Britain's land is still owned by an aristocratic elite - but it doesn't have to be this way

Johann Hari
Wednesday 02 February 2005 01:02 GMT

Who owns Britain? Most of us would instinctively reply: we do. The British people own the British Isles. This is a democracy, isn't it? But the facts tell a different story. When you look at a map of the British Isles, you are looking not at your home but at a land mass overwhelmingly owned by a tiny aristocratic elite. Extraordinary though it might seem, in the 21st century, 0.6 per cent of the British people own 69 per cent of the land on which we live - and they are mostly the same families who owned it in the 19th century.

When it comes to land ownership, Britain today is a more unequal country than Brazil - where there are regular land riots. We are beaten in the European league tables only by Spain, a country which largely retains the land patterns imposed by General Franco's fascist regime. It's time we realised: this land is not your land, from Land's End to the Scottish Highlands. It is theirs.

This makes a mockery of the principles our society is supposed to be built on. Very few people defended the idea of hereditary peers - so why should most of the country's land be owned according to hereditary principles? For a system of private property to thrive - and I believe it must, because it is the best way to generate wealth - it has to be legitimate. There must be a relationship between work and reward: if you work hard, you should be rewarded. But most of these landowners have put in no work, and they are given a vast reward: the land on which we live. And - even where wealth has been earned, as in a few cases - nobody has earned this obscene amount of space on a crowded island. There has to be some sense of proportion, or the idea of human equality becomes a bad joke.

But far from redistributing land, successive British governments have reinforced this inequality by subsidising the richest landowners in the country. For example, a recent New Statesman investigation found that the multi-billionaire Duke of Westminster - who has done nothing to earn his wealth - is entitled to pounds 9.2m in subsidies each year from you, the taxpayer. Kevin Cahill, the author of an award-winning book on land ownership in Britain, explains: "Money is being taken out of your pocket to enhance the assets of the rich, who, in their role as landowners, pay no tax. This is a massive scandal." Yesterday, Tony Blair was talking about weaning poor people in Britain off disability benefit. How about taking the land-owning aristocracy off welfare before we start turning on poor people desperate for their extra pounds 50 a week?

Only one part of Britain has woken up to this national scandal so far - Scotland. This week, the Highland community of Lochinver is voting on whether they want to buy 40,000 acres of land that currently belongs to the Vestey family, a bunch of staggeringly rich corned beef tycoons. This right was granted to the local community by the Scottish Parliament when it introduced a Land Reform Act in 2003. The legislation abolished the feudal system where tenants were referred to as "vassals" and landowners as "superiors". And in addition to getting rid of the formal trappings of feudalism, the Act made it possible to erode the grip of these predominantly feudal families on Scottish land.

The new laws are simple. They ensure that whenever a large slice of rural land is placed on the market, the local community has the democratic right to claim it for themselves. If more than 50 per cent of locals vote to take the land, and if they can raise 50 per cent of the price themselves with business plans, the Highland Council (or the relevant local authority) will provide the remaining funds. If the community votes to buy over the next few days, the Vesteys will be legally forbidden to flog the land to the highest bidder. In other words, a transfer of the land from elite to elite will not be allowed.

In this instance, the Vesteys want to sell, but even if they didn't there is some provision in the legislation for communities to force a "hostile buy-out" if they can demonstrate it is in the public interest. Crofters, for example, can vote to buy and run the land they live and work on even if the landlord refuses to sell.

This package of land redistribution is even more desperately needed in Scotland than in the rest of Britain: just 103 people own 30 per cent of the entire country. The new laws will very slowly erode this vast inequality over the next century, as more and more communities claim the land for themselves to be run as community trusts or shared property.

Of course, there has been howling from the Scottish Tories about this "Mugabe-style land grab" and "attack on property rights". True, land redistribution has a bad reputation and a bad history. In the name of stripping land away from a tiny landed elite and giving it to the people, 30 million people died in China. Today, thousands are dying in its name in Zimbabwe, and the issue is threatening to destabilise many parts of South America and even Africa's most successful democracy, South Africa.

But far from being an argument against the Scottish laws, we should be glad that a peaceful mechanism of redistribution is being pioneered here. Land redistribution is an urgent cause across the world, particularly for the poor - and in Scotland, they are showing how it can be done in a democratic way, without violence. The problem with Robert Mugabe's policy is not - as the right usually implies - with the very idea of redistributing land. When Zimbabwe was established in 1979, just 1 per cent of the population (the white men) owned 60 per cent of the land, including all the most fertile and profitable acres. Most of it had been violently seized just a generation or two before. Does anybody think that was a just or sustainable situation?

But the problems with Mugabe's model of psycho-redistribution are clear. He is not giving land to ordinary Zimbabweans; he is claiming much of it for himself (under the name of "nationalisation") and giving the rest to a fetid elite of Zanu-PF cronies. His policy has been enforced by armed thugs who have butchered their way across the Zimbabwean countryside.

But now, peasants and poor people across the world need not look to Mugabe or Mao or other tyrants for a way to take land back from the rich. Instead, they can look to this new kilt-wearing redistribution through the ballot box.

It could hardly come at a better time. In most countries in the world, land is not being democratised and spread across the population. In fact, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund have been imposing policies on poor countries that actually increase the concentration of land ownership and make more people into landless peasants. In Colombia, for example, the 0.4 per cent who make up the Colombian elite now owns 61 per cent of the country - an increase of 30 per cent in the past decade. On the IMF's instructions, South Africa still has apartheid-level inequality in land ownership, with just 4 per cent of farmland being redistributed from white to black.

Has the Scottish model ever been needed more? It is time to take the high road to a more equal Britain - and a more equal world.

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