Monday, 16 March 2015

THE LAND MOVEMENT IN GREAT BRITAIN.— No IV.

ITS ORIGIN.

[By RUFUS.]

We have already incidentally referred to the effects produced by the land system in Ireland within the past few years as having exercised an immediate and powerful influence in starting of present land movement in Great Britain. Previous to the passing of the last Irish Land Act the land system in Ireland differed in no essential respect from the land system of the sister kingdoms, or, indeed, from the land system that now prevails throughout the civilized world. But Ireland is far more largely dependent on agriculture than either England or Scotland, and, consequently, it is there that the results of any deficiencies in the land system common to the three countries would naturally first manifest themselves, and assume the most decided character and the hugest proportions. A periodical succession of famines, and a still more frequent recurrence of threats of famine, accompanied and followed by appeals for aid to avert the starvation to death of thousands of her inhabitants, or at least to mitigate their sufferings, the emigration of millions from her shores, the extreme poverty of the peasantry, and the low rate of wages constantly prevailing there are regarded as the chronic condition of Ireland ; and, what ever may be the causes to which we ascribe these evils, there can be no doubt that they fully explain the disaffection that rankles in the bosoms of the great mass of the Irish people at home and abroad, although they may not justify that disaffection, and, far less, the plots, outrages, and crimes in which it spasmodically expresses itself. The problem presented by Ireland has hitherto defied all the efforts for its solution that have been put forth alike by English statesmen and Irish patriots or agitators ; and, in our opinion, both have been equally wrong in the diagnosis they have made of the disease that afflicts her, and in. their notions regarding the sources and causes of that disease, and of the remedy that would effect its cure. Among Englishmen the most widely accepted idea is that Ireland is suffering, and has long been suffering, from over-population; but many also think, or say, that no small share of her afflictions is due to the inherent viciousness of the Irish people. Blood-letting is the favourite, and even the sole, prescription that these large sections of English society recommend ; and they only differ as to the mode in which the operation should be performed, the Malthusians thinking that emigration and the application of prudential checks on the propagation of the race would be sufficient, and the others, for whom we cannot find an appropriate name that would be entirely respectful, recommending, in their feeble fury, a ten minutes' submersion of the Emerald Isle in the Atlantic Ocean. With all this, however, for the present we have little to do. Let it suffice, as an answer to both, that there never has been a food famine in Ireland. During '46, '47, and '48, when the effects of the potato blight were severest, and thousands succumbed to starvation, there were fifteen million pounds sterling of grain, cattle, butter, and cheese exported yearly from the island, the carts that drove the food away passing roads lined with the famishing, and ditches into which the dead bodies of the victims of famine and famine-fever were piled. Between 1840 and 1845 Ireland contained over 8,000,000 of people, although the vast majority of them only managed to exist with potatoes as their staple food, and then she was a food-exporting country. A century and a quarter previously, when the population only numbered two millions, the destitution was so great and so widespread that Dean Swift, with savage irony, gravely proposed to relieve the surplus of population by cultivating a taste for roasted babies, and sacrificing 100,000 Irish infants yearly in the shambles, as dainty food for the rich ! Now, with all the penury and disaffection that prevail among her five to six millions of inhabitants, she is a food-exporting country ; but so far as the population are concerned, the food exported had as well, or, perhaps, better, never have been produced.
 Passing from this aspect of the situation, of which we can only take a necessarily hurried glance, we come next to notice that the farmers and cottiers through out large parts of the island were heavily in arrears with their rent, and that many of them in consequence were ejected. The bad harvests that produced these phenomena in Ireland have produced phenomena similar in kind, however much they may vary in degree, and in the forms they assume, whenever a similar land system is in operation. What was brought into prominence by Irish distress and forced into discussion by Irish agitation was, to quote Mr. Henry George's pamphlet on "The Irish Land Question," "nothing less than that question of transcendent importance which is everywhere beginning to agitate, and, if not settled, must soon convulse the civilized world— the question whether, their political equality conceded (for where this has not already been, it soon will be), the masses of mankind are to remain hewers of wood and drawers of water for the benefit of a fortunate few? whether, having escaped from feudalism, modern society is to pass into an industrial organization more grinding and oppressive, more heartless and hopeless, than feudalism? whether, amid the abundance that labour creates, the producers of wealth are to be content in good times with the barest of livings, and in bad times to suffer and to starve. What is involved in this Irish land question is not a mere local matter between Irish landlords and Irish tenants, but the great social problem of modern civilization. What is arraigned in the arraignment of the claims of Irish landlords is nothing less than the widespread institution of private property in land. In the assertion of the natural rights of the Irish people is the assertion of the natural rights that, by virtue of his existence, pertain everywhere to man." Mr. George adds— " It is probable that the Irish agitators did not at first perceive the real bearing and importance of the question they took in hand;" and it is not only probable but certain that they did not do so, and equally certain that only Mr. Michael Davitt among them (if he can still be classed along with his former colleagues) does so now.
 Only a few words need be said to establish the truth of the assertion that the bad harvests, which also affected Britain, produced similar effects there to what they did in Ireland. There was no famine nor threat of famine, and no call for charity ; but there was that enormous mass of pauperism which has burdened England from the time when the people were first alienated from their native soil, and has gone on cumulating as the institution of private property in land has developed, and the permanent destitution that has long prevailed in town and country alike was greatly intensified. Grain and meat being freely imported from America and Australia, the prices of farm produce could not be raised to such a height as would have enabled the farmers to pay the rent to which their farms had risen under the operation of "free contract" and commercial competition ; and, accordingly, many of them found their way out of the difficulties into which they had been brought by passing through the Insolvency Courts, and many more got reductions of their rents for years in succession, varying from 10 to 50 per cent, from landlords who either recognised that they could not possibly exact all their tenants had bound themselves to pay, or who retained some remains of the sentiment which under another system had united them in closer and more friendly relations with their tenantry. The reduction in the revenue of the landlord was in many cases a very serious matter for him, for let it be remembered that the vast majority of English landlords (so called) have only a life-interest in their estates, and these estates are often heavily burdened with settlements, mortgages, &c, so that any decline in the rents derived from them has to be borne by the landlords, and in many cases a considerable decline means the loss of the entire fraction that under favourable circumstances would find its way into their pockets. "Much of the land of England — a far greater proportion of it than is generally believed," says Mr. Caird in his "Agricultural Survey," " is in the possession of tenants for life, so heavily burdened with settlement encumbrances that they have not the means of improving the land which they are obliged to hold." Nearly the whole of the land of Britain at the present moment is, in fact, under the control of the "dead hand," and many landlords, of whom Lord Carrington may be cited as an example, are desirous of abolishing primogeniture and entail, so that " life interests" may be got rid of and "real ownership" substituted for them. In short, from landlords, tenants, farm labourers, and an ever-increasing proportion of the public at large complaints are hurled against the existing land system, and each of these sections advocate reforms in their own interests. The reforms advocated are, of course, of a very conflicting character, the reforming landlords wishing, on the one hand, to make their estates individual private property, and not, as they are now, family private property; whereas the reformers who take their stand on the inalienable right of the people to the soil of their country contend, on the other hand, for the entire abolition of private property in land.
 It will be seen from the hurried and imperfect survey we have taken of the conditions under which the present land movement in Great Britain had its rise that the public mind was powerfully directed towards the land question, and the faint outlines we have given of the philosophical and political declarations that preceded it may, perhaps, show how the way was paved for the more radical doctrines in regard to the land which are now being promulgated.  John Stuart Mill had a thorough grasp of the principles that lie at the basis of the land question, as one short sentence will show. "The essential principle of property," he wrote, "being to assure to all persons what they have produced by their labour and accumulated by their abstinence, the principle can not apply to what is not the produce of labour, the raw material of the earth." But in 1871 Mill thought it was hopeless to pre sent that doctrine prominently before his fellow-countrymen, at least any further than was necessary to secure the arrest for the public of the "unearned increment" in the value of land. Had he lived another ten years he would undoubtedly have swelled the ranks of those who drew up the programme of tho Land Nationalization Society, and given the cause an extraordinary impetus. For it was not only the philosophical and economical aspects of the land question that now attracted public attention, but the moral aspects as well; and an appeal was addressed to the hearts and consciences of men as well as to their heads and their pocket. Dr. Thomas Nulty, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Meath, in a letter to the clergy and laity of his Diocese, had boldly grappled with the subject, and certain passages from that letter have been circulated far and wide on both sides of the Atlantic. The following sentences in particular have produced a deep and wide spread effect :— "The land of every country is to the people of that country or nation what the earth is to the whole human race. That is to say, the land of every country is the gift of its Creator to the people of that country ; it is the patrimony and inheritance bequeathed to them by their common Father, out of which they can, by continuous labour and toil, provide themselves with everything they require for their maintenance and support, for their material comfort and enjoyment. God was perfectly free in the act by which He created us ; but having created us, He bound Himself by that act to provide us with the means necessary for our subsistence. The land is the only means of this kind now known to us. The land, therefore, of every country is the common property of the people of that country, because its real owner, the Creator who made it, has transferred it as a voluntary gift to them. Terram autem dedit filiis hominum. Now, as every individual in that country is a creature and child of God, and as all His creatures are equal in His sight, any settlement of the land of a country that would exclude the humblest man in that country from his share of the common inheritance would be not only an in justice and a wrong to that man, but, more over, would be an impious resistance to the benevolent intentions of his Creator." Let it be understood that this is only the deliverance of a Prelate of the Church of Rome, and not of the Church itself. A few Roman Catholic clergymen have joined Bishop Nulty in enunciating the land doctrine he teaches, but their utterances have no other authority than what they acquire from the reputations of the individuals who make them.
 No branch of the Christian Church has pronounced any decision on the moral elements involved in the land question, tho attitude of all being exactly similar to that maintained towards the question of slavery, or the right of private property in the flesh and bones of human beings, which, we need hardly remind our readers, had at no remote date the same legal sanction that property in land possesses. Very significant are Dr. Nulty's references to slavery, and not the less so that he deals gently and apologetically with the Church's relations towards that institution. "Slavery," he says, "is found to have existed as a social institution in almost all nations, civilized as well as barbarous, and in every age of the world, up almost to our own times. . . . Hardly any one had the public spirit to question its character or to denounce its excesses ; it had no struggle to make for its existence, and the degradation in which it held its unhappy victims was universally regarded as nothing worse than a mere sentimental grievance. On the other hand, the justice of the right of property which a master claimed in his slaves was universally accepted in tho light of a first principle of morality. His slaves were either born on his estate, and he had to submit to the labour and the cost of rearing and maintaining them to manhood, or he acquired them by inheritance or by free gift ; or, failing these, he acquired them by the right of purchase, having paid in exchange for them what, according to the usages of society and the common estimation of his countrymen, was regarded as their full pecuniary value. Property therefore in slaves was regarded as as sacred and as inviolable as any other species of property. So deeply rooted and so universally received was this conviction that the Christian religion itself, though it recognised no distinction between Jew and Gentile, between slave or freeman, cautiously abstained from denouncing slavery itself as an injustice or a wrong. It prudently tolerated this crying evil, because in the state of public feeling then existing, and at the low standard of enlightenment and intelligence then prevailing, it was simply impossible to remedy it. Thus, then, had slavery come down to owe own time as an established social institution, carrying with it the practical sanction and approval of ages and nations, and surrounded with a prestige of standing and general acceptance well calculated to recommend it to men's feelings and sympathies. And yet it was the embodiment of the most odious and cruel injustice that ever afflicted humanity." The italics are our own, and they might of themselves suffice for comment ; but we may remark that " the public feeling then existing" with regard to slavery, and "the low standard of enlightenment and intelligence," which the Church found it impossible to purify and elevate, were purified and elevated by men who had no ecclesiastical authority or pretensions whatever ; and these men have taught the Church and humanity at large that the social institution which was once regarded by all as founded on "a first principle of morality" was verily " the embodiment of the most odious and cruel injustice that ever afflicted humanity." It will be seen when we come to note the latest phase that the present land movement has entered, namely, its presentation as a Land Gospel — i.e., as God's spell or word, or message to mankind regarding the land, that the parallel between slavery and private property in land is strongly insisted upon by many of the advocates of the new land doctrine.
 But we must proceed, without further preface, to lay before our readers a summary of the contributions that have been made to the cause of land reform by Mr. Henry George, the American economist, who is the foremost champion of the abolition of private property in land, and whose treatise, entitled " Progress and Poverty : an enquiry into the cause of industrial depressions, and of increase of want with increase of wealth," is the text-book of radical land reformers. This, however, must be reserved for another article.

South Australian Register 12 May 1883

No comments: