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Presidential Address (S407: 1888)

Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: Presidential Address to the seventh annual meeting of the Land Nationalisation Society, held 8 May 1888. Printed in the Report of the Land Nationalisation Society, 1887-8. Original pagination indicated within double brackets. To link directly to this page, connect with: http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/S407.htm

    [[p. 10]] . . . The President, who, on rising was received with loud applause, said:--

    The Report of the Executive has referred to the growth of public opinion on the question of Land Nationalisation, which seems to be very satisfactory. Everywhere it is being realised that our Land system is a terrible failure, involving the failure and breakdown of our boasted civilisation. For surely the first test of a civilised community should be,--not the amount of luxury of the few, but the well-being of the whole,--not the existence of hundreds of millionaires, but the absence of misery and starvation among the people. Yet we have a constantly increasing amount of misery and starvation in our midst, and every year about one-sixth of all the deaths in this city are those of persons who die in a state of pauperism in public institutions,--and this in addition to the thousands who die of misery and want in the cellars and garrets of this the wealthiest city in the world.

    We have heard much of the improvement in the condition of the working classes during the last 50 years,--but along with an improvement in the condition of some portion of these classes--the skilled mechanics--there has been a deterioration in a more numerous class--the unskilled labourers and women-workers. It is about 50 years ago since Hood's famous "Song of the Shirt" startled the world with its revelation of hopeless misery. But what would Hood have said if he could hear the revelations now being made--of shirts made at 1d. each, the worker by continuous [[p. 11]] hard work making twelve shirts a day, and earning 6s. a week, and with the rent of an attic at least double what it was in his time!

    Five years ago we had the "Bitter Cry" excitement, and a Commission of Enquiry, and a huge Report. Then another Commission on Depression of Trade and another Report,--and now another Commission or Committee on the "Sweating System,"--to be followed no doubt by another Report, which like the preceding Reports will be simply so much waste paper.

    The reason why Commissions and Reports do no good is because our politicians and our philanthropists will never search for real causes, will never go to the root of the matter; which is, in one word, Landlordism--that system of land monopoly which treats the land of the country as a means of profit for landlord and farmer--that profit being got with the minimum of labour on the land.

    An attempt is now being made to put the public on a wrong scent by imputing all the misery of our city workers to the competition of foreigners. I do not say this has no effect; it is no doubt an aggravating cause, and so long as we cannot keep our own people from starving it should be stopped; but it is as nothing compared with the real fundamental cause--the driving of the rural population from the country to the great towns. Year after year the farmers, under the pressure of the exorbitant rents of the period of commercial prosperity which culminated in 1872, are becoming first impoverished, then bankrupt, and landlords are turning their arable land into pasture so as to get the maximum of profit with the minimum of outlay and risk,--and thus a constant stream of labourers, and with them village mechanics and shopkeepers, are forced to migrate to the towns.

    The consequence is that we have at this moment two-thirds of our whole population--more than 20 million people--concentrated in the great cities and towns, while millions of acres of our land all over the country are less populated and less effectively cultivated than 50 years ago. Yet when this fact was brought before them last week by Mr. Bradlaugh, our legislators--men who profess to be our representatives--walked out of the House of Commons till there being only 15 members present the debate collapsed in a count out!

    In the course of the debate we had the usual statement that the land was uncultivated because it could not be cultivated at a profit. No doubt, the landlord, having ruined the farmers by making them pay exorbitant rents, cannot find tenants for his farms,--but this very same land could be cultivated at a profit by labourers and their families, even paying the same rent as the farmers paid, if they had the land in such quantities as they required, and with absolute security of tenure. That they can and do thus cultivate [[p. 12]] it and live comfortably on it has been shown again and again, though the fact is always denied in parliament. The Reports of the Agricultural Commission prove it--the landlord apologist, the Hon. Mr. Broderick, proves it in his book on "English Land and English Landlords,"--I myself have collected ample evidence of it in my books on "Land Nationalisation" and "Bad Times,"--as has Mr. Impey in his "Three Acres and a Cow," and his "Housed Beggars." In this last pamphlet he shows that on a farm taken by a Working Men's Allotment Association, in Northamptonshire, forty men are employed where only four men were employed by the farmer, the result being that wheat produced 48 bushels an acre, nearly double the farmer's average! And this land is cultivated, not by men who have been farm labourers only but by small tradesmen, greengrocers, dairymen, mechanics, &c., showing that men brought up in the country in the midst of agriculture have both a love of it and a knowledge of it sufficient to enable them to cultivate land at a profit.

    Now if we could take a census of the unemployed and struggling workers in London and other great cities, we should find that perhaps one third, perhaps half, of them were country born, and would go back to their native villages if they had a fair chance. Once throw the land open to workers, giving them the choice of a place to live in with absolute security of tenure, and not only would the immigration to our cities be stopped, but an outflow would begin from them to the country which would have the most beneficial effects both on the production of food, the decrease of poverty, and the progress of trade. Now this I hold to be the great purpose and use of Land Nationalisation: to get the people back on to the land, to check the growth of great cities, and to produce on our own soil the many millions sterling worth of eggs, poultry, butter, cheese, bacon, and fruit now imported, but which we can easily grow ourselves. Even the importation of wheat would be greatly diminished, for when labourers grow wheat by choice, as they very frequently do, we may be sure that it pays them to grow it, the reason being that they grow from forty to fifty bushels an acre, while the farmer, under a landlord, grows from twenty to thirty only.

    Many people are too much disposed to look at the money side of the Nationalisation question, and cry out for taxation to get back some of the landlord's unearned increment. No doubt the question of right and equity is a very tempting one, but for practical results it is as nothing compared with the question of freedom in using the land, and its occupation as much as possible by the actual men who cultivate it. If we could at once banish all landlords and have all the tenant-farmers paying fair but moderate rents to the Government, the beneficial results would, I believe, [[p. 13]] not compare with a system of free choice of land by working occupiers at fair rents and permanent tenure, even with those rents paid to the present landlords.

    In the former case taxes would be reduced, but there would be nothing to prevent the continued growth of our cities with thousands every year added to those who depend on wage-labour, and whose competition keeps wages ever down to starvation point. The farmer would still employ as few labourers as possible--would still use the land for his profit, not for the profit of the men who really do the work. Machinery would still benefit him and injure the labourer; and on the whole the country would be very little benefited, except perhaps that capitalists and manufacturers being relieved of taxation would be more prosperous, and succeed in becoming millionaires rather quicker than they do now!

    On the other hand if labourers of all kinds had free access to land on the most favourable terms and conditions, they would get almost all they could get by the most thorough Land Nationalisation, since it would not matter to them to whom they paid their rents. Population would then spread naturally over the whole country, which would gradually become cultivated like a garden; and it would then be found that the larger part if not the whole of the food of the country could be produced within the country; pauperism would be soon almost unknown (as under similar conditions it is unknown in Japan), while men, no longer forbidden to employ themselves, would no longer compete for work at starvation wages, and thus wages would rise considerably, and no man would need to be out of work.

    Some of you may perhaps think that this is a strange view for a Land Nationaliser to take; but you will remember that in our earliest programme we adopted the principle of free selection of plots of land for personal occupation; and although this has been criticised, opposed, and ridiculed without mercy, I now hold more strongly than ever, after eight years experience and consideration, that it is really a vital point, and is more than any other feature of land reform calculated to act directly, and most efficiently in checking the ever-flowing tide of pauperism and misery which is at once our sorrow and our disgrace. In all my writings on this question I have laid most stress on the evil power of landlordism in preventing men from applying their labour directly to their native soil; and though no one can be more impressed than I am with the fundamental error and wrong of permitting private property in land, I am equally convinced that it is not the money question that is the most important.

    It is also I think clear that while so huge and radical a reform as complete Land Nationalisation is still very far off, whatever steps have yet been taken, are distinctly in the direction I am now [[p. 14]] advocating. The Crofter's Bill and the Allotments Bill, have both sanctioned the principle that land may be compulsorily taken for cultivation by labourers, at fair and fixed rents. Let us work on these lines, extending the powers of local bodies to take land till every labourer can have what he requires, and till all towns and villages can secure possession of the land that immediately surrounds them,--as proposed in the admirable new Crofter's Bill drawn up by Mr. Ross,--and we shall be on the sure and certain road to ultimate Land Nationalisation.

    Those who have not seen this Draft Bill which Mr. Ross has submitted to us may be interested to know its main provisions,

    These are:--

    (1) A Local Land Board in each Parish--freely chosen.

    (2) A Land Commission in Edinburgh.

    (3) Land required by Crofters may be taken by the Local Land Board--the Land Commission fixing the price; improvements by tenants for 40 years previous not to be valued in estimating the price.

    (4) The Money required, to be advanced by the Treasury on security of the Rates and Land fund, to be paid off, principal and Interest, in 49 years.

    (5) Local Land Boards to have power to acquire all ground-rents of the houses in their parish on same terms.

    Thus each Parish will have the power of Nationalising the land of its own Parish, and such land is never to be alienated.

    The Bill is carefully worked out in all details according to Scottish local law and custom, but these are the essential parts of it, and they certainly offer a most simple and unaggressive mode of effecting Land Nationalisation in detail;--while if we stand out for having it wholesale--for the whole kingdom at once--probably no man now living will ever see it in operation. I sincerely trust that Mr. Ross' Bill will be brought before Parliament year by year till it is carried; and then we may introduce one for England on the same general lines.

    I have been very much pleased with a pamphlet on "The Land" which has been sent me by the Author, Mr. A. J. Ogilvy, of Tasmania, because I find that he has reached exactly the same conclusions as myself. He maintains, and I perfectly agree with him, that the fundamental reform we require is to have the land entirely worked by the men who occupy it. Large farmers, as regards the well-being of the people and the nation, are no better than large landlords, inasmuch as they use other men's labour for their individual profit, and whether they are tenants of landlords or under the State, or owners of the land they farm, makes no difference; it is always their interest to keep down wages and to do this they must prevent the labourers from having land.

    [[p. 15]] Mr. Ogilvy, gives a striking picture of the results of land-monopoly in Tasmania. There, as here, we have enormous areas of land half cultivated or uncultivated,--capital vainly seeking profitable employment,--and men competing for work and thus keeping wages down to a minimum. Yet people there are so blind as to cry out for more labour and more capital, and not to see that the one thing wanted is free access to the Land.

    I think on the whole we may congratulate ourselves on the progress of our cause. We are no longer treated with contemptuous ridicule by the press; and the public are beginning to realise that we are not robbers or confiscators, but that our proposals are perfectly fair and honest, and are such as many landlords would be willing to accept. It is important that the principle of fair payment for all land taken, estimated according to the actual net revenue it produces to the landlord, should be made widely known as that which we now suggest. This principle is embodied in Mr. Ross' Crofter Bill, and its discussion in Parliament will do much good in showing that it is really possible to pay for the land and yet benefit the people. The growth of land values in every nation that is increasing in population and wealth is an absolute certainty. That increase--that "unearned increment"--we have given to landlords in the past, but we certainly do not intend to give it to them for all future time. Moreover, although as regards the whole country the increase is a certainty, it is by no means a certainty within any limited time, as regards each particular field or estate, and therefore it cannot be estimated as part of the present value of any particular estate.

    Our own proposal is, to pay the landlords in "land-bonds" bearing, say, 3 per cent interest, subject to being paid off at par after a named period. But either this method or that adopted by Mr. Ross of a repayment of principal and interest in 49 years, may be adopted, the result in both cases being the same,--that the increased rents of land when let to cultivators in small portions, added to the unearned increment on all land near centres of population, will easily pay off the whole amount in one or two generations, leaving the land in the possession of the community and its revenues available for public purposes, and sufficient to extinguish almost all local and imperial taxation.

    I would suggest, therefore, that the leaflet on "Compensation to landlords" should for the future be attached to every publication issued by the Society, and that it should be printed at the end of all future publications, since it will greatly assist in removing the ignorance and prejudice now so prevalent as to our real proposals.

    It is with the greatest satisfaction I learn that New Zealand, and I believe some of the Australian Colonies, have actually [[p. 16]] legislated to prevent the further alienation of the public lands. We have, I think, some gentlemen from the Colonies here among us who will be able to tell us exactly what has been done, and what is the next probable step in the direction of Land Nationalisation.

    With these few remarks, for the scantiness of which I must apologise on the ground of ill-health, I will now conclude, again congratulating the Society on the good work it has done and on the steady, if rather slow, growth of sound ideas on the greatest question of the day--Land Nationalisation!

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