Alfred Russel Wallace : Alfred Wallace : A. R. Wallace :
Russel Wallace : Alfred Russell Wallace (sic)

 
 
President's Address (S495: 1894)

 
Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: President's Address given at the thirteenth annual meeting of the Land Nationalisation Society, 9 April 1894, and later printed in the May 1894 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/S495.htm


     [[p. 34]] The present year marks an epoch in the progress of our cause by the creation of Parish Councils, with power to obtain land--by compulsion if necessary--and at a fair price for the use of the people. A principle is thus established, and it is for the first time recognised, in a practical way, that the people of England have a right to the use of some portion of their native land to live upon or to cultivate. To future generations it will seem strange that the last decade of the 19th century should have been reached before such a small instalment of justice--such an elementary human right--should have been granted to the workers, and granted by rulers who have always tried to persuade them that they were free men in a free country. Hitherto they have had unlimited freedom to starve, but the freedom to save their own lives and the lives of their children by cultivating a portion of their native soil, has been denied them.

     [[p. 35]] What a mockery our boasted freedom has hitherto been may be estimated by the fervour of applause with which this Act has been greeted, mainly because it establishes this principle of a man's right to a portion of land to cultivate--if he can pay for it.

     But when we come to examine how this principle is to be carried into operation, and to what extent it can be applied, we find so many limitations, and such complex rules, petitions, and inquiries, that till the powers now granted are greatly extended, and the means of putting them into operation simplified it is certain that but little practical good will be done. Let us then endeavour to see how the Act will work.

     When any of the inhabitants of a parish want land they must first inform the Parish Council of their wants. This Council will then, if it pleases, try to obtain suitable land at a suitable price, either by purchase or on hire, from the local landlords. Here will be the first delay and expense; for landlords and their agents can carry on correspondence and lengthen out negotiations for months; and if the Council is not disposed to wait the landlords or agent's pleasure, this fact will be urged against them at the next stage of the proceedings, which is, to "represent the case to the County Council." Then the County Council must be "satisfied" that suitable land cannot be acquired voluntarily, and that "the circumstances justify" their proceeding to act, before they take the next step--to have a public inquiry, with full notice to all persons interested. Now, how long will it probably take to satisfy the County Council that land cannot be acquired by agreement? What an opening for endless correspondence, with copies of previous correspondence, documents, maps, valuations, and reports. And the County Council, being largely composed of landlords, farmers, merchants, and manufacturers, will feel little or no interest in doing this work for the laborers, but will be inclined to decide that the landlords' demands and offers were reasonable, and that a private arrangement should have been made. Then, again, we must remember that the average number of rural parishes in a county is over two hundred, and as land will certainly be required in almost every one of these parishes, how will it be possible for the County Councils, even if willing, to carry on the correspondence and make the necessary inquiries without altogether ruinous delay? Then, if the County Council declines to act, the Parish Council may appeal to the Local Government Board, which will make another local inquiry, and will then, if it thinks proper, make the necessary order to enable the people of the parish to obtain the land they require.

     Now, this whole process seems to me fundamentally unreasonable, unpractical, and wrong. Why should the County Council have anything to do with such an essentially local matter as the acquiring of land in each parish for the use of the people of that parish? What are the Parish Councils for, if not to arrange such local details as this? They are on the spot. They know personally the nature and value of the land, and the wants of the inhabitants; whereas the members of the County Council, except by chance, know nothing, and must act wholly on second-hand information. As applications pour in from hundreds of parishes, and they cannot possibly be attended to individually, the matter will be handed over to some secretary or inspector, on whose report the Council will act, however one-sided it may be. The supposed safe guard of the County Council will probably be a farce, or worse. Again, why should there be such utterly needless enquiries as to whether land is wanted or not, and such inevitable waste of time in compelling private negotiation to begin with? If the right of the people to the use of land is once admitted, then the demand for land by any individual who can either pay half a year's rent in advance or give security for it, should be sufficient evidence that it is required. And if the grant of land is to do the maximum of good, the land given must be of the quality and in the situations asked for. There are really only two things that need any enquiry at all. The first is, that while taking land which shall be most useful to those who need it no necessary injury, or even inconvenience, shall be caused, either to landlord or farmer; the second is the price. The first point could be best settled by an expert committee of the Parish Council, subject to an appeal to the Local Government Board; the price would be decided by an independent official valuation. If the matter were thus left almost wholly in the power of the Parish Council, there is no reason to think that more land would be taken than was really needed, or that any unnecessary injury would be done to landlords. In every such Council there are sure to be some representatives of landlords and farmers, whose interests will thus be looked after. Under the law as it now stands--in the first place compelling an attempt at private negociation, and then an appeal to the County Council, first as to that negotiation, and then to make a local enquiry for the purpose of compulsory purchase, it is utterly impossible that the reasonable wants of the people can be satisfied except after tedious delays, and burthened with much unnecessary expense.

     But the worst feature of the Act is, that after all this trouble, and expense, and delay, the utmost possible result is to provide Allotments not exceeding one acre of arable and three of pasture, and on these allotments no buildings other than stable, cowhouse, &c. may be erected; while, from the very nature of Allotments, the land will be occupied on a yearly tenancy. No powers are given to the Parish Council as regards Small Holdings--except that the County Council may delegate to the Parish Council the management of such Small Holdings as may be situated in the parish--and thus no advance whatever is made by this much vaunted Act towards settling the people permanently on the Land, which is the only thing that can possibly do any good as regards relieving the congestion in towns, and thus diminishing the terrible amount of distress and starvation throughout the kingdom. It must never be forgotten that--as John Stuart Mill so forcibly pointed out more than forty years ago--allotments really produce the same effect as the old bad system of poor relief in aid of wages. Where allotments are few the holders of them get some little benefit, as compared with those that do not have them; but when allotments are supplied to all, or almost all, the labourers in a district, the effect will inevitably be to reduce wages to the level at which the labourers can exist with their aid. A man cannot support himself on the produce of an allotment even for half a year; he will still be the weekly tenant of the landlord or farmer, and subject to eviction if he refuses to work at the current rate of wages, or for any other cause; and he will be still more completely at the farmer's mercy, because, having his land on hand, he cannot leave the place to seek work elsewhere without additional loss. This Act, therefore, so far as the land clauses go at present, will not really benefit the agricultural laborer, or tend in any way to raise his material condition. The only thing which can do that is to give him power to obtain [[p. 36]] a permanent settlement upon the land--a homestead of his very own--from which neither landlord nor farmer can eject him, and upon which he can raise food enough to save himself and his family from starvation. When all the better class of laborers and mechanics in a rural district are thus securely attached to the soil, wages will rise considerably; but the farmer will probably be better off than now, because he will have the command of a body of well-fed workmen living around him, who, for a good day's wage will do a good day's work whenever he requires them. The laborer, being no longer a serf but a freeman, it will be the farmer's interest to treat him as a fellow-man and a neighbour--to help him by the loan of horse or machine when he requires them, and thus by mutual assistance to work harmoniously for the benefit of all.

     But though the new Act does nothing directly towards this great end, it provides machinery, in the Parish Council and the Parish Meeting, which will educate the laborers, and enable them to make good use of the further powers which it must be the business of Land Nationalisers and Radicals to obtain for them. We must insist that the Parish Councils have power given them to take any amount of land required to supply all demands for small holdings, whether by actual residents or by outsiders. We must teach our representatives in Parliament that this demand for land on which to live is a thoroughly wholesome and proper thing, and that it will be altogether beneficial to the nation at large, as well as to the individuals to whom the land is granted. It is a thing to be encouraged, not to be repressed; to be made as easy as possible, not fenced round with delays and costs, with circumlocution and red-tape. We claim this on the broad grounds that the first and highest use of land is to provide healthy and happy homes, that by providing these we shall enormously increase the production of food over the whole country, and thus bring to the doors of consumers a large portion of the fruit and vegetables, poultry and bacon, milk, butter and cheese, now imported from foreign countries, to the amount of about thirty millions annually; that we shall thus draw back the people from the towns to the country, raise wages, abolish pauperism, and create a largely increased demand for our manufactures in the home market. These enormous benefits must not be forbidden us to suit the pleasures of great landlords, or the convenience of large farmers. In matters of national importance the few must give way to the many; and there is nothing of each supreme, such overwhelming importance, as to bring back a starving people to the soil from which they have been expelled. The Parish Councils must have full power to do this, since it is a purely local matter; and they must be empowered to do it directly, without first wasting time in the futile endeavor to obtain land on fair terms, by private arrangement with landlords. To take all power out of the hands of the Parish Councils--who are on the spot, who have all the local knowledge, and who are intensely interested in the whole matter--and to give all power to the County Councils, who have no local knowledge, have no direct interest in the matter, and who will find it impossible to attend to the requirements of hundreds of parishes in addition to their special county work is, emphatically, how not to do it, and is doomed to failure.

     Before leaving this new Act one valuable feature may be noticed. Section 26 declares: "It shall be the duty of every district council to protect all public rights of way, whether within their district or in an adjoining district in the county, . . . and to prevent any unlawful encroachment on any roadside waste within the district." Here is a clear and positive statement of duty, which a district council cannot very well evade; but, in order that this duty may be done, it will be important to have as few landlords as possible on these councils. It is also declared, in the same section, that if any public right-of-way has been stopped, or any encroachment made on any roadside wastes, "it shall be the duty of the district Council to take proceedings accordingly." No limitation of time is mentioned, and I believe no statute of limitations applies to public rights, and that "once a highway, always a highway" is a rule of law, except the highway has been stopped up in a perfectly legal manner. Now, we all know that everywhere in the country there are signs of the enclosure of road-side wastes, sometimes adding the land to an adjoining field or park, while at other times the strip has been built upon and gardens formed from it. Now, whenever evidence can be obtained of such enclosures, which can usually be done in all cases that have occurred during the last fifty years, the District Council shall be called upon to do its duty and reclaim the land for the public, in the case of simple enclosure by throwing it again into the road, and in case of cottages and gardens by claiming and collecting the rents now paid to landlords or lords of the manor. It would be a valuable service if some of our legal friends would draw up a tract on this subject, showing what are the legal rights of the public and giving reference to the Acts or judicial decisions which form the legal authorities on the matter. Land reformers in every part of the kingdom can then call upon the district councils to do their duty, and our country highways will everywhere be made more pleasant by the addition to them of the thousands of strips of turf and trees which have been so shamelessly stolen from the people.

     The passing of this new Local Government Act, limited and imperfect as it is, yet marks a degree of progress hardly possible--perhaps even not desirable, at any earlier period. If we look back over the century now drawing to a close we shall see that from a social point of view it has been characterised by two great movements--the rise and full development of capitalism in our manufacturing and commercial systems, and the continuous political enfranchisement of the people. Along with these, as subsidiary movements, we have had the constant efforts of independent thinkers, aided by the ever-growing sense of justice in the nation, to limit or to redress the evils of the capitalistic power by means of factory Acts and the abolition of restrictive laws as to combination by the workers; while the capitalists themselves have urged on free-trade, really to open wider markets for themselves, but ostensibly for the benefit of the workers in the importation of cheap food.

     Along with these we have had for more than a generation a system of national education, which, according to the older school of liberal teachers, was all that was needed to crown the edifice and produce national prosperity. Almost universal suffrage, vote by ballot, abundance of capital, free trade, free competition, and general education--these have comprised almost the whole programme of liberal politics in the past. Yet after nearly a century of progress along all these lines, we find, not only here, but in every civilised country in the world, the most horrible destitution in all the great cities, thousands, even millions of men asking in vain for work in order to live, men and women starving while surrounded by land which they are not allowed to cultivate, [[p. 37]] and legislators and rulers everywhere powerless to suggest a remedy. The breakdown of the capitalist and landlord systems is complete and disastrous. The politicians and political economists have had a free hand for nearly a century and have disgracefully failed--have failed in that most elementary duty of capable rulers, so to organise society that every willing worker shall be able to earn a decent living and provide for a comfortable existence in his old age. Never perhaps in the history of the world have there been combined such favorable conditions, such confident pretentions, and such absolute failure.

     Nevertheless, there is no occasion for despair, since there are many indications of brighter days before us in the not distant future. Even in our present Government and our present House of Commons we have men who fully see the errors of the past, and are beginning to perceive in what direction lies our way in future. A good omen is the appearance at this juncture of a book which must, I think, have considerable effect in moulding opinion as to the true line of progress for civilised peoples. This book is--Social Evolution--by a hitherto unknown writer, Mr. Benjamin Kidd. It studies carefully the causes and the methods of social advance in the past, and indicates the goal to which it is tending. The book is quite original in its views and, I believe, for the most part accurate; and I refer to it here for the purpose of telling you what is the conclusion of this thoughtful and hopeful writer as to direction which social evolution is now taking, and in which it is our duty and interest to urge it on. He believes, as the final result of a study of social progress for the last two thousand years, that we are inevitably moving towards a system of society in which all men will live under conditions of equal social opportunities. He reiterates and enforces this conclusion in a variety of ways. He terms it, "equality of opportunity in the rivalry of life," but, from motives of policy, apparently, he nowhere explains what the term implies. Nothing is more clear, however, that the very first step towards such equality of opportunities, must be free access, on equal terms, to the land on which all must live and from which all wealth directly or indirectly proceeds. It implies, further, absolute equality in the means of education for all, and wherever necessary a sufficient provision to give every one a fair start in life. It further necessarily involves the ultimate abolition of all hereditary wealth, since there can be no equality of opportunities so long as large classes are provided from birth with the means of living idle lives, supported on the labor of their fellow men. This principle, therefore, goes very far indeed; and it is no doubt good policy of its author to endeavour to establish it as a sound theoretical principle, leaving what it implies in vague obscurity so as not to frighten timid reformers and weak-kneed politicians. The book, however, is highly spoken of, and will be widely read; and it will certainly have its effect in modifying public opinion in the direction of those advanced radical views which are now coming to the front.

     Another good feature of the book is the author's perfect confidence, not only in the good sense but in the honesty and morality of the coming democracy; and as he therein fully expresses my own opinions, I cannot do better than conclude this brief address by quoting the final passage of Mr. Kidd's volume, which will also serve to give you some idea of the style of the writer, and induce you, I hope, to read his whole work. He concludes thus:--

     "All anticipations and forebodings as to the future of the incoming democracy, founded upon comparisons with the past, are unreliable or worthless. For the world has never before witnessed a democracy of the kind that is now slowly assuming supreme power among the Western peoples. To compare it with democracies which held power under the ancient empires, is to altogether misunderstand both the nature of our civilisation and the character of the forces that have produced it. Neither in form nor in spirit have we anything in common with the democracies of the past. Great as has been the progress in outward forms, the more important difference is far deeper. The gradual emancipation of the people, and their rise to supreme power has been in our case the product of a slow ethical development in which character has been profoundly influenced, and in which conceptions of equality and of responsibility to each other have obtained a hold on the general mind hitherto unparalled.

     The fact of our time, which overshadows all others, is the arrival of democracy. But the perception of the fact is of relatively little importance if we do not also realise that it is a new Democracy. There are many who speak of the new ruler of nations as if he were the idle Demos, whose ears the dishonest courtiers have tickled from time immemorial. It is not so. Even those who attempt to lead him do not yet quite understand him. Those who think he is about to bring chaos instead of order do not rightly apprehend the nature of his strength. They do not perceive that his arrival is the crowning result of an ethical movement in which qualities and attributes which we have all been taught to regard as the very highest of which human nature is capable, find the completest expression they have ever reached in the history of the race."

     This hopeful estimate of the nature of the power, which, during the coming century, will profoundly influence the development of society, should give strength to the arm of every radical reformer in his persistent efforts to remove the injustice and inequality which still prevail among us, and which render the lives of so many honest and hard-working men and women one long heart-breaking struggle against misery and starvation. (Loud applause.)


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