That Disturbing Devil

Ferdinand Mount

  • Owning the Earth: The Transforming History of Land Ownership by Andro Linklater
    Bloomsbury, 482 pp, £20.00, January 2014, ISBN 978 1 4088 1574 8

In this case, the elephant is the room. There can be few enormous subjects more often dodged than the space we occupy on the surface of the earth. Land ownership – its many modes, its distribution, its history – is the great ignored in politics today, gingerly taken up if at all and quickly put down again in favour of more fashionable topics: capitalism, urbanisation, democracy, industrialisation, the role of the state. The question ‘Who owns the land?’ has a musty aroma to it.

Andro Linklater tells us at the end of his ambitious odyssey that he was aware that his focus on land ownership ‘might seem old-fashioned to the point of eccentricity’. Certainly that is the reputation which has stuck to his best-known predecessor, Henry George. In his 1879 bestseller, Progress and Poverty, George set out the same thumping principle which inspires Linklater: ‘The ownership of land is the great fundamental fact which ultimately determines the social, the political and consequently the intellectual and moral condition of a people.’

In his day, George had quite a following. Progress and Poverty sold more than three million copies and was translated into a dozen languages. George ran for mayor of New York and finished ahead of Teddy Roosevelt, though behind the Tammany Hall candidate. Henry George Foundations still exist in London, Melbourne and his native Philadelphia. Liberal Democrats in Britain continue to hanker after George’s single land tax to replace all other taxes, as do some American conservatives. All the same, George and Georgism remain outliers on the landscape of politics.

Yet George’s marginality gave him an unrivalled view of the emerging world. The second of ten children of a struggling publisher of religious texts, he left school at 14 and sailed before the mast to Melbourne and Calcutta, turned to typesetting when he came home, then lit out for the gold mines of British Columbia, before drifting into journalism and finishing up as managing editor of the San Francisco Times. In roaming the frontiers, he saw how land that was valueless yesterday could become worth many dollars an acre after it was cleared, surveyed, settled and, above all, owned.

Andro Linklater did not live quite the hand-to-mouth life of Henry George, but he too was an outlier. Raised in the Orkneys, the younger son of Eric Linklater, he had something of his father’s unpigeonholeable talent as a writer and the same indifference to the opinion of others. He lived with the headhunters of Sarawak, completed Eric’s history of the Black Watch, taught in a tough London school, lived on an almost uninhabited Hebridean island for five years, never to be tied down to a career, nor a search for recognition, let alone celebrity, though capable of charming the birds off the trees if there had been any trees in the desolate regions he preferred. It is typical of his ornery nature that he should have died of a heart attack the week before Owning the Earth was first published in New York, because he was on another Hebridean island and there was a fatal delay before he could get medical treatment.

Unlike George, Linklater sets out to provide a historical framework for his argument. He begins with the rude irruption of European adventurers into the New World. In the royal charter that Queen Elizabeth conferred on Sir Humphrey Gilbert in 1583, she granted him full power over the soil of ‘those large and ample countreys [that] extended Northward from the cape of Florida … to dispose thereof, of every part thereof in fee simple or otherwise, according to the order of the laws of England’. That raffish, bisexual gallant, Raleigh’s half-brother, was to control the freehold of the Eastern Seaboard all the way up to Newfoundland, anywhere which was not already occupied by ‘any Christian prince or people’ (no look-in for Native Americans, of course).

This arrogation was all the more sweeping because back in England the pattern of land ownership was still very varied. John Darby’s huge estate map of Smallburgh, Norfolk, dated a year before Gilbert set sail and now in the British Library, shows a rich mixture of strip-fields, commons and orchards, as well as the large number of fields already enclosed by the landowner and dotted with sheep and cattle. But Gilbertia – as the new country might perhaps have been named if Sir Humphrey’s frigate, the Squirrel, had not gone down in a storm on the return journey – was to be freehold from the start, a huge terra nova of untrammelled individual ownership.

The early 1500s, according to Linklater, saw ‘the birth of a new mindset’, and a uniquely explosive one:

The idea of individual, exclusive ownership, not just of what can be carried or occupied, but of the immovable near-eternal earth has proved to be the most destructive and creative cultural force in written history. It has eliminated ancient civilisations wherever it has encountered them, and displaced entire peoples from their homelands, but it has also spread an undreamed-of degree of personal freedom and protected it with democratic institutions wherever it has taken hold.

The new ideology was fiercely resisted by the upholders of older pieties. In Utopia (1516), Sir Thomas More, though himself a considerable landowner, denounces the powerful magnates who ‘enclose all into pastures’ and demolish houses and entire villages to make sheep runs. ‘The rich men, not only by private fraud but also by common laws, do every day pluck and snatch away from the poor some part of their daily living.’ The 1553 revision of Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer made it clear that rapacious landlords were not to expect the approval of the new Church of England either:

the earth is thine, O Lord, and all that is contained therein; we heartily pray thee to send thy Holy Spirit into the hearts of them that possess the grounds, pastures and dwelling places of the earth that they, remembering themselves to be Thy tenants, may not rack and stretch out the rents of their houses and lands, nor yet take unreasonable fines and incomes after the manner of covetous worldlings.

A century later, the Levellers ratcheted up the rhetoric. Gerrard Winstanley declared that the earth ‘was made to be a common livelihood to all’ and that ‘your buying and selling of Land, and the fruits of it, one to another, is the cursed thing.’ That ‘disturbing devil, called Particular Propriety’, stood in shameful contrast to the early Christians who had held all things in common (Acts 2.44).

Linklater himself used to believe passionately in Winstanley’s ideals and ‘lived for longer than was sensible on communes in the United States and Europe, farming unproductive, steeply sloping fields locked away in the mountains, unwanted by their original owner’. He experienced at first hand the downside of communal farming: the inequality of effort put in, the backbiting and the dissension, the disillusioning need for rigid discipline if the commune was not to fall apart.

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