26 August 2009

Not Earning but Owning

There are two important questions that keep recurring in current debates about the resilience of our economy: 'Can Britain Feed Itself?' and 'Who Owns Britain?'. The first is the title of an excellent study by Simon Fairlie in The Land, which reported his back-of-an-envelope calculations about how we might survive if our post-colonial trading links with the rest of the world were suddenly cut.

As I consider these two questions I am developing a particular fondness for the word 'requisition'. Like the landless peasants of Brazil, we should use the concept of usufruct to prevent the rentier landlords from depriving us of land for homes, growing plots, and useful wastes. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's Landshare idea is all well and good, but, as an old Etonian, he is unlikely to challenge the ruling class and - as ever - access to land is not the point. It is ownership that really matters.

Here we come to Kevin Cahill, whose weighty but fascinating book Who Owns Britain?, first published in 2001, is the product of another man's healthy obsession. It is the best account we have of how the land that should be our common treasury is actually parcelled out between us - well between very few of us as it turns out. It is a fairly patchy account, since 1066 and 1872 are the last two dates when a proper cadastral survey of the country was undertaken.

My own county of Gloucestershire is dominated by large estates. I've been somewhat distracted by Cahill's excellent book and have checked out that of Lord Sudeley (Merlin Charles Sainthill Hanbury-Tracy), who I once shared a platform with at the House of Lords. His wikipedia entry fills me with a combination of hilarity and rage. His pedigree truly is Eton, Oxford and the Guards. I can't be sure whether I am pleased or not that he has now had to sell the family seat to Damien Hirst.

Sudeley's peerage arose from the political activities of plain John Hanbury (he adopted the 'Tracy' suffix as his career developed), whose father made his money in the Pontypool Ironworks. My great-grandfather was just down the road in Merthyr, but on the other end of the class system. Hanbury became MP for Tewkesbury and was later given a hereditary seat in the Lords. This is how power, wealth and most importantly land are allocated in our far from meritocratic society.

We don't know what we could grow on our land and we don't know who owns it. These two issues are obviously closely connected. Before the enclosures or 'lowland clearances' as we should really call them took place in the 17th and 18th centuries (these are profiled in depth in the latest issue of The Land), whether or not we could feed ourselves was a question we had it in our power to answer, both as individuals and as communities who shared common land. This made us free in a sense that most of us today cannot even imagine; and that explains why the question about who owns our land today is so difficult to answer.

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