Owning the Earth: The Transforming History of Land Ownership by Andro Linklater, book review: This history isn't quite hot property


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The Independent Culture

Who owns the land you're on right now? Unless you happen to be reading this on a ship in international waters, the Antarctic, or outer space, the chances are that someone does, that you know who they are, and that someone, at some stage, experienced quite a trauma to acquire or retain it.

Their stories, individually and collectively, are the stories in Andro Linklater's ambitious global history of land ownership. Literally collectively, of course, in the case of the forcible changes in ownership engineered by the Bolsheviks after the 1917 revolution, and Mao's mercenaries after 1949. The stories of both are told better elsewhere, to be frank. Still, I hadn't realised, or perhaps had forgotten, that the term "kulak", for a slightly wealthier Russian peasant farmer, the class liquidated by Stalin from 1929, derives from the Russian phrase for "tight fisted".

I also didn't know that Henry VIII's all-new Church of England in 1531 required its clergy to read to their congregations a special prayer inveighing against what Ed Miliband nowadays calls "rip-off landlords": "The earth, O Lord is thine 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… after the manner of covetous worldlings…"

Covetous worldlings indeed, though of course Henry himself had just engineered for himself one of the greatest transfers of wealth in history, through the dissolution of the monasteries and their assets, mostly appropriated to him, his navy and his cronies.

In fact, "covetous worldlings" are at the root of many of the world's most intractable trouble spots today – settlers and their descendants in the north of Ireland, in Palestine, the Falklands, in what is now Zimbabwe.

What do we fight wars for? "Territory", of course. So land matters, in a sort of primeval, mystical way, and it deserves a weighty "cross-sectional" history, roaming across all of its complex philosophical, scientific, legal, political and economic facets. Mostly Linklater succeeds in this gargantuan task, but too often goes all preachy about the iniquities of the Austrian school of free-market economics and the financial crash of 2007-08.

Land is not the same as property, still less capital, because, as Linklater himself stresses with a fine quote from Winston Churchill in 1906, "Land is a necessary of all human existence, which is the original source of all wealth, which is strictly limited in extent, fixed in its geographical position."