Front Page Titles (by Subject) XV: THE LAND QUESTION—II - Selected Speeches of the Rt. Hon. John Bright M.P. On Public Questions
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
XV: THE LAND QUESTION—II - John Bright, Selected Speeches of the Rt. Hon. John Bright M.P. On Public Questions 
Selected Speeches of the Rt. Hon. John Bright M.P. On Public Questions, introduction by Joseph Sturge (London: J.M. Dent and Co., 1907).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
THE LAND QUESTION—II
Birmingham, January 22, 1876.
Now let me ask your attention to this for two or three minutes. Lord Derby is a man very superior to many of his order and of his party. He has always been industrious; he is well informed; he is not troubled with many prejudices; I am not sure whether he has strong convictions—I know that on many things he has held Liberal opinions, but I confess I am astonished that he should have dared to make statements with regard to the land such as he has made, with the knowledge that he ought to have, even to those uninquiring gentlemen who are called the 3,000 Conservative working-men of the city of Edinburgh, and that he should have made these statements in that city and in that country where the monopoly of land is the closest, probably, of any part of the United Kingdom. From this very return which he has obtained, it turns out that 5,000,000 of acres out of less than 19,000,000 in Scotland—that 5,000,000 acres, or considerably more than one-fourth of the whole of Scotland, are in the possession of twenty-one persons; that 8,000,000 acres, which is not far short of one-half of all Scotland, are in the possession of forty-nine persons; that 14,560,000 acres, or more than three-fourths of all Scotland, are in the possession of 583 persons. And if you were to take all the square miles of all the estates, of all the farms, of all the acres of the surface of Scotland, seventeen out of nineteen are in the possession of 2,583 persons; and of the other—his return shows that there are 132,000 proprietors, but the whole of the rest of them—the whole of the rest of the population do not possess more than the largest proprietor in Scotland, and do not possess more than one-fourth of an acre each. In point of fact, one proprietor in Scotland holds nearly as much land as 3,000,000 of its population.
Now I want to ask you how this comes about? I have given you Scotland; I will give you a fact with regard to Ireland. About a fortnight ago there was a letter in the Times from Mr. Fitzgerald, well known as the Knight of Kerry, a very respectable gentleman, whom I have had the pleasure of meeting many years ago. Mr. Fitzgerald wrote a letter to the Times in defence of the proprietors of land in Ireland, who are being attacked, as you know, constantly on the subject of tenure and the subject of rent; and he says that in Ireland there are 6,0001 proprietors and 600,000 occupiers. Well, if there be only 2,583 persons in Scotland to seventeen-nineteenths of the soil, and if there be only 6,000 proprietors in Ireland, which is almost all the extent of Scotland, it would appear that the statement which Lord Derby says that Mr. Mill and I had endorsed cannot be very far from the truth. But if we take England—England and Wales—the acreage is about equal to Scotland and Ireland united, and if in England and Wales land be no more divided than it is in Scotland—I am not going to say it is not, because I believe it is, owing to the greater population and the greater wealth—but if the land in England and Wales were no more divided than it is in Scotland, then seventeen-nineteenths of the whole of the surface of England and Wales would be in possession of 5,166 persons, And take the whole proprietorship of Ireland as given by Mr. Fitzgerald, and take seventeen-nineteenths of Scotland the same proportion of England, and it would leave us with 13,749 proprietors of the soil in the United Kingdom. When we are talking of proprietors of the soil we are not speaking of the man who owns a few yards or a few roods or a quarter of an acre of land, upon which his house stands, but we are speaking of those who are occupying and cultivating the land, or who are letting it to others to occupy and cultivate; and we are speaking of the political power which has been for generations the greatest in this country, which is enormous now, and which, whenever it chooses to act in Parliament, in spite of the household suffrage in your boroughs, bears down all your opinions and carries any measure which it thinks necessary for its own interest.
Now, I must ask you a question, which it would be well if Lord Derby would endeavour to answer. My question is—is there not something strange in this partition of the soil I have described to you? Remember that property in the soil is the most universal of any property in the country. You cannot stand anywhere but that you are upon it. It is the most solid of any property in the country; the most certain as a possession and an investment; it is more desired by all classes of people than any other kind of property in the country; and it is the foundation of all other property, yet the people—and I use the term advisedly—are shut out, and a handful of men are the possessors, as I have shown you, of at least seventeen-nineteenths of it. Do not suppose that I am blaming any of these men; not in the least. They have had nothing to do with making any law, or, purposely, of any custom which has led to this state of things. They are, in their circumstances, living as honourably, and acting, probably, as well as possessors of property in any other station of life. But I maintain that there is a cause, and that cause is to be found in the state of our law and in customs which have arisen from and are supported by the law.
May I ask your attention to one argument that has always appeared to me to have great force? Suppose there were no law of Parliament to interfere with the possession of land. You can see at once that there are natural causes which promote accumulation and natural causes which promote dispersion. Of the natural causes which promote accumulation, you would say, for example, the desire to possess land, which appears to be universal, the certain security which it gives to property and to investment, the social position which the possession of land gives, more or less, in almost every country, and the charm which there is in country life. Dr. Johnson, I think, recommended everybody in delicate health to take a walk of two miles every morning before breakfast, and he added a very good piece of advice, if it could only be followed—that he should take a walk on his own land. If there are these forces of accumulation, there are also forces of dispersion, and the greatest and the chief of these is death. The death of the possessors, as a matter of course, in almost every kind of property—and in this, if it were not for the law—would tend necessarily in some degree to the dispersion of the property. The extravagance of the owner, his folly and his vice, tend also to dispersion; the desire for change of locality, the desire for change of investment. Thus, you see, there are natural forces at work which cause or promote the accumulation of land, and natural forces which as certainly cause and promote the dispersion of land. What we are arguing for is this—that these forces should be allowed to work naturally and freely, and that the law should not in any way interfere with them, but that land should change just as easily, and should go into the possession of other people by that change, as any other kind of property which men possess. And the result of such change in the law would be that land, as a whole, would find itself always in the possession of that class and those classes of the population which would do the best for the land itself and for the people who dwell upon it.
I have read to you the statement of Lord Derby that, in his opinion, there is no obstacle in our law to make the gratification which comes from the possession of land either impossible or difficult. In answer to that I will read to you an extract from a work by a lawyer quite competent to give an opinion on this question, and I shall leave his answer as a complete reply to the question of Lord Derby. The passage I am just going to read to you I have extracted from a work called “The Social Condition and Education of the People in England and Europe.” It was written twenty years ago by Mr. Joseph Kay, who is a Queen’s Counsel, and most competent to give an opinion on this question. He says:
“These laws were passed, were framed, and have been retained for the express purpose of keeping the land in the hands of a few proprietors, and depriving the peasants and small shopkeepers of any part of it and of the influence which its possession confers, and of supporting a great landed proprietary class, in order to uphold the system of aristocratic Government, and to give greater strength and stability to the Crown. It may be stated generally that these laws enable an owner of land, by his settlement or will, so to affect his estate that it cannot possibly be sold, in many cases, for about fifty years, and in some cases for sixty, seventy, or a hundred years, after the making of the settlement or will.”
Perhaps many persons here may not be aware that this is almost the only country in Europe—I may even say the only country in the world—in which laws of this kind prevail. They exist to some extent in Russia, and in some parts of Austria; but in Germany, Holland, Belgium, Denmark, Norway, Switzerland, Italy, France, and the United States these laws are abolished, and every person there can sell or dispose of his land during his own life. If he dies without a will the law divides his land equally between his children. The law does not there make one son rich and leave all other sons and daughters poor. What would you think in this country if any rich landowner, having, say, six children, were to doom five of them to ignorance, to shut them out from education, from the training belonging to their position in life, and should give that training and education only to one child? But it would be no more monstrous than that he should shut them all out from his property, and give the whole of it to the one child. And yet such is our law, such is the custom of the country, based, I will say, upon the most immoral principle which law has ever sanctioned. What we ask is this, for freedom of bequest, not for a forced partition of land. We ask that the land shall be the absolute property of each succeeding generation of men. And what are the results of our system? That our tenantry are less independent, probably, than any other tenantry in the world; and our agricultural labourers, as you know, are, and have been, the most abject and most hopeless class of our labouring population. The repeal of the Corn Laws did not leave them untouched by its beneficent hand, for I believe that the wages of agricultural labour throughout this country have risen certainly more than 50 per cent. during the last thirty years under the operation of that great change in the law which the present Prime Minister and his party declared was to ruin the land, and especially to beggar the labourer. But although the labourer is better off than he was then, still I am obliged to admit what has been said of him by a paper that I have never before had to quote with approval—I speak of the Saturday Review. I recollect two or three years ago reading an article in the Saturday Review on this question of the land, and I noticed an observation in it so striking and remarkable that I could not forget it. The writer said that if our agricultural system be a paternal system, our agricultural labourer is its disinherited child.
But the country gentlemen and Lord Derby and his friends are perhaps not aware of this fact—that refusal to come to some just arrangement on this question induces men to turn their eyes in directions some of which, in my opinion, are not only erroneous, but perilous, I think the proposition that I hear made that nobody should have any profit arising from the growth in value of the land he possesses, or that there should be a probate duty levied upon the land to the amount of 10 per cent., and that upon any man’s death his property in the soil—one-tenth of all his acreage—shall be taken and divided amongst the peasantry of his neighbourhood, or that we should have a law of equal partition, such as prevails in many parts of Europe—I think these propositions come naturally from our present law and the present state of things, and to adopt any of them would only be going from one extreme of error and of evil to another. And, therefore, I repudiate the laws we have—the partition laws of some foreign countries—those propositions to which I have referred—I repudiate them all. I say there is a sound and a just principle upon which land should pass from one owner to another, by which all men in each generation, possessing land, shall have the power to deal with it as they like, and that the dead man and the dead hand shall not declare for half a century to come what shall be done with the estate.
Mr. Fitzgerald understated the number of proprietors in Ireland, and subsequently corrected his mistake.