Landholding in England/Chapter 23

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WE have seen the grand old word "freeman" change its meaning. At first it meant the man whose land was his own, who could not be turned out of his house and his little fields at the will of another man. Then, the "freeman" was a countryman. But, as towns grew, and welcomed more inhabitants, the serfs escaping to the towns became "free"; and now the "freeman" was a townsman. Again in our own time, the meaning changed so much that another old word was used with a new meaning, and we say now that the £6 householder is "enfranchised," because he has a vote. It is an admission that the person without a vote is something less than free.

Now, he is free. The justices no longer fix the maximum of his wage. But neither do they fix a minimum—ironically called "a living wage." The man as low down as the serf of old, the man who does the hard, thankless, "unskilled" labour on which all other labour rests, has now no place to call his own. He has been driven from the fields into the towns, there to hang on the skirts of regular labour and pull it down. He belongs to nobody, and nobody belongs to him, not even his master, who coolly tells him he is too old at forty, and shakes him off like an old shoe. In a high state of civilisation there is hardly anything which is not worth more than a man. A horse is taken care of—he costs money to buy. So does a machine. It costs money to replace a slave. But a free labourer can be had for nothing—hundreds of him imploring to be taken on. The free labourer herds in slums where no rich man would keep his horse or his dog; and when he is old he is thrown "on the rates"—the compulsory charity of the State he has served. If it is proposed to give him an Old Age Pension of 5s. a week, a chorus of voices exclaim that he will be demoralised—they mean that he will not work so hard if he thinks he need not die in the workhouse.

We are waking up at last to the fact that an artificial system—which we dignify with the name of civilisation—is producing artificial degenerates, whom lack of good air and good food, and above all of hope, have made degenerate. For two hundred and fifty years we have been trying to account for poverty. Everything has been suggested, from idleness and vice to stage-coaches and tea-drinking. Arthur Young thought that poverty in villages was due in part to the drinking of tea; he frequently mentions that in a certain village they drink it twice a day. He had not then made his famous tour in France, and seen how sand may be turned into gold, when the sand is a man's own. Now, the poor drink something more fiery than tea—or than the beer which Young probably preferred to tea. Bad air, bad food, and the lack of hope in a man's life, easily lead to the craving for strong drink, and the strong drink completes the degeneration which the bad air and food began. And so we have an army of degenerates, of unemployed, who ought to be called unemployable, for they have been found unfit even for food for powder. This discovery has alarmed us. We see that if it goes on we shall lose our place among the nations. To this has too much civilisation brought us—that is, too much of the life of cities. Consciously and unconsciously, intentionally and unintentionally, we have for generations been doing everything to destroy the wholesome balance of town and country, and we do not like the result.

But we have destroyed more than this. We have destroyed independence of character. How could it be otherwise? For centuries, the poor Englishman in an agricultural district has been gradually losing his place in the Commonwealth. As a serf, a "customary tenant," tied to the soil, he had a place in which he had a right to be, and a lord who, if he came near to possessing him, in return secured him from destitution, and had an interest in protecting him from all oppression but his own. If the serf tilled the soil for his lord, he tilled it also for himself. He had deep roots in the soil, whereas the whole tendency of modem social policy is to uproot him from the soil, with the result of leaving him no place, and sometimes a doubtful right to exist; to call him a peasant is to confuse the meaning of words.

The feudal system, with all its faults, was a reciprocal system. If the villein owed much to his lord, the lord owed something to the villein. When that system broke up under the Tudors, money began to rule as it had not done before; and the direct effect was to make money more valuable than men. The English labourer, robbed of his Gild, tuned out of his field and common, literally lost the right to exist, except during such time as he could obtain a master. He was liable to be hanged for no other crime than having no work to do. Twice, he might be spared—if somebody wanted him for a slave. The third time he was out of work, it was hanging. If it was evident that he was too old or too sick to work he was flung back an unwelcome burden on the place of his birth—to be a slave for ever if he had tried to inflict himself on the wrong place. He esteemed himself fortunate if he was allowed to beg. Yet, now and always, he executed the manual part of the "great works" of which the nation took the credit. He did whatever was too hard and too disagreeable for his betters to do. He was cajoled into fighting his country's battles by land, and kidnapped to fight her battles by sea. And there his part in fashioning the country's destinies ended. He had no voice in the quarrels in which he fought, or in the great affairs of the nation—nor even in the little affair of what wage he was to receive for his blood and his toil. It was for long a hanging matter for him even to discuss with his fellows any rise in wages. The justices set his wage just high enough to keep him alive, with heart enough in him to beget children to do the hard work of the next generation. He had been thrust off, weeded off, edged off the lands his fathers tilled—if he still tilled them, it was for the rich farmer who had persuaded him and a score of his fellows to sell their few acres—gaining their consent more easily by first enclosing the common where they used to feed their cows and their asses.

Things went on in this direction until enlightened men thought that small holdings were the ruin of the nation, and enormous farms its wealth. We all came to look on land as something from which a man got rent. We talked about small farming not "paying," meaning that it did not pay rent—as though rent were the sole end of corn. So towns were more and more overcrowded, and villages made emptier and emptier, and landlords restricted the number of houses in villages, because the man with no land of his own to till, and not needed for other men's lands, was an encumbrance. Then came machinery, and the factories of the days before the Reform Bill, when little children of seven were set to do the work of men, and a man was dismissed if he took his child away; and the children slept as they worked, and spoiled the work, and were beaten; and one in ten of them was crippled or deformed. What fortune amassed by a manufacturer can make up to the State for such a physical ruin of the next generation? We all believe that many terrible abuses existed in the past, and we know that these abuses have long since come to an end. But all that this knowledge does for most of us is to encourage us to believe that all is right now. Unfortunately, it is not so. An abuse may be swept away only for a worse abuse to come in its place. We forget, when we condemn the feudal system, that it was at any rate a system of reciprocal rights and duties. The feudal lord exacted "aids" from his tenants, but the occasion and the amount of those aids were strictly defined. The modern landlord does not demand "aids"—he raises the rent. The modern landlord's power is practically absolute; the law does not limit it. In most cases, an English landlord treats his larger tenants well. If he did not, he might find his farms standing empty. But he is restrained by his own interest, not by the law. A feudal lord was restrained by the general interest.

The feudal lord was not allowed to play tricks with his tenants, because our ancestors believed that the commonweal would have suffered. But our first thought is not the commonweal, but a man's right to Mo what he will "with his own." Now land, by its very nature, can never be a man's "own" in the sense in which his hat, his coat, his chair, are his "own." Other hats, coats and chairs can be made without limit. But more land cannot be made, nor can anything be substituted for it. No human being can say that he exists independently of land. Land is literally the foundation of human life.

Let us try for a moment to suppose it physically possible for a few individuals to accumulate in their own power the greater part of the air we breathe and to let it out on certain conditions. Would not even the "Liberty and Property Defence League" call for the "nationalisation" of the air? And yet if they did, they would be admitting the principle that some things cannot be private property. Land is the foundation of existence; but when anyone says that it ought not to be in the power of individuals he is called a robber. The robber is he who locks up that without which man cannot exist.

But it is not necessary to take so extreme an instance as air. Let us imagine that a few persons had got into their possession all the current coin of a country, and demanded payment for the use of it as "change." Would anyone be found to tolerate such a state of thing? In Turkey, something very much like this exists—the right to change money is sold by the Sultan to the money-changers. Such a monopoly would not be endured in England by the most thorough-going monopolist. But it does not stop trade in Turkey. And if there were no money at all in circulation, trade would still go on, by means of exchange and barter. In fact, as it is, no country ever pays in coin if it can pay in goods. Money is a convenient token, but it is not the foundation of commerce. The foundation of commerce is the exchange of commodities, not of coin. There is no real analogy between "private" property in money, and "private" property in land.

Political economists have been a great deal too apt to consider economic problems from the point of view of money profits, to consider them with reference to property rather than to life. And so they talk of profits, without defining whose profits. Unless wages rise, or profits are shared, the worker cannot be truly said to "share" in national prosperity. It is true that in good times there are fewer out of work, but when "profits" double, wages do not double. Yet the doubling of profits is set down as the doubling of the general prosperity of the country.

Again, the influx of money into a country is spoken of as "prosperity," although it is quite possible that the prosperity may be the prosperity of a few, and those few already the most prosperous class. It can mean, that as the rich grow richer, the poor grow poorer. The distribution of national wealth is the true test of the "prosperity" of a nation, and not how many hundred millions of money or money's worth constitute the nation's revenue. Fortunes may be becoming m.ore colossal while the bulk of the small people find it harder and harder to live. The terrible cry "Too old at forty" is a modern cry.

Nothing can make up for a too uneven distribution of wealth. This uneven distribution causes pauperism, and not the mere amount of the revenue. It is a terrible fact that the colossal fortunes of modern times make life harder and not easier for the labouring classes. Even the discoveries of science put new weapons into the hands of the inordinately rich. A combination of wealthy men wields a power greater than that of kings in old time. A handful of multi-millionaires can introduce cheap labour, can make wars, and by buying up the press, can command public opinion. In America, the multi-millionaire is almost omnipotent. Universal suffrage does not prevent his acting with a disregard to the public interest which would have been impossible to a feudal baron. If the feudal baron had gone too far with his tenants, he would have found them starting up in little armed bands to resist him. But now it is the multi-millionaire who has the little army—perhaps of Pinkerton's men.

The effect of rating everything at its money value is to make us look upon land as something out of which to make money, and not as something out of which to live—something which produces the actual bread which we eat. We are always talking about whether farming "pays"—whether small holdings "pay." And if we think it can be shown that they do not, we consider the question settled. In the last months of the late government, a deputation of the "Unemployed" waited upon Mr Balfour, to urge him to encourage more labour on the land. Mr Balfour explained to them, that "by the law of production, if you double the number of hands on a farm, the actual productiveness of each man will be diminished, because you have increased the number of men extracting from the soil produce which it gives perhaps reluctantly and grudgingly. … Every economist knows that you cannot increase the amount of labour you put on land, without diminishing the productiveness of that land."

We may disregard the apparently gratuitous assumption that Nature rewards man's labour "reluctantly and grudgingly." But what did Mr Balfour mean by "actual productiveness"? If he meant that land produces less wheat, barley, oats, turnips, the more labour is put into it, this is nonsense. He evidently meant that money profit to the farmer and landowner would be diminished if more money was paid for labour. But those who wish to get the people "back to the land" do not want to increase the number of agricultural labourers paid by the day, week, or year, by a master who himself has to live and pay his rent out of their labour. They want to increase the number of small landowners—men who will literally live on the fruits of their toil, and not merely produce something for their master to sell. At present, the land has to bear three charges—it must "pay" the labourer, the farmer and the landlord. We shall never approach the land question with comprehension until we learn to look upon the cultivation of land as intended in the first place to produce Food. Of course, there will generally be a surplus—and this surplus will be sold. But the more people get their food from the land at first hand, the less pauperism there will be, and the less the towns will be burdened by the crowding into them of labourers whose labour is "diminishing the actual productiveness" of the land. Land will feed a great number of people who have only to live upon it; but only a small number if their labour is to "pay" the landowner and the farmer.

There is nothing extravagant in saying this. Every other country in the world has a peasant class. England alone has none. For to call the English agricultural labourer a "peasant" is to misrepresent his condition. He is not a peasant, but a day-labourer, living in a cottage not his own, and working for a wage as much fixed by his master as it formerly was by the justices. He cannot call his soul his own. His first and last thought is how not to offend those in whose power he is. And there are many who think that this is compensated for by a cottage with a boarded floor (though he can be turned out of it at any time), and doles in the winter, and who flourish the "hardships" of the French peasant at him, to scare him from attempting to regain the common lands.

The unequal distribution of money and the unequal distribution of population both contribute to increase poverty. That country should be accounted the richest, in which wealth is most equally distributed—that is, in which there is the smallest proportion of paupers. The destruction of small holdings, and of common land, has had a most powerful influence on the unequal distribution of population. Everything has long conspired, and still conspires, to drive the people into the towns. Thus has arisen that vast, unmanageable mass of "casual" labour, which hangs on the skirts of regular labour, and pulls it down.

The class which suffers most from the unequal distribution of population is the class of "unskilled" labour. Not that any labour can be wholly unskilled—every kind of work can be done well or ill. "Unskilled" labour, however, chiefly demands physical strength, and in overcrowded towns physical strength deteriorates, until we get the deplorable processions of the "Unemployable." And it would be good for us to remember that, after all, "unskilled" labour is lightly esteemed only because it is plentiful. It is the sort of labour without which the life and trade of a nation could not go on for a single day. If a State were compelled to abolish half its trades, "skilled" labour would go first, and the more skilled before the less skilled. The more highly skilled any labour is, the more possible it is to dispense with it.

There must be something profoundly amiss when the richest country in the world has been for nearly four centuries complaining that it has so many poor. But if we counted only ten instead of thirty-two and a half millions in England and Wales, there would be pauperism if the land were in the hands of a few and if those few set themselves to keep rural districts thinly populated.

In 1841, when one person in every eleven was a pauper, England and Wales counted under ten million inhabitants Now, the proportion is about one in every thirty-three This is disgraceful enough, but it shows that pauperism may be two-thirds less when the population is two-thirds more. The depopulation of country districts is not accidental. It is intentional and deliberate. This was confessed with cynical frankness by Lord Lansdowne in the debate on last year's Land Bill.

"What is it that makes ownership of land practicable ? It is surely not to be recommended as an investment. Most of the large proprietors, if they now had in their pockets the sums which have been spent from time to time in the improvement of their estates, would be rich beyond the dreams of avarice. Surely what gives reality to ownership, what makes it a valuable and precious thing to many people, is that we have hitherto associated with it the power of guiding the destinies of the estate, of superintending its development and improvement, and, above all things, the right to select the persons to be associated with the proprietor in the cultivation of the soil."—(Hear, hear.[1])

It will be a hard task to restore the people to the soil. Many of them, alas ! have lost the taste for that first and most blessed form of human labour, the cultivation of the fruitful earth. But give them a little bit of their own—though but a garden—to till, and the taste will revive. The tie between man and the soil is as old as man himself. The renewal of it in some shape or other is the only way to solve the problems of Work and No-Work. Something must be done : Liberal and Tory, Socialist and Individualist, Jingo and Peace man, Free Trader and Tariff Reformer, big Englander and Little Englander—all agree that there is physical degeneration, and that such degeneration will, if it goes much further, imperil our place among the nations. We have tried many palliatives (as our manner is), but never a remedy. There is but one remedy—the redressing of the balance, the redistribution of the population. If we fear, as was feared of old, this will increase the population by making the people too comfortable, let us remember that by a perfectly comprehensible law of Nature, the poor increase faster than the rich, increase, as our fathers said, "like lice and flies," while the rich have much ado to prevent their stock from dying out. Let us try comfort.

For generations we have been lamenting the evils of the people herding in towns, but the moment our talk takes a practical turn, the cry of "confiscation" is raised. A few unpractical fanatics may have given some slight excuse for this cry; but the vast majority of land reformers are not fanatics. They know that redistribution must come about by natural causes, and all they ask is that these natural causes shall be allowed to work. At present, our whole land system is constructed to prevent their working. It is Nature's way alternately to gather together and to disperse abroad Our land laws are all on the side of gathering together. Suppose we allowed the great estates to break up by the natural operation of natural causes, instead of continuing to keep them together by laws invented to defeat the operation of these natural causes?

"Land is Perpetual Man."

  1. 18th August 1907.—"Some three months ago I was speaking to about 100 men in a village, and could not arouse any enthusiasm or create any interest. Disheartened, I put to them the question: 'Do you want any land? they replied, 'No.' I thought I had found an agricultural Utopia, where all desires had been satisfied, but the appearance of the men belied this. The meeting closed, and I remained behind talking with one or two. Presently about ten of the men came back, and one approached and said, 'Look 'ere, mister, we do want some land.' 'Well,' I replied, 'why didn't you say so when I asked you?' 'Oh,' said the fellow, 'didn't you know that he was there?' There is a touch of comedy in this may be, but also tragedy."—Hubert Beaumont (Secretary of the Central Small Holdings Society), Daily News, 15th June 1908.