A Revolutionary Who Won over Victorian Liberals: Asquith, Lloyd George and Winston Churchill All Backed Proposals to End the Landlords' Monopoly. So, Mr Blair, What about You?

By Hunt, Tristram | New Statesman (1996), September 20, 2004 | Go to article overview

A Revolutionary Who Won over Victorian Liberals: Asquith, Lloyd George and Winston Churchill All Backed Proposals to End the Landlords' Monopoly. So, Mr Blair, What about You?


Hunt, Tristram, New Statesman (1996)


While land reform has been alive in British radical thinking since 1066, it was an American who managed to craft the first credible programme for change. Medieval critics of the "Norman Yoke", the Diggers and Levellers of the English civil war, and the 18th-century opponents of land enclosure had all longed without success for the return of a golden age in which land would be equitably distributed according to need. But the campaigning California journalist Henry George transformed nostalgia into public policy with a tour through 1880s Britain, energising public opinion and making land reform the foundation stone of progressive politics.

Late 19th-century Britain enjoyed a wealth of radical debate. New ideas, new movements and new leaders were systematically unpicking the intellectual hegemony of mid-Victorian laissezfaire. In the town halls of Birmingham, Glasgow and London, the coming creed of municipal socialism was displaying the practical benefits of an activist council; the works of Marx and Engels were being translated and distributed; even John Stuart Mill, the high priest of negative liberty, was turning his attention in "Chapters on Socialism" towards a future ideal of communal harmony. Mill showed that forms of property ownership, rather than being the sacrosanct foundations of modern society, simply reflected the cultural ethos of each civilisation. Private property had no unimpeachable status.

At the same time, there was a growing awareness that the wealth wrought by the industrial revolution and empire was not being evenly spread. The 1880s downturn witnessed the rediscovery of poverty as the dark continents of outcast London, Manchester and Liverpool were traversed by growing numbers of journalists and social investigators. While W T Stead exposed in the Pall Mall Gazette the immoral underbelly of the capital, Charles Booth walked the streets of the East End to discover rates of poverty far higher than even the socialists had predicted. As Beatrice Webb put it, there was "a growing uneasiness ... that the industrial organisation, which had yielded rent, interest, and profits on a stupendous scale, had failed to provide a decent livelihood and tolerable conditions for a majority of the inhabitants of Great Britain".

Into this fertile intellectual terrain stepped Henry George to deliver a series of lectures on his book, Progress and Poverty (1879). Initially employed in Ireland as an American correspondent for Irish World, he soon immersed himself in Irish politics and caught the nationalists' attention with his case for land reform. He was arrested for speaking out against the British--a political coup which made his eventual entry into British public life all the more anticipated. Thousands turned up to hear his lectures; tens of thousands read his book.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

After 80 years of economic growth, George considered that "the association of poverty with progress [is] the great enigma of the day". Moreover, it was in the most highly developed capitalist economies such as the United States and Great Britain that were found "the deepest poverty, the sharpest struggle for existence, the most enforced idleness". An Atlanticist radical in the vein of Paine and Cobbett, George identified the problem as one of monopoly. …

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