YouGov polling found that Corbyn’s idea is popular among the British public, with 59 percent supporting it. Yet there has been a harsh backlash from the U.K.’s right-wing government and press, which equated his plan with a Marxist plot. “Suggesting requisitioning empty properties when empty student accommodation is available locally is completely in line with his Marxist belief that all private property should belong to the state,” Conservative MP Andrew Bridgen said.
But Corbyn’s plan has historical roots not in Marxist literature or state-run economies, but in his country’s own past.
During the Second World War, Great Britain faced one of the most powerful war machines in human history in a conflict with Nazi Germany. Its government responded by asking all of its citizens to contribute to the war effort in different ways.
For some, this included giving up their property. To help bear the brunt of the Nazi war machine, the British government requisitioned both industrial and residential properties to accommodate soldiers and evacuees, run makeshift schools and hospitals, and train the military, among other uses. As the U.K.’s National Archives website notes, “14.5 million acres of land, 25 million square feet of industrial and storage premises and 113,350 non-industrial premises were requisitioned during the Second World War. The War Office alone requisitioned 580,847 acres between 1939 and 1946.”
Architectural historian John Martin Robinson documented much of this requisition process in his book “Requisitioned: The British Country House in the Second World War,” which looked at how large country estates were used to house military personnel and evacuees, the latter mostly being children. Some of the properties that ended up being used to house soldiers or civilians were among the grandest in the country — they included castles, palaces, and abbeys owned by some of the country’s richest citizens.
Residents of one of these large homes requisitioned for the war effort, Spetchley House, are interviewed in the documentary “Stately Homes at War.” The house was originally planned to be a fallback shelter for Prime Minister Winston Churchill in case of a German invasion, but ended up being used as a place for recuperation for American Air Force pilots. The two residents of Spetchley House interviewed were just children at the time, but they understood housing the American soldiers as a patriotic duty.
“There’s no question that those young men did go to hell and back,” Juliet Berkeley, who was just 9 years old when the war began, said of housing the American soldiers.
And there can be no question that the residents of Grenfell Tower have been through hell as well. All Corbyn is asking is that the the United Kingdom show the same compassion and patriotism as its forefathers.