Monday 25 January 2010

The British Labour Movement and Land Nationalisation


By Betty Grant

Discussion about nationalisation has a long history in the British Labour movement. The word itself seems to have been used first by "Bronterre" James O'Brien (Left) in the Chartist period, and he used it in connection with the land.

But even before that, the idea of public, as distinct from private, ownership of land had been put forward by the Radical, Thomas Spence, who proposed in 1775 that parishes (the units of local government) should simply declare all land within their boundaries to be parish land, the rents to be paid to parish officers and used for all kinds of public purposes.

It was natural that the land should be the first "means of production" to attract the attention of Radical reformers in the early days of industrial capitalism.

For on the one hand the population of Britain still depended mainly on home produced food; while on the other hand, no industry had yet developed to a point where "nationalisation" would have seemed a practical proposition.

Until Marxism could find a foothold in Britain—which did not seriously happen until the 1880's—it was not to be expected that any specific schemes for nationalisation of an industry would be put forward by the working class.

All through the 19th century, opposition to landlordism and t

o aristocratic power based on landownership was one of the main planks of Radical reformers.

Dating from a time when the landed aristocracy really was the ruling power in Britain, this attitude was fortified by a deeply-felt conviction that the very institution of private landownership was a robbery of the common people.

Sometimes this was expressed in "historical" terms: the Anglo-Saxons, it was thought, had farmed the land communally—or alternatively, had all been freeholders—until the Normans had imposed their "yoke" of landlordism.

Often the Bible was quoted: "The Earth is the Lord's, and the fullness there of"; and "The Earth He hath given to the children of men." Memories of injustices caused by enclosure of common lands added to the indignation with which the typical Radical regarded the landed aristocracy.(Spence token William Pitt hanging).

Bronterre O'Brien

Yet, apart from Thomas Spence and his immediate followers, the Radicals had not developed any theory of public landownership until Bronterre O'Brien began to advocate the nationalisation of the land. By 1841 he was advocating the "gradual resumption by the state" of all the land in the country, by purchase as and when a landowner died. In his speeches about land nationalisation, O'Brien never failed to remind his audience that first of all political power must be won for the working classes via the Charter.

The highest peak was reached at the Chartist Convention of 1851, when a social programme which included land nationalisation was adopted. But by 1851 the economic ba
sic for a mass movement was dwindling away, and the demand for nationalisation of land, like the other demands in the social programme, failed to take root in the working class.

The main practical importance of O'Brien's clear-cut theory on land nationalisation was perhaps that it served as a bridge between Radicals and Marxists. O'Brien's little organisation of devoted followers, the National Reform League, persisted (under different names) for many years after his own death in 1864 and continued to propagate the idea of land nationalisation.

So, when the International Working Men's Association (the First International) at its Congress in 1864 adopted as part of its policy "the abolition of private property in land", it was possible to set up in London a Land and Labour League in which O'Brienites and supporters of the International combined on a nine-point programme in which land nationalisation stood first.

Communist Manifesto

Although historically the demand for land nationalisation had developed in Britain from non-socialist Radical sources, it was also in line with the idea of socialism put forward by Marxists.

Indeed, Marx and Engels, in the Communist Manifesto, had put the land first in the list of reforms which the working class would deal with after acquiring power: "Abolition of property in land, and application of all rents of land to public purposes."

Both the International and the Land and Labour League ceased to function after a few years. But in the 1880's during, the Great Depression, which created mass unemployment for the first time since Chartist days, with a corresponding awakening of interest in fundamental economic questions, the "land question" again came to the fore. In the same period the struggles of the Irish Land League, under Michael Davitt's guidance, increased the interest of British Radicals in the land question in general.

T.U.C. policy

This time the idea of land nationalisation began to take root. It was brought into the T.U.C. by Radical trade unionists and, after a temporary victory in 1882, became official T.U.C. policy in 1886. In a different sphere, a Land 'Nationalisation Society was established in 1881 by a little group of Radical intellectuals led by Dr. A. Russel Wallace.

Two years later, some of its members broke away to form the Land Restoration League, which propaated the land nationalisation theory of the American Henry George, namely, that landlordism could be destroyed by a single heavy tax upon land which would make landowning so unprofitable that owners would eventually be willing to transfer their rights to the state.

Michael Davitt, too, being convinced that state ownership rather that peasant proprietorship was the true solution to the Irish land problem, became a popular propagandist in Britain in the early 1880's for the general idea of land nationalisation.

Meanwhile, a federation of London Radical clubs under Hyndman's leadership included land nationalisation in its programme, and this demand was maintained when the organisation took on a definitely socialist character and became the Social-Democratic Federation.

Hyndman himself, in his books of this period, combined his interpretation of Marx's analysis of capitalism with a factual approach to the land question in Britain in which the Radical solution of nationalisation was enlarged into a socialist critique of the capitalist exploitation of agriculture itself.

In this way land nationalisation became linked with the general aim of socialism, as it had been in the Communist Manifesto.

It was assumed by all who became converted to socialism—including the founders of the Independent Labour Party—that the land, like all other "means of production", should become the public or collective property of the whole people. The I.L.P. programme of 1895, for example, states the Object of the Party to be: "An Industrial. Commonwealth founded upon the socialisation of land and capital."

A productive industry

This programme also elaborates a policy for agriculture, including the establishment of a "state land department for agriculture", with agricultural colleges and model farms, and state organised marketing of farm produce.

Whereas Radicals had seen only the problems of landlordism. Socialists were beginning to see agriculture as a productive industry which could be regulated by the state on the basis of the public ownership of the land.

On the other hand, the very fact that public ownership of the land was now part and parcel of the general aim of socialism, coupled with the fact that the Fabians were advocating piecemeal municipal ownership, rather than total state ownership of the land, might have resulted in the aim of nationalisation being lost, had it not been for the two specific societies formed in the 1880's.

Red vans and Yellow vans

In the 1890's both these organisations, with the help of speakers from the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) and Independent Labour Party (ILP) blossomed out with propaganda campaigns in the countryside.

The yellow vans of the Land Nationalisation Society and the red vans of the English Land Restoration League were now seen on village greens, and at hundreds of meetings farm-labourers were urged to support land nationalisation.

It is a notable fact that up till then the demand had come only from town-dwellers, who had not imagined that farm-labourers might be interested too.

More important was the deliberate turn towards the Labour movement made by the Land Nationalisation Society in the years before the First World War.

Affiliations were received from many Co-operative societies and from trade union branches—particularly the railwaymen's and miners' unions. which were both by this time demanding nationalisation of their own industries,

Parliamentary Bill

At the end of the war, in the general upsurge of militancy, the demand for land nationalisation was included in the Labour Party's programme. Labour and the New Social Order, at the same time as the Labour Party adopted a definitely socialist aim. And in 1921 a Bill for nationalisation of the land was presented in Parliament by Labour M.P's

At this point, with the aim of land nationalisation securely in the hands of the Labour movement, without which it could never be achieved, we can leave the story for the moment, taking up in the next article other, movements for nationalisation of railways and coal mines which had also developed before 1918.

Betty Grant

World News 14th June 1958


Thomas Spence

(21 June 1750 - 8 September 1814)

Thomas Spence was born Newcastle in 1750, but of Scottish orrigin (His father was from Aberdeen).

Thomas Spence was born in Newcastle in 1750, one of nineteen children Spence became a schoolmaster. However a dispute between Newcastle Freemen and the Corporation over rents on the town moor, radicalised Spence in the 1770s began to argue that all land should be nationalised and that the land was as necessary to human existence as light, air and water; to deprive a man of the land was to deprive him of his life.

Spence's Plan

1. the end of aristocracy and landlords;

2. all land should be publicly owned by 'democratic parishes', which should be largely self-governing;

3. rents of land in parishes to be shared equally amongst parishioners;

4. universal suffrage (including female suffrage) at both parish level and through a system of deputies elected by parishes to a national senate; *

5. a 'social guarantee' extended to provide income for those unable to work;

6. the 'rights of infants' to be free from abuse and poverty.

Spence became strongly influenced by the teachings of Tom Paine and began to sell his pamphlets in Newcastle, as well as his own works.

By December 1792 Spence had been forced to move to London and attempted to make a living my selling Tom Paine's Rights of Man on street corners. He was arrested but soon after he was released from prison he opened a shop in Chancery Lane where he sold radical books and pamphlets.

In 1793 he started a periodical, Pig Meat

“Awake! Arise! Arm yourselves with truth, justice, reason. Lay siege to corruption. Claim as your inalienable right, universal suffrage and annual parliaments. And whenever you have the gratification to choose a representative, let him be from among the lower orders of men, and he will know how to sympathize with you”

Pig Meat was equally disliked by the establishment and in May 1794 he was arrested and imprisoned. After his release from prison Thomas Spence moved to a shop he called the 'Hive of Liberty', in Little Turnstile, Holburnn At the night the men walked the streets and chalked on the walls slogans such as "Spence's Plan and Full Bellies" and "The Land is the People's Farm".

In 1797 he published a constitution for his Spencean Commonwealth, which consists of two parts, the first being a reprint of the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, the second a codification of his agrarian proposals contained in his Newcastle lectures, adding the new provision of female suffrage.

Spence’s other "plan", for the reform of English spelling, was equally important in his eyes. Spence’s Grand Repository of the English Language (1775) was written, not for gentlemen, but for "the laborious part of the people", in order to make reading, and therefore enlightenment, accessible to them.

Shortly before his death he was working on a new periodical The Giant Killer or Anti Landlord

When Thomas Spence was buried, "forty disciples" pledged that they would keep his ideas alive. They did this by forming the Society of Spencean Philanthropists. The men met in small groups all over London.

In 1815 Society of Spencean Philanthropists was founded and one of its groups ended infamously in the “Cato Street Conspiracy” in 1820 with an alleged attempt to kill the Prime Minister lord Liverpool and the rest of the British Cabinet John Brunt, William Davidson, James Ings, Arthur Thistlewood and Richard Tidd were hanged at Newgate Prison May 1, 1820; the death sentences of Charles Cooper, Richard Bradburn, John Harrison, James Wilson and John Strange were commuted to transportation for life.

Thomas Spence pamphlet, The Real Rights of Man, which was first sold in Newcastle under the original title “Property in Land - Every One’s Right" based on his lecture of 8th November December 1775, appeared in London in 1793. It was reissued by Henry Hyndman under the title of The Nationalisation of the Land in 1795 and 1882.

A blue plaque for Thomas Spence has now been agreed by Newcastle City Council. Broad Garth on the Quayside is the likely site. The hope is that the plaque will be unveiled on Monday June 21st 2010, the 260th anniversary of Thomas Spence's birth.

For more information visit the Thomas Spence Society: