H.M. Hyndman

England For All

Chapter I
The Land

Possession of the land is a matter of such supreme importance to the liberty and well-being of Englishmen, that the only marvel is not that there should be a growing agitation on the subject to-day, but that the nation should ever have been content to bear patiently the monopoly which has been created during the past 300 years. It affords indeed a strange commentary upon the history of human progress, that we have to look back more than 400 years to the period when the mass of the people of these islands were in their most prosperous and wholesome condition. In those middle ages which our school-books still speak of as days of darkness and ignorance, the great body of Englishmen were far better off in every way than they are now. The men who fought in the French wars, and held their own against every Continental army, were sober, hard-working yeomen and life-holders, who were ready to pay for their victories out of their own pockets, instead of saddling their descendants with a perpetual mortgage in the shape of a huge national debt. They owned the soil and lived out of it, and having secured for themselves power at home and freedom by their own firesides, they kept them.

The fifteenth century was the golden age of agricultural England. Villenage had disappeared; the country – far more populous at that time than is commonly supposed – was occupied and cultivated by free men, who tilled their own lands, subject only to light dues payable to feudal superiors. Such day-labourers as there were, lived in perfect freedom, owned plots of land themselves, and shared in the enormous common land which then lay free and open to all. Landless, houseless families were almost unknown, permanent pauperism was undreamt of. The feudal lords who maintained around them crowds of retainers were at this time merely the heads of a free, prosperous society, which recognized them as their natural leaders alike in war and peace. Notwithstanding, or rather by reason of the great subdivision of land, the wealth of the bulk of the people was extraordinary. They were their own masters, and could speak their own minds freely to all; the degrading servility of the agricultural labourer of today had not appeared to take the place of the thraldom of the old serfs. No description ever given of any people shows a more prosperous set of men than the Englishmen of that time. Their sturdy freedom was based upon property and good living.

”The King of England cannot alter the laws or make new ones without the express consent of the whole kingdom in Parliament assembled. Every inhabitant is at his liberty fully to use and enjoy whatever his farm produceth, the fruits of the earth, the increase of his flock, and the like; all the improvement he makes, whether by his own proper industry or of those he retains in his service, are his own to use and to enjoy without the let, interruption, or denial of any. If he be in any wise injured or oppressed, he shall have amends and satisfactions against the party offending. Hence it is that the inhabitants are rich in gold, silver, and in all the necessaries and conveniences of life. They drink no water, unless at certain times, and by the way of doing penance. They are fed in great abundance with all sorts of flesh and fish, of which they have plenty everywhere; they are clothed throughout in good woollens; their bedding and other furniture in their houses are of wool, and that in great store. They are also provided with all other sorts of household goods, and necessary implements for husbandry. Every one according to his rank hath all things which conduce to make life easy and happy.”

This was merrie England, in short – merrie, that is, for Englishmen as a whole, not merely for the landlords and capitalists at the top, who live in ease on the fruits of their labour. For a day-labourer, a plain, unskilled hand – with his geese, and sheep, and cow on the common – could then get something for his day’s work. That of course is the real test of the comfort and well-being of the mass of the people, at all periods and under all governments – what food and what clothing a man can get for so many days’ work.

A common day-labourer, then, in the fifteenth century could earn a fat sheep by four days’ work, a fat ox by twenty days’ work, and a fat hog two years old by twelve days’ work. Clothing he could obtain on at least equally good terms. His own labour for others and on his own plot supplied him and his family well with all “the necessaries and conveniences of life.” Those even of the poorer sort lived upon beef, pork, veal, and mutton every day. There is no dispute about this. There are the recorded lists of prices for food, drink, and raiment, the rates paid in parish after parish for unskilled labour. Men so different as Cobbett and Fawcett, Thornton and Rogers, are all agreed on these points. They are of one mind, that the working agriculturist of the fifteenth century was a well-to-do free man.

How do our present agricultural labourers figure in comparison? How much of such fare as that given above are hired labourers on ten and twelve shillings a week likely to get, and what sort of houses do they too often inhabit? We all can judge of that, even if the reports of Agricultural Commissions were not at hand to tell us. The agricultural labourer of to-day is a mere pauper beside his ancestor of 400 years ago, who probably owned the land out of which the landowner and the farmer now permit his descendant to work a scanty subsistence which barely enables him to taste meat once a month. His wages are shameful and his cottage a disgrace. What is the reason then of all this increasing penury, accompanied in rural districts by an astounding decrease of population? Unquestionably the entire removal of the people from the land is the chief cause of the mischief. Those yeomen and free farmers, and fat well-fed labourers, who secured for us those liberties which of late years have been made such surprisingly little use of were turned out, and the history of how it was done, and how our present hand-to-mouth population was formed, is not a pleasant tale. The mass of men have now no real freedom either in country or town, because the land has been taken by the great landholders and never yet restored to the nation at large. Thus the sense of property, of ownership, individual or collective, is done away.

From our own land still comes the bulk of the wealth of the country, the food, the ores, the coal, which enable us to hold our own, and get a return from other parts of the world. But the workers who do this for England have no part nor lot in their country of today. They own nothing but their bare right to compete with their fellows in the labour-market. Who can fail in such circumstances to recall these stirring words?

“Freedom is not an empty sound; it is not an abstract idea; it is not a thing that nobody can feel. It means, and it means nothing else, the full and quiet enjoyment of your own property. If you have not this – if this be not well secured to you, you may call yourself what you will, but you are a slave. Now our forefathers took special care upon this cardinal point. They suffered neither kings nor parliaments to touch their property without cause clearly shown. They did not read newspapers, they did not talk about debates, they had no taste for ‘mental enjoyments;’ but they thought hunger and thirst great evils, and they never suffered anybody to put them on cold potatoes and water. They looked upon bare bones and rags as indubitable marks of slavery; and they never failed to resist any attempt to affix these marks upon them.”

And we too hold much the same opinions, and we too regard pauperism and destitution as disgraces to a free country. But unfortunately this generation, and others before it, have grown up to think such “indubitable marks of slavery” unavoidable, and hold too that land should rightfully belong in perpetuity to the handful of men who drove the mass of the population from the soil, or who bought from the descendants of those who did. But the life of a nation like ours outlasts all such temporary troubles; its rights, though long in abeyance, are never done away. The truth that the land of England belongs to the people of England is coming home to men of all classes; and the best proof that our existing system will no longer be borne with contentment is that the historical wrong which has been done is daily more and more considered.

That revolution which supplied England with a bountiful succession of paupers, and laid the foundation of landlordism in the country, and of capitalism in the towns commenced in the last quarter of the fifteenth century and the beginning of the sixteenth. After the wars of the Roses had impoverished the nobility, the dismissal of numerous baronial households launched upon the country a whole horde of landless people, without house or home. These unfortunates had no place whatever in society as it then existed, and became at once mere vagrants and competitors for all sorts of chance employments. But for the monasteries and other religious establishments their condition would have been far worse than it was. Even these outcasts, however, might have been gradually absorbed; but about the same time the great nobles, who were at variance with the crown and the parliament, set to work to restore their fortunes by turning out the peasant owners, who under the feudal law had at least as good a title as their own to their holdings. Such raids were followed up by encroachments on the common lands, which the labourers depended upon for depasturing their animals. Accompanying these robberies also was a steady conversion of arable land into pasture, on the ground that more was to be gained by feeding sheep than men – a contention which has of late been put forward also in Scotland, Ireland, and in newly-settled countries. To compete profitably in the wool-markets of Flanders was more important than to maintain a race of independent peasant farmers.

These changes worked a deplorable deterioration in the condition of the mass of the people. The number of the agricultural population who could find employment in the old way rapidly lessened. Even now, with our improved methods of cultivation, and labour saving machinery, arable land will employ more than twice as many men as pasture – and raise more beasts, for that matter, as well. But in those days the proportion was probably far larger. At any rate, numbers were thrown out of employment in that way. So serious did all this become that Henry VII and his Parliament made constant efforts to check the vicious and harmful action of the barons; but unfortunately to little purpose. The people were more and more interfered with, and depopulating enclosures were going on regularly. Laws were even framed of the most stringent character to prevent ejection of the peasants and the destruction of their houses. All without effect. The landless class still increased, and more and more people became dependent on others for support. Henry VII., a great though penurious monarch, saw clearly that the welfare of the mass of his subjects, not the inordinate wealth and aggrandizement of the few, constituted the real strength of his kingdom, however much he might attempt to fleece them by monopolies out of part of their substance. He was anxious therefore to keep the land in the hands of the small owners, who were really the bone and sinew of the country. Even the day-labourer received consideration, and was secured by the laws four acres of land to his cottage. But the process of expropriation went relentlessly on notwithstanding, and had already produced a serious effect.

But the confiscation of the lands of the monasteries, and priories, and nunneries, at the time of the Reformation, was a far graver blow to the welfare of the people. Carried out with a shameless disregard for the rights and privileges of the people, by the most violent and despotic monarch who ever sat on the English throne, this was the greatest injury inflicted on the poor which our history records. The property of the Catholic Church, though not always well administered, was in reality at the service of the poor and needy. Whatever might be urged against abbots and friars, pauperism was then unknown. The celibate parish priests had small expenses, and the land they held was held, it may almost be said, in trust for the people. The yeomen and labourers on their estates, never disturbed or interfered with from generation to generation, were a prosperous, vigorous folk. Besides, the service of the Church was almost the only career, except successful murder, by which a poor lad might in those days rise to the highest dignities of the State. Prelates and monks were founders of our noblest schools of learning. They were, however, swept away, their goods seized, and the lands taken from the people, to be held by the king or given to his favourites. Parliament then, as later, was bribed to sanction illegal and improper action, by which many of its members largely profited. King and barons were once more knit together in that happy participation in plunder which has been the surest bond of union between monarchs and aristocrats all over the world. Thus the poor who had ever obtained ready relief from the Church, the wayfarers who could always find food and shelter in the religious houses, the children of the people who repaired to the convent for guidance and teaching, were deprived at one fell swoop of alms, shelter, and schools.

When, however, the monasteries were thus destroyed, and their lands confiscated for the benefit of the King and the aristocracy, not only was almost the last hold of the English people on their own soil torn off, but the monks and nuns, priests and friars, were turned loose upon the world to swell the ranks of the have-nots. The shiftless hand-to-mouth class thus grew with fearful rapidity. The whole country was overrun with loafers and vagrants, deprived of the means of living by no fault of their own. Not even the most atrocious laws could keep them within limits, though they drove them into the towns, and into the power of the shopkeeping class, now gaining strength. Paupers being thus numerous, in the 43rd year of Elizabeth – who had resumed all the confiscated lands – a Poor Law was passed; and from that time to this pauperism has formed as integral a portion of our social constitution as the aristocracy who created the necessity for the law. How could it be otherwise? The landed rights of the many had been sacrificed to the greed of the few; and confiscation, really put in force to bolster up luxury and selfishness, was carried on in the name of religion.

Between the fifteenth and the beginning of the seventeenth century the whole face of England had been changed. In place of well-being, contentment, and general prosperity, as described by Fortescue, depression and misery had become the common lot of the people who owned no land. The mere wage-earner took the place of the labouring, petty farmer – a man at the mercy of his employer. For the fine old yeoman class fell more and more into decrepitude, and the downfall of the ecclesiastical property preceded their own final ruin by but a short interval. Yet even so late as the end of the seventeenth century eighty per cent. of the population of England was still purely agricultural. By the middle of the eighteenth century there was scarcely a yeoman of the old type left in a county.

The Stuarts were bad enough, but William III was worse than any of his immediate predecessors. This great Whig hero treated England as if he had conquered it in respect to all he could lay hands upon, and gave away lands he had no right whatever to dispose of to his thick-headed and greedy Dutch followers. Their descendants prey upon us to this hour, though, with the exception of Lord William Bentinck, not a single one of them has been of the slightest genuine service to the State whose land they have seized, or has illustrated our history even by mischance in the field. All this long series of robberies from the people, helped on by economical causes, ended in an aggregation of property and influence in a few hands to an extent never before equalled.

It was followed by an enclosure of the common kinds of a character even more nefarious. Parliament, made up almost exclusively of landowners, and in no sense whatever representative of the mass of the people, framed bill after bill for the enclosure of the commons, which alone were left to show that the soil of England had formerly been looked upon as the property of the great majority. No man, not a landlord, can read through the records of this disgraceful pillage even now without a feeling of furious bitterness. Nothing more shameful is told in the long tale of class greed than this of the seizure of the common lands by the upper and middle classes of Great Britain. To deprive the people of their last vestige of independent holding, and thus to force all to become mere hand-to-mouth wage-earners at the mercy of the growing capitalist class, such was the practical effect of these private enactments, conceived in iniquity, and executed in injustice. For up to so recent a date as 1854 these enclosures were done by private bill, and of course exclusively in private interest. There was no public discussion whatever; and rich men who coveted a few thousand acres of common which belonged to their poorer neighbours, simply laid hands upon them and added them to their estate. Fierce protests were often made in the neighbourhood, but they were invariably unavailing. In the course of 150 years, between 1700 and 1845, no fewer than 7,000,000 acres of public land, and probably a great deal more, were enclosed by the landowners of England in Parliament assembled, without one halfpenny of real compensation ever having been made to the public whose rights were thus ridden over. At that time, be it remarked, the people of England – but shabbily represented now – had practically no voice in public affairs at all, and such a man as Sir Robert Walpole just “ran the machine” in the sole interest of his class, for all the world like a Pennsylvanian log-roller or wire-puller of our own day. Not even scraps of those great and valuable common lands remain in some districts to remind the English people of the robberies that have been committed upon them.

Even since the introduction of public bills to regulate these enclosures matters were, until quite lately, very little better. A wealthy landgrabber would purchase land all round a common, and then stealthily get it enclosed on some shallow pretext. This occurred over and over again. The hard fight which such a body as the Corporation of the City of London had to wage in order to keep for the people of London what remnant there is of Epping Forest, shows the pertinacity with which individual selfishness works on. Conservatives and Liberals who stand up for the ancient and indefeasible rights of property at the expense of others should look into these things. The very people who ate up the whole country away from their countrymen and make land a monopoly, cry out fiercely that they are being ill-used and robbed when an attempt is made to reassert some small portion of the rights of the nation over that which is, and always has been, the property of the nation – the land of England. What sort of title have many of them to their lands? Let them answer who made the laws which gave the eternal right to harm the people. Why, they themselves and their fathers before them. None other. The owners of the land had no voice; violence, wrong, and fraud, weigh still upon the country. But there need be no fear for those who profited by these encroachments. The people are never unjust, even in their own interest: they pay to get back their simplest rights.

The effect of this seizure of the commons upon the rural population has been most sad. Their condition, never very flourishing since they were deprived of individual ownership, became yet worse. But I will quote a calm writer, who is fully convinced of the beneficial effects of supply and demand, and freedom of contract: – “Many of the descendants of those who once possessed valuable rights of common are agricultural labourers, to whose miserable condition allusion has already been made. Our rural population has been deprived of that which once gave a most important addition to their income. The common often enabled them to keep some poultry, a pig, and a cow. Many villages may now be traversed, and not a single labourer can be found possessing a head of poultry; few even keep a pig, and not one in 10,000 has a cow. What is the result of this? The labourer does not live as he did 100 years since; he and his family seldom taste meat, and his children suffer cruelly from the difficulty he has in obtaining milk for them.” This, indeed is a matter of common consent. The agricultural labourer is far worse off than his forefathers. But if the people have been deprived of their commons, so also have their plots of ground to their ill-drained, overcrowded cottages disappeared. They make them too “independent.” No property, low diet, a pretence of education, and enforced servility to their “betters” – that was the way to bring down the “proud peasantry” from their high looks of the fifteenth century to the abasement of a ten-shilling-a-week agricultural labourer, ever begging for some dole out of the fruits of his own labour to be given back to him, from the Hall, the Rectory, or the poorhouse, This kept him “in that state of life” which the Church Catechism enjoins upon the lowly. No agricultural labourer, it needs hardly be said, has ever yet sat in the House of Commons to represent the wrongs of his class.

These unfortunate families, deprived of their own land and ousted from their common lands, became, as we have seen, fair game for the most abominable legislation. The laws against vagrants and men out of work were ferocious and brutal, to a degree scarcely to be credited until they were actually revived in America the other day. By these means they came into the towns, where, refused the right to combine, and wholly destitute of means, they were delivered over to a form of tyranny the more trying from its being carried on under the name of freedom. The very idea that the unfortunate had a definite interest in the country was done away. The poor were only not criminal. And this feeling grew among the dominant class with the growth of that shopkeeper spirit which has been paramount with English parties, to the almost entire exclusion of any sense of justice to the bulk of the community. The few landowners of genuine old family who still remain, and who, one would have thought, would look back with pride to the times when their ancestors were the leaders of well-to-do free men, have been as bad as the rest. They have thought that their duties, such as they were, began and ended with their tenantry. If the labourers received a fair amount in charity after having worked their lives through on starvation wages, that was as much as they could expect. The eternal law of supply and demand justified meat once a fortnight, and short commons all the year round. There stood the workhouse: what more could the people want?

But now what has been the outcome to us of to-day of all these uncompensated expropriations in England – of the ducal razzias like those of the Dukes of Sutherland and Argyll in Scotland (the latter worthy peer now naturally standing out with his fellow Liberal of Lansdowne in favour of the perpetuation of serfdom in Ireland) – what do we of the present generation derive from all this long succession of past iniquities? Nothing is easier than to sum it all up. We have then a great body of landowners, 2,000 of whom alone hold actually 8,000,000 acres of our land in estates of over 5,000 acres each, the total agricultural rental of this vast domain being not less than £25,000,000 annually. The whole of the agricultural land in the kingdom is practically owned by less than 30,000 persons; and not all the systematic fudging resorted to in the Landlord’s Return, known as the “New Doomsday Book,” has been able to shake that fact out of the minds of the people of England. In that book Lord Overstone formerly Mr. Jones, a banker of enormous wealth, who turned landgrabber after the manner of his kind – the Duke of Buccleuch, and the Duke of Devonshire are put forward as thirty-three different owners. This is only a specimen of how the truth is blinked and covered up by those who are interested in hiding it away from their countrymen. And this monstrous monopoly the landowners, and the big capitalists who hope to be landowners, and their friends and relations the lawyers, who live upon the complications of the laws they themselves have formulated, are now striving to perpetuate.

Not to speak of the injurious consequences politically of such a concentration of excessive wealth and power in a few hands, the economical drawbacks stare us in the face. Men who own half-a-dozen large properties in several different counties must be permanent absentees from some of them. They take the rents and spend them elsewhere, being themselves the heaviest of all the burdens on the land. The majority of landowners cannot do justice to the land they have taken even in their own narrowest sense. Cumbered up with mortgages, settlements, rent-charges, heaven knows what, they are in no case to face a great fall in rents, to encounter competition from without, or to bring to bear that skill, labour and personal attention now essential to success in agriculture. The sacred trinity of landlord, capitalist-farmer, and agricultural labourer has broken up. The labourer can be screwed no lower, the farmer has had enough of giving his capital to the landlord as rent. American “wheat centres” have proved clearly that landlords are not an essential element in English agricultural production. A great change is therefore at hand. Agricultural experts aver with confidence that if the land of England were properly handled, if sufficient labour and manure were applied, we could profitably produce twice the quantity of food we do from the existing cultivated acreage. What stops us? Unquestionably that determination of landowners to hold on to their false idea of greatness, and to those miserable customs of settlement and entail which will necessarily be put an end to as a wider and more useful method of dealing with our soil opens up before us. Happily the landlords are themselves beginning to feel the pinch, and may lead the way in the reforms which have now become essential. If they do not it is no great matter; for sooner or later the people of England mean to have back the land, and the sooner the better for the interest of the landlords themselves.

For let it be remembered that the dominant classes have done more than take the land; by their Parliaments they have actually shuffled on to the shoulders of the mass of the people nearly all the taxes and obligations which formerly came out of their rents as a portion for the State and the poor. Laws enacted by men for their own benefit in direct contravention of the tenure on which the lands were originally taken have no binding force whatsoever on posterity. Yet the landowners of Great Britain were formerly subject to a land-tax of four shillings in the pound on their assessment. This they have whittled away almost to nothing, and now the land-tax under their skilful manipulation, produces but £1,074,919, instead of £18,802,337 as it ought. That is to say, the landowners of Great Britain put into their pockets a sum of little less than£18,000,000, which, but for their own self-gratifying ordinances would, according to the old laws of this kingdom, have gone into the treasury of the country at large. No wonder that our privileged classes and their hangers-on howl “confiscation,” “communism,” “socialism,” and words more English and less nice, when any fearless man begins to rake up the history of their “sacrifices” to patriotism.

True patriots they; for be it understood
They robb’d their country for their country’s good!

But this is not all either. Agricultural property is well enough in its way, but the mines, all that underlies the soil has fallen also into the grip of the small minority, and it is impossible to get a bill through Parliament which will even compel the owners to protect the lives of the men who work in them. The miners should know their place, and have power to “contract out of the Act.” What matters the risk of loss of life? Then the urban properties, again, with their vast unearned increment of rent, and the power given to individuals to obstruct improvements whilst they benefit by the expenditure of the public money or railroads carried through by the decision of Parliament. What, in the name of all that is reasonable, have Grosvenors or Bentincks for instance done for England that they and theirs should interfere for ever with the management of London, and pocket increasing rents which, if exacted at all, should go to the municipality which must shortly be created for this great metropolis, and benefit the whole community? Is it well that millions should be spent on the Thames embankment, for instance, and that landowners should pocket thousands a year by the improvement of their property? These are points which come home to all, and must, ere long, force on a change. Such enormous revenues as those which were squandered in digging catacombs in Welbeck Park, or laid out in providing Westminster with a dukedom, ought not to be at the unrestrained disposal of any single family. For no idea whatever of duty is attached to these great possessions; and artisans’ dwellings, or a market, in a fashionable locality might “damage the property,” and so are warned off.

How is it that the landowners themselves, or such at least as come fairly by their property, do not see that their political future depends upon recognizing the vast changes going on beneath them, and endeavour to associate themselves with the future of their country? Their object, one would think, would be necessarily to meet and guide that flow of democratic opinion which manifestly precedes a new social evolution. To stand on the brink and wring their hands in dismay is both cowardly and foolish. For in a small, densely-peopled country like ours the whole hangs together – land in country and land in towns, mines, communications, all go to make up the complicated system under which we live.

But agricultural land of necessity stands first. Mr. Clare Read says that all will come right, and that twenty-five years or so hence the territorial grandee will rise again to the enjoyment of his unearned increment, the farmer shall be a man of wealth and substance, and the agricultural labourer – well, what tenant-farmer ever thinks much about him? Landlord-made laws must undergo revision in the interests of the landlords themselves, but far more for the sake of the mass of their countrymen now dissociated altogether from the land. It is humiliating to look back fifty years, and note how little has been done since the able band of democratic writers, headed by Cobbett, first forcibly pointed out the historical injuries from which Englishmen are still suffering. As it was yesterday, so it is to-day; but so shall it not be to-morrow. The importance of the Land Question in England is now fully understood by the inhabitants of the counties as well as of the towns, and up to a certain point a vast majority will combine to overthrow the existing system, which lies like a dead weight upon it.

When we come to the direction in which changes should be made, however, the widest differences arise. Some seem to imagine that mere free trade in land, even without the plan of compulsory subdivision, would bring about the planting of the people on the land; others look upon the removal of settlement and entail as only preliminary to nationalisation, in the sense that by limitation of the right of inheritance and compulsory purchase at a valuation, the State, the county, or the municipality should come into the possession of all land within a calculable period. All depends upon what we desire to bring about. Many ardent reformers look forward to the day when English farmers shall hold their ten, twenty, fifty-acre farms, interspersed with larger holdings, as in former times. Is this to be done? Can we thus put back the clock 400 years? It would scarcely seem so; and yet on the whole it should appear that small farmers who depend chiefly on their own labour for their return have suffered less in all parts of the country, and have been readier to pay rent, than the large. In America also, the unincumbered farmer holding no large extent of land fared on the whole better than his wealthier neighbour, who was growing not for produce so much as for profit.

The main object necessarily is to get as much out of the land as possible, and at the same time to secure the agricultural labourer, and those of the townspeople who take to the land, a fair return for their labour, and a prospect of obtaining possession of land if they desire to do so. Evidently the labourer and the townsman will gain nothing by giving the farmers in England fixity of tenure, nor much by free-trade in land. All evidence goes to show, however, that even under present conditions the more secure the tenure, in an increasing ratio up to freehold, the better on the whole the farming, until the limit of acreage is reached where the owner thinks he can afford to lie by and make an income by letting to others. But the present tenants would be no better employers as owners, or tenants on a permanent settlement, than they are now; the agricultural labourer who really does the work would still get his ten and twelve shillings a week, his cottage would be equally destitute of garden. On the other hand, if the capitalists came in, does their behaviour in the large cities make us very hopeful of what would take place under their management in the country? These are difficulties which at once arise in any scheme of individual improvement. Even the virtual limitation of the amount of land which may be held by any individual by means of cumulative taxation – the only fair taxation by the way – might not give the labourer on the land that independence which would enable him to hold his own. What the better, in short, would the mass of the population be for any of the reforms proposed? Granting that twofold would be produced, would the labourers or the urban population get a greater share of it? No doubt the diminution of the absurd social influence attaching to the ownership of land would have a great effect in lowering its value to a mere idler, especially if the game laws are speedily repealed. But all this does not help the man who does the work for ten and twelve shillings a week to get some fair portion of the fruits of his labour – to secure a decent home, a plot of ground, least of all a small farm. What is being done for Ireland, then, ought on a larger scale to be done here; though unfortunately want of education and knowledge cripples the present generation, and they have been more completely uprooted from the soil than even the Irish.

We are manifestly here, as elsewhere, in a transition period. The stage of dominant landlordism is passing away rapidly—that of State management, or co-operation in the interest of all, has apparently not nearly been reached. Granting therefore that the completest reforms of the land laws, in the shape of abolition of settlement and entail, complete subdivision, simplified registration, mortgage made illegal, and so forth, have been carried, much will remain to be done. Private enterprise cannot satisfactorily deal with the many important changes to be made. Benevolent investments at five per cent. are, in American parlance, “a fraud.” What a miserable hand-to-mouth creature the agricultural labourer is to-day we know. Let, then, that point be borne in mind in all reforms, that until the labourer is placed in a position where he is really able to contract freely, either by combination, or by State assistance in the shape of permanent leases of land, subject to disturbance only for bad culture or non-payment of fair rent, no great change will ever be made in his condition for the better. For this too is for the interest of all. The titles of the landlords are none so good that they can afford any longer to run the risk of the cry, “The land for the people.” Hitherto powers of expropriation and interference have been used solely in the interest of the upper and middle classes, who hold the control. Ere long a similar process may be demanded by the great majority in their favour, though not with equal injustice.

As stepping-stones to further development, the following reforms may be demanded at once:–

No confiscation or revenge for the forced removal of the people from the land is asked for. But the unborn have no rights, and the nation has always both the power and the right to take any land at a fair valuation. By immediate limitation of the right of inheritance, and an application of the power of purchase, the State or the local authority would speedily come into possession of land, which could be used for the common interest, and some comfort and security obtained for those who at present have neither. No longer then should the agriculturist be permanently kept away from the soil; no longer should the dweller in the city feel that, happen what might, he could never leave the street or alley. Hitherto the State has been regarded as an enemy: the time is coming when perhaps all will be ready to recognize that its friendly influence is needed to prevent serious trouble, and to lead the way to a happier period. That the landowners of England should join in a resolute endeavour to remedy the mischiefs which affect them in common with the rest of the population is apparently too much to expect. True, their interest lies in this direction. To stir up class hatred is easy enough, when, in spite of all sentimental talk and useless charity, the men who work see that nothing is really done which will permanently benefit them. A higher ideal than mere selfishness may indeed be held up, but those who are rich and powerful must lead the way. Of this truer patriotism there is at present no sign among those who claim to be the “natural leaders” of the people.

Last updated on 30.7.2006