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The Programme of Land Nationalisers (S483: 1893)

Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: An address given at a LNS meeting held 15 November 1893, and later printed in the December 1893 issue of Land and Labor. Original pagination indicated within double brackets. To link directly to this page, connect with: http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/S483.htm

     [[p. 1]] Understanding that some dissatisfaction has been expressed at our comparatively slow progress as a Society, and that this is supposed to be partly due to the want of a sufficiently definite and intelligible programme, I wish to lay before the Special General Meeting of the Land Nationalisation Society a few remarks bearing upon the point at issue.

     In my opinion our programme, in its essential features, is so clear, so simple, so definite, that I fail to see how it can possibly be improved in these respects; while, being stated as the "Object of the Society" in our monthly advertisement in Land and Labour, and on the cover of our Annual Report, all who know, or who care to know, anything about our Society must be familiar with it. Our object and programme is--"To restore the Land to the People, and the People to the Land."

     Here are two objects--two propositions--both of them clear, simple, and definite, and both vitally important. Everything else is a question of method, of machinery, of what is practicable in legislation, which may all vary at different times, and will inevitably vary as the whole subject becomes more familiar and its principles better understood. But we land nationalisers have this unfailing test by which we judge all proposals and all legislation affecting the land:--Does it either directly or indirectly restore any portion of the land to public ownership or popular control;--Does it bring about, or tend to bring about, free and fair access to the land of those who wish to cultivate it or live upon it? If it does these two things, or either of them, we support it; if it does not do this, or if it does this in such a way as to interfere with the rights of others to equally free access, we oppose it.

     The exact methods by which the use of and the revenues from the land are to be obtained for the community, and the landlords dealt with, have nothing to do with the principles of land-nationalisation, but only with the means of bringing it about. So that we arrive at the end aimed at we must be content with whatever methods are available; and these available methods depend wholly on the degree of education of the people and the legislature for the time being.

     We may, I think, congratulate ourselves that our fundamental principles are making way, even in the House of Commons, and are being gradually, though very imperfectly embodied in legislation. It is now admitted that the people should be "restored to the land." It is also admitted that this restoration must be effected by enabling local authorities to acquire and hold land for the express purpose of giving the people "access to it on equitable and favorable terms." This is working entirely on the lines of our programme: it has already been in operation, though on a very small scale, through the "Allotments and Small Holdings Act": it will soon be at work on a much larger scale by means of the forthcoming Parish Councils; and it has only to be carried out more extensively, and, as public opinion advances, under more favorable conditions, to bring about complete nationalisation of the land.

     The principle of Land Nationalisation is, therefore, already accepted by the House of Commons, although--fortunately perhaps for us--the Liberal party as a whole will positively deny that they have accepted it, and have really no idea of the magnitude of the peaceful resolution they are inviting. Their methods, however, are at present unsound and imperfect, and we must use all our influence to amend them. A considerable number of Liberals still prefer that the land shall be bought from the landlords and sold to the people. We oppose both the buying and selling as merely creating a new body of landlords. On this latter point we have already made great way; and we may, I hope, be able to get the principle accepted in all future legislation, that when any public body acquires land, that land is to be inalienable, and is to be held in trust for ever for the use of the people.

     On the question of buying land from existing landlords we are less likely to succeed at present, though, I believe, option of renting land for a term is to be given to Parish and District Councils. What our supporters in Parliament must urge is--first, that the power to hire land shall be continuous at the same rent if the Council desire it; secondly, that where land is purchased the Parish or District Council shall be enabled to purchase on at least as favorable terms as have been granted to Irish tenants, and by the same method--that is that they shall become owners of the land by the payment for about sixty years of a quit rent considerably less in amount than the present rental of the land.

     For the benefit of those who may have forgotten this Irish legislation (still in operation) it may be explained that these extraordinarily favorable terms of purchase are rendered possible by three considerations: (1) That the actual net rents received by the landlords are on the average (on account of agents and law expenses, repairs, bad debts, etc.) about 20 per cent. less than the gross rents paid by the tenant; (2) that owing to the absolute security of a government guarantee the landlords were (in Ireland and probably will be in England) willing to receive a still smaller net revenue, or its equivalent capitalised; (3) that the State is able to advance the money, to be repaid by the instalments included in the annual payments, at such a low rate [[p. 2]] of interest, that these annual payments for (I think) 63 years were from 15 to 30 per cent., and in some cases were more, below the rents which the tenants had been previously paying.

     Now, I myself fail to see how we are likely to effect the transfer of the land from existing landlords to the people on any more favorable terms than these, or in anything like so short a time as by adopting this method. Those who oppose compensation or purchase in any form, and insist on taxing the landlord out of existence, are, it seems to me, giving away the substance for the shadow. Long before such taxation can be carried out to the bitter end all the land may pass into the people's hand by this form of purchase, and a considerable portion be free of all charges by the termination of the annual payments above referred to, while during the whole period the people will have had possession and use of all the land they require, and derive a considerable revenue from it. The advantage of this method is, that it is one which is already established by law as regards Ireland. We have therefore a precedent for its use in England, and we all know how much our legislators are under the influence of precedent. It is therefore an immediately practical and practicable proposal.

     Less immediately practical, but of the most vital and far-reaching importance, is the principle which was adopted at the foundation of our Society, but has since rather dropped out of sight. It is--that the unborn have no rights of property; and therefore, that it is equitable to declare by legislative enactment that any kind of property now recognised by law--whether in land or in the public funds, or in the national Railways--shall only be transmissible to heirs living at the time of the passing of the Act which embodies this principle, and shall at the decease of these heirs, pass to the public. The time will come, I believe, when such an enactment will be considered not only equitable but ethical; inasmuch as it will check and gradually abolish speculation both in land and in funds, and will thus render more secure the position of those who in the natural course of events would inherit such property and benefit by the income from it. No living person would be injured by such an Act, but the whole community, as well as the natural heirs of all who now hold such property, would be greatly benefited.

     I fully recognise that it may be many years before this principle will be embodied in legislation, but when that time comes it will hasten on, and bring to a definite conclusion the whole process of land nationalisation, as well as the extinction of the national debt, and the acquisition of the national railways. This process of extinction of the national debt will, in fact, produce far less inconvenience and misery than the process of successive reductions of interest now being enforced, which seriously diminishes thousands of small incomes, and is practically just as much a robbery of living fund-holders as the most open system of confiscation.

     I have referred to the proposed system of taxation in order ultimately to obtain the land for the people, as being a shadow rather than a substance; and a fact recently communicated to me will illustrate this. A friend of mine is part owner of a family estate consisting of house property in the East of London, in the management of which he takes great interest. On a recent visit he found the tenants of an adjoining estate in great excitement, because the agent had given them notice that at the expiration of each one's term the rents would be raised; the reason given being that ground rents were going to be taxed, and "betterment" to be claimed by the London County Council, and that it was necessary, in order to safeguard the landlord, that rents should be increased. And the rents will be raised, just as they were raised in many places directly free education saved parents a few pence a week, and as they are always raised when anything betters the condition of the tenants as a body, and thus enables them to pay more. No one has made this more clear than Henry George.

     I conclude then (1) that our programme is simplicity itself; (2) that it is absolutely sound, since even our friendly rival society embodies the same idea in its very name; (3) that it is winning all along the line, since it is already partially, and will soon be more fully embodied in legislation. What we have now to do is to watch the details of future legislation, and do all we can to ensure the restoration of the land to the people as quickly and as cheaply as possible; and, what is not less important, to see that those who wish to cultivate and live upon the land are enabled to do so on the most favorable terms, and are not hampered by conditions and regulations such as to interfere with their freedom of action and thus minimise the benefits, both to themselves and to the whole community, which free access to the land is calculated to produce.

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