A fallible history of land ownership, wealth distribution and autocracy, and more kindness

29 December 2019

Last week, I mentioned dukes whose ancestors had been given land by grateful monarchs.  Have you ever stopped to think about the principle of ‘owning’ land?  Nomadic peoples such as those indigenous to North America and Australia considered land to be rather like air:  it didn’t belong to anyone and was just there, and free, for anybody who needed it.

As people stopped rambling around looking for food, they invented agriculture and started to settle and grow their own food locally, leading to the development of villages and towns, and the roles of leaders – the elders, chiefs, shamans and others with knowledge gained and handed down over many generations – became more formalised and societies became more structured.

In Britain, farming was originally based on individuals cultivating strips of land in larger areas of open country but, from about the 12th century, agricultural land was enclosed by people who decided they had the power to do so and enough fenceposts and hawthorn seedlings.

Long before that, some land had of course been divided into parishes so The Church could get the local serfs to pay for the construction of local churches;  other land was annexed by the military so they could get the local serfs to pay for the construction of castles so they could … er … protect the local serfs’ land from immigrants from East Anglia or Old Sarum (as ‘twas then yclept) or The North (och aye, hoots mon the noo).

Anyway, it was much more efficient to farm enclosed land and, from the 18th century, individual ‘fields’ were increasingly consolidated into larger farms and estates, thereby increasing productivity.  This was particularly important as agricultural labourers were drawn to towns to take jobs created by the burgeoning industrial revolution.

However, all through this process, various monarchs would reward sufficiently ingratiating creeps with titles and gift them some acreage of land that had previously been owned locally.  Henry VIII was supposed to be particularly good at this, saying to the serf concerned “Come hither goodman serf, we are desirous of giving your estate to another but, in our fair land, it shall ne’er be said that we are an unfair king so we’ll toss you for it.  Here’s a double-headed groat that we hath about our person – my call”.

And so fewer and fewer people got to own less and less property, a trend that continues to this day.

The saintly Maggie Thatcher attempted to reverse this trend when she discovered there weren’t enough publicly-owned houses for those who couldn’t afford to buy their own and decreed that council house tenants should not be allowed to buy their properties, however long they’d lived there, so the state would not deplete its housing stock.  Unfortunately, due to one of the commonest typing mistakes, ‘not’ was typed as ‘now’ and nobody spotted it until too late, and we’ve never looked back, using this as a precedent for all subsequent sales of the family silver.

The principle was neatly summarised by Bob Dylan in the 1960’s:

Pull out your six-shooter
And rob every bank you can see.
Tell the judge I said it was all right.

(To give credit where it’s due, I’m indebted to Walter Carruthers Sellar and Robert Julian Yeatman for the inspiration for these historical notes.)

With the increasing wealth of the few comes the inevitable concentration of power in their hands so the poverty of the many can be enhanced and, until the revolution comes, they can be disempowered and controlled in ways that would have raised even George Orwell’s eyebrows.  Along with this comes the active centralisation of power, starting with the transfer of power from parliament to the government in the UK, to the disconnection of Rusnet, the Russian segment of the internet, from the rest of the internet and the apparent reversion of China to the prisons and oppression that flourished under Maoism.

(I wonder if the isolation of Rusnet, intended to feed ‘the people’ in Russia with only a severely censored version of world news, is likely to lead to an upsurge in lateral thinking about how to surmount the barriers that isolate them from reality, whether there’s an upsurge in the market for Virtual Private Networks or some completely new application software.)

However, Orwell’s Thought Police are already active in big players like Microsoft, Google, Amazon, Facebook and other social media …

Adding insult to injury, the new year’s Honours List included a knighthood for Iain Duncan Smith, one of the failed Conservative party leaders and creator of the infamous universal credit scheme (whose effects were shown so tragically in Ken Loach’s brilliant film ‘I, Daniel Blake’).  This led to the UK becoming the first country to be subject to a United Nations enquiry into human rights abuses against disabled people, an investigation which later confirmed that our government had been guilty of “grave and systemic violations of the rights of disabled people”.

The outrage this award has caused has inspired a petition which, as I write, has already been signed by more than 160,000 people (see https://www.change.org/p/uk-government-and-parliament-we-object-to-iain-duncan-smith-receiving-a-knighthood ).

This week’s kindnesses came from a six-year-old boy saved up his pocket money to buy his local police force (Thames Valley) some festive treats to keep them well-fed on their Christmas shift and from an unknown person who thanked the Samaritans for giving up their Christmas Day to help others.

Next year, sod resolutions that are lucky to last a week, let’s all just try, every day, to do or say something kind, however small, for somebody else.

And let’s hope 2020 brings the peace and serenity that 2019 didn’t.

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