette squatters would want to pres-
ent themselves as something different to the standard definition of the
term. This is an attempt to codify a new subjectivity. Foucault suggests
this tactic as a form of resistance to the state, perhaps the most effective
tool at our disposal. He states this most clearly in his ‘Afterword – The
Subject and Power’ in Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics (edited by
Dreyfus and Rabinow):
The conclusion would be that the political, ethical, social
philosophical problem of our days is not to try to liberate the
individual from the state, and from the state’s institutions,
but to liberate us both from the state, and from the type of
individualization which is linked to the state. We have to pro-
mote new forms of subjectivity through the refusal of this kind
of individuality which has been imposed on us for several cen-
turies (1982: 216).
An action that also attempted to engage with the ideological-dis-
cursive framework around squatting, in this case aided by a broadly
sympathetic media, was the occupation of the London home of Saif al-
Islam Gaddafi, the son of the Libyan dictator Colonel Gaddafi. A group
called Topple the Tyrants took possession of the house in Hampstead
Garden Suburb in March 2011. It is estimated to be worth £10 mil-
lion. Within the context of the popular Libyan uprising, this action was
almost universally praised. In one article, the squatters were referred
to as “protesters” throughout and provided with ample space to make
their political point in their own words (namely that the occupation
had taken place “in solidarity with the people of Libya”) (Guardian,
March 9, 2011). Note also the use of the word ‘occupation’, rather than
‘squatting’. By talking about a squatting action without using the term
‘squat’ itself, the usual connotations attached to the term are avoided
and the action can be judged on different grounds, namely that the
son of a tyrant’s empty property has been seized in solidarity with the
people who are being oppressed by Gaddafi. The only dissenting voice
was that of Mike Freer, the local Conservative Member of Parliament,
who condemned the action and advised the squatters that “they need to
let the UK Government deal with the situation” (Hendon and Finchley
Times, March 16, 2011).
The case of Mark Guard is instructive. Described by the Daily Mail
as a “serial squatter” and also “crusader for the homeless and the under-
dog”, Guard was spokesperson for a group which squatted a string of
properties in 2009, many of which belonged to high profile celebrity
figures (December 10, 2009). Thus, there are news stories documenting
the occupation of homes belonging to former Home Secretary David
Blunkett, the ex-wife of billionaire Roman Abramovich and TV cook
Nigella Lawson. These residences cost their owners £4 million, £15
million and £33 million, respectively (Daily Mail, December 10, 2009;
October 19, 2009; November 24, 2009).
Squatting predominantly in Belgravia in West London, the group
also occupied the 80 room former Sudanese embassy and a £12 mil-
lion house on the same street as the residence of former Prime Minister
Margaret Thatcher (Daily Mail, October 19, 2009).
In all the articles mentioned in the above paragraph, the occupiers
are consistently described as ‘squatters’, with the only descriptive modi-
fier being ‘serial’. This highlights the neutral tone of the reports, for
which the focus is not the act of squatting or even the related politics,
but rather the shocking emptiness of these properties.
In an interview with Guard which concentrates on “the scandal of
London’s empty mansions”, he claims that the Belgravia group is com-
posed of “good squatters” as opposed to “bad, anti-capitalist squatters”
(Evening Standard, October 26, 2009). Whether he is presenting this
view as a tactic or it is actually a belief he holds is unclear and perhaps
this fuzziness is useful for him.
Guard certainly comes across as a modern Robin Hood. Indeed,
this impression is helped by the fact that he was unsuccessfully pros-
ecuted for stealing electricity. He was apparently filming a group of
people squatting an abandoned building in Camden, north London,
on August 1, 2009 when they entered through an open window and set
off the burglar alarm. The squatters fled, but Guard, a qualified electri-
cian, stayed behind in order to turn off the alarm.
He stated he was acting in the public interest by putting on the
electricity momentarily to give himself enough light to reset the alarm.
However, the police who arrived in response to the alarm arrested him
and later charged him with stealing electricity. Despite Guard’s offer to
pay the electricity company 1p, he had to appear in court to face the
charge of stealing 0.003p of electricity. Unsurprisingly, when Guard
requested trial by jury the judge threw out the case and the Crown
Prosecution Service (funded by the taxpayer) ended up paying costs of
£4,200 (Daily Mail, August 19, 2009). In the reporting of this story,
Guard is certainly not portrayed as a criminal but rather participates in
a separate discourse, namely that of the ordinary man caught up in a
Kafkaesque nightmare of bureaucracy.
So it certainly is possible for squatting and squatters to be depicted
in a favourable tone, but only perhaps when another discourse is in-
volved, so that the negative discourse concerning squatting is over-
ridden by a larger ideological-discursive framework such as the dis-
course concerning the scandal of the rich owning houses which they
leave empty, or, as just seen, the discourse of state bureaucracy gone
mad (a favourite theme for the Daily Mail).
The division of the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’
Paul Danler writes “Polarization between good and evil, between
friend and foe, or to put it less linguistically, black-and-white painting
is an important strategy in political discourse”. He goes on to conclude
that ambiguity is not permitted since this “might allow for critical and
independent reflection on the listener’s part” (52: 2005).
In the media, squatters tend to be described in one of two ways.
There is a certain shorthand at work which enables ‘good’ squatters who
are protesters, occupiers or an art group to be distinguished from ‘bad’
squatters who are aggressive, lifestylists, serial, unlawful and unwanted
(Florence Bouillon’s chapter in this volume examines the classification
in the French context).
Steve Platt records that from the 1970s onwards, squatting has had
a “viciously antagonistic” relationship with the media (1999). In terms
of critical discourse analysis, it seems clear that the current dominant
ideological-discursive framework surrounding squatting is that squat-
ters are ‘bad’. If nothing else, the fact that squatters repeatedly have to
emphasise that they are ‘good’ not ‘bad’ demonstrates the power of this
stereotype. If squatting is considered as direct action against capitalism,
both because it attacks the very notion of private property and because
it allows participants the opportunity to indulge in activities of their
own choosing rather than being compelled to work so as to pay their
rent, it is of course clear why those in positions of power would want to
characterise squatters as ‘bad’. And as is seen below when articles relat-
ing to criminalisation are examined, the media can certainly function
as an organ of power.
To give some examples of the good/bad divide, I refer first to an arti-
cle entitled ‘Squatters occupy £3 million house on “millionaire’s row”’.
This group of three squatters were careful to self-identify themselves as
‘good’ squatters, with one being quoted as saying “I don’t mind being
called a squatter, but I am a good one. We are normal people, we go to
work”. He clearly wants to avoid being stereotyped by the background
knowledge which forms the dominant ideological-discursive forma-
tion. (Daily Telegraph, July 15, 2009).
In the previously mentioned Daily Mail article about Fife House
in Brighton, one neighbour is quoted as saying “They look like scruffy
students with combat trousers and baggy jumpers with holes in. But
they’re very polite and well-spoken. They seem like your typical middle-
class dropouts” (December 11, 2008).
In a chapter of his book Black Bloc, White Riot entitled ‘Semiotic
Street Fights’ A.K. Thompson discusses the good/bad distinction with
regard to anti-capitalist activism in the United States.
He argues that by defining the term ‘activist’ within criminal law, the
state has “managed to limit the scope of the possible within the realm
of dissent” (2010:34). He then proceeds to observe that in fact the di-
vision of ‘good’/’bad’ permits those making the distinction to enforce
their power “since the goal of designation is not so much to recognise
as to regulate the designated object, and since state officials reasoned
that ‘terrorists’ might embed themselves within the law-abiding crowds
[...] it followed that the vigilance of law enforcement officers needed
to extend to ‘good’ protesters as well” (2010: 35). In other words (and
returning to the domain of squatting) all squatters are still ‘bad’ at the
end of the day under the dominant ideological-discursive framework.
There is ultimately no escape for the ‘good’ squatter.
To take an explicit example of the discourse of the ‘bad’ squatter, I
refer to the case of John Hamilton-Brown, whose newly bought home
in Archway, London, was squatted in early 2011. In an article entitled
‘My £1 million house is ruined’ a journalist records how “cigarette
butts, fruit and discarded wine bottles were strewn across every room
in the house which was awaiting renovation after they spent six weeks
inside”. The ‘they’ refers to squatters, who are described as “cowardly”,
a “gang” and “mostly in their early 20s and European” (Daily Mail,
March 7, 2011). There is a subtle hint here towards a racist discourse
familiar from many other debates, when ‘the other’ is blamed for
every problem under discussion. This can be seen more clearly in a
Daily Telegraph report entitled ‘Eastern Europeans praise Britain’s ‘lax’
squatting law’ which details how “twenty foreign nationals, mainly
eastern Europeans” had taken possession of a council-owned build-
ing and spends much more time emphasising the possible disruption
to its conversion into two new classrooms for a school than assess-
ing the reality of the situation (March 13, 2011). Despite quoting
both a squatter known as Tom who said “We are good squatters. We
treat the places we live in with respect. We keep the place clean and
tidy – we ask visitors to take their shoes off when they enter” and
Peter Walker, Merton’s cabinet member for education, who remarked
“teachers from the school have told us that the only sound they have
heard coming from the squat is the sound of a hoover,” the aim of the
article is clearly to fit the story to the campaign to criminalise squat-
ting (on which more below). To emphasise this point, Mike Freer (the
Conservative MP for Finchley and Golders Green who was concerned
by the squatting of the Gaddafi mansion) is quoted as saying “what
they are doing should be illegal”.
Steve Platt observes that the media prefers to tell an “individual
story rather than providing meaningful social analysis” and thus resorts
to describing “straightforward heroes and villains” (1999). This is cer-
tainly true, but further we can identify the underlying forces affecting
the stereotyping itself, as we shall see below.
I will now move to a brief consideration of recent media articles con-
cerning the proposal to criminalise squatting. Certainly, there are a
multiplicity of factors at work here, but nevertheless there does appear
to be a concerted attempt to manipulate public opinion and police
opposition. As Thompson states with regard to activism in the United
States, “representing activists as criminals and security threats (a cat-
egory that takes on its full significance under the society of control)
allowed state actors to initiate legal courses of action designed to more
effectively regulate dissent” (2010:32).
Regarding the proposed criminalisation of squatting, a rash of sto-
ries appeared in the Daily Telegraph, which began a campaign support-
ing Mike Weatherley’s call to change the laws concerning squatting.
Since time and space do not permit me to list all the examples, I shall
reference some of stories below, examining some implicit propositions
and drawing out some general themes. Any emphasis is mine.
In ‘The middle class serial squatters exploiting the law’ (March 6,
2011), the Telegraph focuses on the Really Free School group, which it
terms “a ragtag bunch of up to 40 activists and undergraduates”, who
are “dressed in scavenged clothes and ripped vintage tweed jackets”. The
owner of one Bloomsbury property which was squatted remarks: “It
was all very middle class. They were intelligent students, certainly not
impoverished. I suppose if I was going to have squatters I couldn’t have
asked for better ones.” The squatters are ‘good’ as opposed to ‘bad’ in
terms of the easily formed stereotype, but the language of ‘serial’ and
‘exploiting’ (both used in the title) suggests that they are not to be
praised. There appears to be a threat to the middle classes from within,
from their very children rebelling against them. Describing the dress
code of such actors is codifying them as a threatening rabble rather than
equal participants in a debate over urban planning.
In “Squatting to be made illegal, vows Clarke” (March 18, 2011), the
language used is clear. “Police will be able to force entry” and “the days
of ‘squatters’ rights’ will be over”.
Kenneth Clarke, Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice
is reported by a conveniently anonymous source to be “sick of see-
ing cases of law-abiding people fighting to regain possession of their
properties”, with the result that “officials are now drawing up plans to
make such property invasions illegal”. As you will have noticed, there
is nothing conditional about the Daily Telegraph’s campaign to ‘stop
the squatters’ (a campaign for which it has in fact already claimed vic-
tory), with ‘will’ being repeatedly used in its simple future sense. Other
articles are entitled “Squatting Laws Endorse Theft”, “Squatters: How
the law will change” and “Coalition to make squatting a criminal of-
fence” (February 27, 2011; March 18, 2011; March 19, 2011). It does
not seem to be a question of whether squatting will be made a criminal
offence, but when.
Indeed, another article written on the same March weekend in a
different newspaper states that “Police will get new powers to evict offend-
ers who seize unoccupied properties” (Independent, March 19, 2011). It
goes on to declare “the days of anarchist collectives living rent-free in
Georgian townhouses are numbered” and argues that the new law is
necessary following “a series of high-profile cases where squatters have
invaded properties worth millions in elegant streets in central London”.
Clearly, anarchist squatters have no right to be on elegant streets. A
certain order has been transgressed. Whilst there is a commonsensical
feeling that buildings should not be left empty, especially by those who
are rich enough to own many properties, it seems for some reason (per-
haps the sheer number of squatters, or the increased visibility of squats
or simply as an excuse for repression) there is also now a feeling that
squatting is menace which must be stopped.
Most controversially, the Housing Minister announced in April that
home-owners were able to use sledgehammers to break back into prop-
erties which had been occupied (legally) by squatters, saying “it’s their
home and they are perfectly entitled to” (Independent, April 3, 2011).
The Minister, Grant Schapps, justified this stance with the comment
that “it’s physical violence against property, not the person”. For Schapps,
the moral right appears to lie with the home-owner who can regain
possession using any means possible. Whilst this may seem acceptable,
it is easy to imagine borderline cases (a single mother gets one week
overdue on rent payments, a jealous husband breaks into his former
house), which could lead to difficulties. Also, the power of the ideo-
logical-discursive formation is sharply laid out here, since even though
so-called anarchists were widely condemned in the media for targeted
property destruction against symbols of inequality (the Ritz restaurant,
banks, etc) during the TUC ‘March for an alternative to the cuts’ on
March 26, 2011, Schapps is able to utilise the same distinction for very
different ends. Only an ideological-discursive formation which is domi-
nant in the extreme would be able to perform this sort of manipulative
It seems the discourse on squatting changes over time, to suit vari-
ous political goals. In the early 1970s there was a prior campaign to
criminalise squatting and Steve Platt observes it was “as hysterical as it
was inaccurate” (1999). He records the opinions of various newspapers:
• Daily Telegraph: “Innumerable houses up and down the country
are now in illegal occupation by organised gangs of thugs, lay-
abouts and revolutionary fanatics”.
• The Times: “It has become increasingly clear that the act of
squatting is no longer carried out by, or on behalf of, deprived
and homeless people”.
• Daily Mail: “Many thousands – in all probability the majority
– of squatters are freeloaders and layabouts … Strong laws are
needed to prevent the forces which are undermining the demo-
cratic processes of our country”.
Thus we can see similar language being used to generate a demand
for criminalisation which on that occasion (and subsequently in the
early 1990s) was unsuccessful. More recently, there appears to be a dis-
tinct progression in the general discourse from the amused and de-
tached tolerance of the ‘millionaire’ squat stories described earlier to
a new, more aggressive stance. A ‘new’ (or repeated) discourse centred
around generational and class elements is forming. The theme is one of
middle-class parents having to confront the exploits of their supposedly
wayward children who are ‘good’ squatters in that they are middle-class,
political and intelligent but who are also ‘bad’ squatters in that they are
manipulating the law to their own ends and challenging the very no-
tion of private property. The employment of the parent/child relation-
ship is in itself denigrating and of course not necessarily true. Squatters
are from all ages and backgrounds.
Writing about “activist milieus” in general anthropologist David
Graeber observes that it is impossible to stereotype such a broad group-
ing (2009: 245). However he does tentatively conclude that such mi-
lieus can be “a kind of meeting place, between downwardly mobile
elements of the professional classes and upwardly mobile children of
the working class” and this is probably also true of squatters in England
This new discourse can then be seen as an attempt to shear off some
of the values of the ‘good’ squatter and add them to the dominant ide-
ological-discursive framework of the ‘bad’ squatter. Previous attempts
to criminalise squatting were thwarted in the 1970s and 1990s but this
would suggest that the current attempt is more sophisticated and has
learnt from previous mistakes. Certainly, as the work of Steve Platt has
shown, this is a discourse which reoccurs periodically.
When I began writing this article it was to explore an interest in
the differences between the mainstream attitudes to squatting in the
Netherlands and England, two countries where I have squatted and
researched squatting. The best way to do this seemed to be to track me-
dia stories as they happened. Whilst writing, the Conservative Party’s
plans to criminalise squatting emerged and started to colour the media
discourse, so I was well placed to track the changes.
Using the terms of Critical Discourse Analysis, it seems clear that in
England the dominant ideological-discursive formation around squat-
ting is being shaped to facilitate this criminalisation. The mainstream
background knowledge around squatting is already negative overall,
despite frameworks around ‘good’ squatters still existing. Discourses
around ‘millionaire’ squatters, ‘bad’ squatters and ‘middle class’ squat-
ters are manipulated by those in power using the media. There are a
multiplicity of factors at work here, but as seen above some tactics used
are race, class, age and education. It must be noted that arguments
based on gender have not really featured, possibly because the term
squatter is itself gender-neutral.
Squatting appears to be a node where various values intersect regard-
ing morality and legality. Whilst those in power may wish to protect pri-
vate property at all costs, there is a persistent view held by the public at
large and reflected in the mainstream media that leaving properties empty
is inexcusable and occupation can be justified under certain conditions.
In terms of engaging with the prevalent media discourses, various
squatting groups attempt to shape the parameters of the discourses, with
the aim of creating a discourse more favourable to squatting by sidestep-
ping the usual associations of the term ‘squatter’ and redefining it. It is
debatable how successful this tactic has been, but this chiefly serves to
indicate the strength of the dominant ideological-discursive formation.
One way in which to encourage the process of redefinition would be
for squatter groups to engage with local communities on projects which
would serve to amplify the widely held feeling that squatting is legiti-
mated by housing need or lack of governmental provision of essential
services. This will no doubt happen in a time of economic downturn (and
has an inspiring precedent in the actions of Jeudi Noir in France).
What else does this mean for the future? It seems likely that there
will soon be an attempt to criminalise squatting, but precise details on
how exactly this will be done are for the moment scarce. Nevertheless,
a war for public support will be fought in the mainstream media and
whilst individual groups such as the VHS Basement may choose to
refuse engagement with the media, it seems important to battle the
dominant ideological-discursive formation and to work to change the
background knowledge concerning squatting since even if the law is
passed, contestations over the meanings of squatting will continue in
Further, the making of law is one thing and its enforcement is quite
another; in Spain the phenomenon of squatting actually increased fol-
lowing criminalisation (Martinez, 2011). There is of course no coher-
ent single voice of the English squatting community although various
groups such as North East London Squatters, Squatters Network of
Brighton and SQUASH (Squatters’ Action for Secure Homes) do exist.
But no one voice is required or necessary. If various different groups
and individuals all commit to local and national battles over the mean-
ing of the term ‘squatting’, then this may well eventually have a positive
impact in terms of preserving the value of squatting as anti-capitalist
One factor which must be recognised is the threat of deliberate
misrecognition, as identified by Thompson. Within his domain of dis-
course this refers to “the threat that takes as its premise the interchange-
ability of activist and terrorist – in order to tighten the screws of regula-
tion” but it is an easy stretch to imagine state actors first criminalising
squatters and then referring to them as terrorists (2010: 33). In fact,
the recent events which occurred in May 2011 in the Stokes Croft area
of Bristol show how easily squatters can be characterised as terrorists.
In the context of ongoing non-violent protests against the opening of a
supermarket, a police raid on a local squat in search of molotov cock-
tails was perceived as an illegal eviction and this led to two nights of
sustained rioting. It is of course worth mentioning that no molotovs
were recovered and the squat’s four inhabitants vehemently denied any
connection to the anti-supermarket campaign.
Examining the situation in Berlin, Holm and Kuhn assert in this
volume that “the dynamics of squatter movements are closely con-
nected to changing strategies associated with urban renewal, and that
in each case they emerge from the crisis of the previous urban-renewal
regime” (page 162).
According to the Empty Homes Agency, there are more than 80,000
empty homes in London and almost 740,000 across the country,* and
it is likely that in the current economic downturn more, not less, will
become empty. And therefore squattable.
This article was written 2010-11, before the criminalisation of
squatting in residential buildings in 2012. For more information and
updates, please see Squatters Action for Secure Homes (http://www.
squashcampaign.org/) or the Advisory Service of Squatters (http://
Newspapers and Websites
for internet links see https://brighton.squat.net/discourselinks.html
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mansions’ Evening Standard, October 26, 2009.
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Unrecorded author, ‘Inside the home of amateur anarchists’ Argus September
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