Food | Agriculture | Rural

Land nationalisation - the story so far



By Betty Grant

Discussion about nationalisation has a long history in the British Labour movement. The word itself seems to have been used first by Bronterre O'Brien in the Chartist period, and he used it in connection with the land. But even before that, the idea of public, as distinct from private, ownership of land had been put forward by the Radical Thomas Spence, who proposed in 1775 that parishes (the units of local government) should simply declare all land within their boundaries to be parish land, the rents to be paid to parish officers and used for all kinds of public purposes.
It was natural that the land  should be the first "means of production" to attract the attention of Radical reformers in the early days of industrial capitalism.
For on the one hand the population of Britain still depended mainly on home produced food; while on the other hand, no industry had yet developed to a point  where  "nationalisation"  would have seemed a practical proposition.
Until Marxism could find a foothold in Britain—which did not seriously happen until the 1880's—it was not to be expected that any specific schemes for nationalisation of an industry would be put forward by the working class.
All through the 19th century, opposition to landlordism and to aristocratic power based on landownership was one of the main planks of Radical reformers.
Dating from a time when the landed aristocracy really was the ruling power in Britain, this attitude was fortified by a deeply-felt conviction that the very institution of private landownership was a robbery of the common people.
Sometimes this was expressed in "historical" terms: the Anglo-Saxons, it was thought, had farmed the land communally—or alternatively, had all been freeholders—until the Normans had imposed  their  "yoke"  of  landlordism.
Often the Bible was quoted: "The Earth is the Lord's, and the fullness thereof";
and "The Earth He hath given to the children of men." Memories of injustices
caused by enclosure of common lands added to the indignation with which the
typical  Radical  regarded  the  landed aristocracy.
Bronterre O'Brien
Yet, apart from Thomas Spence and his immediate followers, the Radicals had not developed any theory of public landownership until Bronterre O'Brien began to advocate the nationalisation of the land. By 1841 he was advocating the "gradual resumption by the state" of all the land in the country, by purchase as and when a landowner died. In his speeches about land nationalisation, O'Brien never failed to  remind  his audience that first of all political power must be won for the working classes via the Charter.
The highest peak was reached at the Chartist Convention of 1851, when a social programme which included land nationalisation  was  adopted.  But  by 1851 the economic basic for a mass movement was dwindling away, and the demand for nationalisation of land, like the other demands in the social programme, failed to take root in the working class.
The main practical importance of  O'Brien's  clear-cut  theory  on  land nationalisation was perhaps that it served as a bridge between Radicals and Marxists. O'Brien's little organisation of devoted followers, the National Reform League,   persisted   (under   different names) for many years after his own death in 1864 and continued to propagate the idea of land nationalisation. So, when the International Working Men's Association (the First International) at  its Congress in 1864 adopted as part of  its policy "the abolition of private property in land", it was possible to set up  in London a Land and Labour League  in which O'Brienites and supporters of  the International combined on a nine-point programme in which land nationalisation stood first.
Communist Manifesto
Although historically the demand for land nationalisation had developed in  Britain   from non-socialist Radical sources, it was also in line with the idea of socialism put forward by Marxists.
Indeed, Marx and Engels, in the Communist Manifesto, had put the land first in the list of reforms which the working class would deal with after acquiring power: "Abolition of property in land, and application of all rents of land to public purposes."               '
Both the International and the Land and Labour League ceased to function after a few years. But in the  1880's during, the  Great  Depression,  which created mass unemployment for the first time since Chartist days, with a corresponding awakening of interest in fundamental economic questions, the "land question" again came to the fore. In the same period the struggles of the Irish Land League, under Michael Davitt's guidance,  increased  the  interest of British Radicals in the land question in general.
T.U.C. policy
This time the idea of land nationalisation began to take root. It was brought into the T.U.C. by Radical trade unionists and,  after a temporary victory in 1882, became official T.U.C. policy in 1886.  In a different sphere, a Land 'Nationalisation Society was established in  1881  by a little group of Radical intellectuals led by Dr.  A.  Russel Wallace.
Two years later, some of its members broke away to form the Land Restoration League, which propaated the land nationalisation theory of the American Henry George, namely, that  landlordism could be destroyed by a single heavy tax upon land which would make landowning so unprofitable that owners would eventually be willing to transfer their rights to the state.
Michael Davitt, too, being convinced that state ownership rather that peasant proprietorship was the true solution to the Irish land problem, became a popu-
lar propagandist in Britain in the early 1880's for the general idea of  land nationalisation.
Meanwhile, a federation of London Radical clubs under Hyndman's leadership included land nationalisation in its programme, and this demand was maintained when the organisation took on a definitely socialist character and became the Social-Democratic Federation.
Hyndman himself, in his books of this period, combined his interpretation of Marx's analysis of capitalism with a factual approach to the land question in .
Britain in which the Radical solution of nationalisation was enlarged into a socialist critique of the capitalist exploitation of agriculture itself.
In this way land nationalisation became linked with the general aim of socialism, as it had been in the Communist Manifesto. It was assumed by all who became converted to socialism—including the founders of the I.L.P.—that the land, like all other "means of production", should become the public or  collective  property  of the whole people. The I.L.P. programme of 1895, for example, states the Object of the Party to be: "An Industrial. Commonwealth founded upon the socialisation of land and capital."
A productive industry
This programme also elaborates a policy  for  agriculture,  including the establishment of a "state land department for agriculture", with agricultural colleges and model farms, and state organised marketing of farm produce.
Whereas Radicals had seen only the problems of landlordism. Socialists were beginning to see agriculture as a productive industry which could be regulated by the state on the basis of the public ownership of the land.
On the other hand, the very fact that public ownership of the land was now part and parcel of the general aim of socialism, coupled with the fact that the Fabians  were  advocating  piecemeal municipal ownership, rather than total state ownership of the land, might have resulted in the aim of nationalisation being lost, had it not been for the two specific societies formed in the 1880's.
Red vans and yellow vans
In the 1890's both these organisations, with the help of speakers from the S.D.F. and I.L.P., blossomed out with propaganda campaigns in the countryside.  The  yellow  vans  of  the  Land Nationalisation Society and the red vans of the English Land Restoration League were now seen on village greens, and at hundreds of meetings farm-labourers were urged to support land nationalisation. It is a notable fact that up till then the demand had come only from town-dwellers, who had not imagined that
farm-labourers might be interested too.
More important was the deliberate turn  towards  the  Labour movement made by the Land Nationalisation Society in the years before the First World War. Affiliations were received from many Co-operative societies and from trade union branches—particularly the railwaymen's and miners' unions. which were both by this time demanding nationalisation of their own industries.
Parliamentary Bill
At the end of the war, in the general upsurge of militancy, the demand for land nationalisation was included in the Labour Party's programme. Labour and the New Social Order, at the same time as the Labour Party adopted a definitely socialist aim. And in 1921  a Bill for nationalisation of the land was presented in Parliament by Labour M.P.S.
At this point, with the aim of land nationalisation securely in the hands of the Labour movement, without which it could never be achieved, we can leave the story for the moment, taking up in the next article other, movements for nationalisation of railways and coal mines which had also developed before 1918.
World News 14th June1958

country_standardTo mark our new collaboration with Country Standard, an online blogspot for all things relating to the struggle for land and landworkers, we present a history feature: Land nationalisation and the labour movement.

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