Friday 20 September 2013

Why property really isn't theft after all

Three Acres and a Cow.For some peculiar reason, even in this age of the internet, I still get too many magazines.  They pile up for months, and sometimes longer than months, waiting to be read - or at least flicked through.  But one of the few magazines I read all the way through is the Journal of Liberal History.

I don't have to read the whole thing in this latest issue because one of the articles is by me: it is called 'Three acres and a cow' and it is about the story of the man who used the slogan, the Liberal MP and agrarian campaigner Jesse Collings (unfortunately requires password).

It tells the story of Collings' tireless campaign for allotments and smallholdings and why, when he was the inspiration behind the Allotments and Smallholdings Act 1908 - which David Cameron recently had to promise to protect - he actually voted against it.  It is all in my ebook about the strange hidden history of the allotments movement.

The frustrating element of the tale is that the the kind of transformation in land ownership and small-scale agriculture Collings imagined, and could see in other European countries on his summer jaunts with Joseph Chamberlain, never came to pass.

The great opportunity that opened up for land reform on that scale in the UK was a victim Home Rule divisions in the Liberal Party and the frustration of Lloyd George’s Land Campaign by the First World War. 

The 1885 slogan ‘Three acres and a cow’ continued to be associated with the Liberal Party well into the second half of the twentieth century, but with little understanding about its origins or objectives - which was all about giving the poor some measure of economic independence. When the generation after Collings began to pull together the lost and frayed strands of his campaign, they did so outside the Liberal Party.

Why?  Well, it has something to do with Chamberlain's defection - along with radicals like Collings - to the Liberal Unionists.  A generation later, the Fabian influence had crept into the mainstream Liberal Party - always a pity, it seems to me - and confusion about land ownership followed.

The main thrust of the 1906 Liberal government was to build on the idea of security of tenure and they saw it differently to Collings. ‘The magic of property, such as it is, is derived not from ownership but from security,’ said H. H. Asquith, the Home Secretary. So when the Liberals’ twin Smallholdings and Allotments Bills emerged, in 1907 and 1908, security not ownership was the objective. 

In fact, would-be smallholders had to find a fifth of the purchase money themselves. This was the proposal of a commission chaired by the banker Sir Edward Holden, who said that a new land bank should only advance four-fifths of the price at 4 per cent interest. 

New smallholding tenants would have to pay the interest on the loan to buy the land for their farms, but the ownership would still stay with the county councils. ‘It is, in short a communalization of the land, not at the expense of the hated landlord, but at that of the ‘sweated’ tenant,’ said a furious Collings.

The Left has been in a muddle about property and land ownership ever since.  

Small-scale ownership isn't everything - especially if there is no security, as Asquith said - but people want a stake, in their own home or plot of land.  The Left has missed the point by condemning all ownership - as if we should all be dependent tenants - when they should have been condemning large-scale ownership, landlordism, rentiers.

Liberalism remains confused, and has not given the development campaigns, in Latin America and India - to give people real ownership of a plot of land - the attention and support they needed.

The Fabian failure to understand the lure of ownership rights, and why it is so powerful - and why it is reasonable that people should want that kind of personal stake - has allowed the disaster of burgeoning house prices to come close to destroying the whole thing.  It is currently flinging us back into the world of the rentier

In other words, Collings was right.

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