2: Learning from History

The ownership of land is not merely an enjoyment, it is a stewardship. 1

When David Lloyd George railed against the landlord classes as Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1909, he was consumed by the plight of farmers unable to make a decent living because of onerous conditions placed on their tenure in a country where few owned the land they worked. A year before his ‘Peoples’ Budget’, which bore down on the aristocracy with a vengeance (relatively briefly, however) he warned owners of the land that if they ceased to discharge their functions properly, ‘the time will come to reconsider the conditions under which land is held in this country’.2 While Conservatives howled with anger, the Liberal Chancellor promptly doubled their rate of inheritance tax.

This was a time of fiery rhetoric matched by radical action over land use, rarely to be repeated; a period during the first decades of the 20th century in which a raft of measures by the state would provide the means – for those without the considerable means of the ruling, landowning classes – to gain a foothold on the farming or the smallholding ladder. It followed significant reforms of crofting in the Highlands and islands of Scotland, where tens of thousands of smallholders, dependent on subsistence farming under the constant threat of eviction, were finally granted security of tenure in 1886 and, thus, given freedoms over land and its use.

At the same time, land reform in pre-partition Ireland – still more radical than anything ever undertaken since in mainland Britain – was high on the Westminster agenda.

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