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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 81

Chapter VI. — Lords as Landlords

page 35

Chapter VI.

Lords as Landlords.

What is the House of Lords? Primarily it is a House of Landlords. The landed system of this country was created in order to make the Peers the owners of the soil and the lords of the land. It has done its work. According to Lord Derby's return of 1874-5, 525 peers own one-fourth of the land of England. The average area of each peer is about 38,000 acres (Dukes, 142,564; Marquesses, 47,500; Earls, 30,217; Viscounts, 15,324; Barons, 14,152 acres.—Arthur Arnold's "Lords as Landlords," p. 55).

This is no natural growth. It has been artificially fostered for nearly nine hundred years. The landed system exists to maintain the House of Lords, and the ultima ratio of the House of Lords is to maintain the landed system. The House of Lords is a mere Tory caucus for all other purposes of legislation. But it will defeat even a Tory Government when it attempts to reform the landed system. To the Peers there is one thing only that is more sacred than the interests of the Tory party. That is its own interests in the land.

Of this the most recent illustration was afforded in the year 1889, when Lord Salisbury implored their lordships to pass his Land Bill.

A measure which will conduce largely to the happiness of the people of this country, and largely also to the prosperity of the owners of land, which will remove one of the great causes of odium from our present landed system, and one that threatens its existence. Wo earnestly ask you not to take from us the power of carrying this beneficial reform into law, and not to place upon the House the ominous responsibility of standing between the people of England and this great advantage.

It was not a very drastic Bill. It provided for compulsory registration, for putting the title within five years on the register, and for the assimilation of real and personal estate by abolishing the law of primogeniture and entail. It was introduced in 1887, and withdrawn. It was reintroduced in 1888, and withdrawn again. In 1889 it was introduced a third time, and was thrown out by 123 votes to 113, on an amendment refusing to abolish primogeniture and entail. After that Lord Salisbury desisted from further efforts.

The Lords, therefore, stand accused, Lord Salisbury himself being witness, of standing between the people of England and a great advantage which would have contributed largely to their happiness. It is an ominous responsibility. But they assumed it after full and impressive warning from the Tory Prime Minister. It is now full time that they were called to account.

It is written in the book of the prophecies of Isaiah, "Woe unto them that join house to house, that lay field to field, till there be no place, that they may be placed alone in the midst of the earth! (ch. v. 8).

The process upon which the Hebrew prophet placed the curse of the Almighty is that which our landed system has invented, and which it is page 36 maintained to facilitate and to encourage. It is now bearing its natural fruits in the depopulation of rural England. And it will go on bearing them until the House of Lords is destroyed.

The House of Lords and the land system are Siamese twins. The death of one entails the death of the other. Hence to get at the vitals of the hereditary legislature strike at the land! That is the secret of the Budget.

There have been comparatively few collisions between Lords and Commons on the land question. The Commons have for the most part, down to quite recent times, recognised that the landed system was so bound up with the House of Lords that it was useless to attack it. In 1893, when a Liberal Government sent up a Bill for the abolition of the law of primogeniture, it was promptly rejected. A House which refused to listen to Lord Salisbury was not likely to hearken to anyone else. Pleading for this Bill, Lord Herschell asked them: "In the case of a man with a very small amount of real property, dying and leaving children, the whole goes to the eldest son. Can it be seriously contended that the eldest son should have all, and the widow and the younger children should have nothing? "To which the permanent Tory majority promptly replied by their vote rejecting the Bill. Yea, verily, widows and younger sons are nothing to us! Are we not all men and the eldest sons of eldest sons? In 1896 the Peers mutilated the Irish Land Bill of the Conservative Government. The revolt did not last long. Although the matter concerned the land, the revolters soon came to heel, and the Bill passed as the Unionist Government framed it.

The estates of the Peers, which were originally of considerable size, being granted them in order that they might equip soldiers and maintain the King's authority in the land, have steadily grown under the influence of laws passed by the Peers for the aggrandisement of their order. Large estates are continually eating up smaller holdings. The process, partially economic, has been stimulated by the law. To maintain the landed interest was a settled principle of public policy. The House of Lords itself is a constant incentive to the laying of field to field. For the wealthy man anxious to force his way into that assembly naturally sets about the accumulation of landed property. By the operation of Enclosure Acts in the thirty years between 1844 and 1874, over five millions of acres were enclosed, the most of which went to swell the acreage of peers and expectant peers. At present it is estimated that four-fifths of the land of England is held by from 5,000 to 10,000 persons. Here, then, is a gigantic trust in the hands of a syndicate of irresponsible individuals who have absolute control of one branch of the legislature. As legislators the Peers help themselves as landowners. As landowners they use their influence to help to maintain the authority of the Peers.

The operations of this gigantic trust controlling four-fifths of the land and one-half of the legislature affect all departments of national life. To quote Arthur Arnold:—

Look at the railway system! If that system had not been unduly burdened by an amount exceeding £50,000,000 by the prejudice and power of the Lords, agriculture might have had less reason to complain of railway rates, and the industry of the country would have been spared a burden it must now sustain. The Peers were the tribunal in their own case. Take an example, in the matter of land only, as narrated by Dr. Smiles in his "Lives of the Engineers." When the London and Birmingham Railway Bill passed the Commons and went to the Lords, committees were open to all peers, and the promoters of the Bill found to their dismay many of the Lords who were avowed opponents of the measure as landowners sitting as judges to decide its fate. The page 37 Bill was thrown out. The promoters forthwith made arrangements for presenting the Bill in the next Session. Strange to say, the Bill then passed almost without opposition. An instructive commentary on the way in which those noble lords had been conciliated was the simple fact that the estimate for land was nearly trebled, and that the owners were paid about £750,000 for what had been originally estimated at £250,000.—(Arthur Arnold s Lords as Landlords," p. 65.)

This exaction of £500,000 may not have been bribery. It is more like blackmail. The Bosses of many an American city would turn green with envy at such a spectacle of successful "sandbagging." "Graft" to the tune of £500,000 looted under a single Bill is surely a record even in these modern days of civic larceny.

The story of how the landlords, aided and abetted by the House of Landlords, worked the legislature to advance them on loan money for drainage, the whole cost of which, and more in many cases, they charged upon their tenants, can only be alluded to here. These things are the natural result of the exceptional position of the Lords in the legislature. "They were, I suppose," says one of their critics, "guided by the belief that a hereditary aristocracy is necessary for the public welfare." How could they think otherwise? The whole social system in feudal England, nay, the military and judicial system also, was based upon the supposition that the Lord was the lynch-pin of the universe. In process of time the Lord has lost most of his social, political, administrative and judicial functions. But in his legislative capacity he represents a survival from an earlier age, and he is not to be blamed if he should regard himself and his Order as the objects for the maintenance of which the world and all the things that are therein were created by a beneficent Providence, whose fundamental idea was the indispensability of the landed aristocracy. It is an archaic anachronism. The existence of the House of Lords naturally and inevitably creates this false perspective in the minds of its members. The supremo end, the preservation of their Order, justifies in their minds the use of any means, even, as we have seen in the case of the Trades Disputes Bill, what they declared to be the betrayal of liberty and the highest interests of the community. It is not their fault. It is inevitable that they should think and act as they do. The instinct of self-preservation is omnipotent.

The aggregation of land, by which huge estates tend ever to become huger, has been fostered by a landlord-ridden legislature. "Entails were intended for the preservation and aggrandisement of a great feudal aristocracy." Up to forty years ago it was recognised as an axiom of the policy of the governing families to preserve, as Lord Palmerston put it, "as far as possible the practice of hereditary succession to unbroken masses of landed property." This object, Mr. Fyffe informed the Committee on Small Holdings—

Has been carried out by legislation both directly and indirectly. It has been carried out directly by the Law of Settlement, and indirectly by other measures, all having as their chief object the avoidance by the landowners of the necessity to sell. This object has been kept in view in the following among other instances. First, in the different taxation of real and personal property at death, as amended by Sir W. Harcourt in 1891; second, in the law of primogeniture in cases of intestacy; third, in the principle that everything attached to the land becomes the landlord's property; fourth, in advances made by State and for improvements; fifth, in the difference between the publicity given to bills of sale and the secrecy observed in regard to mortgages.

In dealing with other heads of the indictment against the House of Lords particular cases have been cited in which they opposed the will of the nation, and retarded progress by the rejection or mutilation of certain specified measures. With regard to the land, the indictment is page 38 based not upon particular instances; it rests upon the uniform, consistent logical practice of the House of Lords since it came into being. Its monument is the land system, under which ten thousand persons own four-fifths of the soil of the country. A system which, as has been shown, Lord Salisbury regarded as being in its present unreformed state an obstacle to the happiness of the people of this country.

So long as the influence of the House of Lords was paramount to the legislature of the country, "the distinct object of legislation," as the Committee on Small Holdings reported in 1890, "was to prevent the dispersion of large estates." But it was then "agreed that a numerous and prosperous peasantry is a condition of national safety, and that the more general distribution of ownership of land in Great Britain would lead to the security of property and to the contentment of the population." But the same Committee reported that owing chiefly to the laws of settlement and entail and the law and practice relating to enclosures, there has been a considerable diminution both in small agricultural ownerships and tenancies, and they therefore recommended legislation to check this fatal shrinkage. The result was the Small Holdings Act of 1902. But the inveterate custom set up by the legislation of centuries was too strong to be arrested by that measure, the feebleness of which was like that of all similar legislation—largely due to the fact that no statesman who desired to achieve and practical reform would venture to propose any scheme of land reform which he knew in advance would be rejected by the House of Lords. The report of the Departmental Committee on Small Holdings, presented at Christmas, 1906, reports the consequent failure of the Act, and recommends further legislation. There will be no land legislation worth the name until there is a sufficient agitation in the country to appeal to what Lord Kimberley once described as "the cowardly fears" of the Lords.

Any popular movement against the House of Lords, no matter how it may be initiated, will inevitably find itself compelled to take up the Land Question. Hence noble Lords who obeyed the Bishops in rejecting the Education Bill have found that they gave a powerful impetus to an attack upon the monopoly of land, which is the basis and secret of their power. "I freely own," Mr. Gladstone said in 1889, "that compulsory expropriation (of landowners) is a thing which is admissible and even sound in principle." The taxing power which is the exclusive monopoly of the Commons will probably be found to be sufficiently efficacious to bring the Lords to reason.

The House of Lords question is at bottom the land question, and land reformers of all shades who are in serious earnest have now discovered that it is sound policy to sink their differences and unite in a great combined attack upon the common enemy.

In this connection, and as illustrating the spirit in which the House of Lords deals with questions relating to land, may be noted their malignant opposition to the preservation of commons. They mutilated the first Commons Preservation Act of 1866 by limiting it to commons round London. They rejected the second measure in 1872 on the ground that it was an invasion of the rights of the property vested in the Lords of the Manor. In 1876, when a Tory House of Commons sent up a Commons Bill, the Lords struck out the clause providing for allotments and recreation grounds, and so "amended" the Bill that it was complained that "all protection against illegal enclosures was taken away." Two years before, they rejected a Bill giving labourers a legal right to rent charitable lands page 39 in allotments. In 1882 they amended the Charity Land Bill so as to make it practically useless to agricultural labourers. Five years later they threw out the Agricultural Labourers' Holdings (Scotland) Bill.

The Lords accepted the Agricultural Holdings Bill of the Government in 1906, timidly making some amendments, with which the Commons disagreed; and they also accepted the Irish Town Tenants Bill, which grievously impaired the ancient oppressive "rights" of the landlords. It is an ill wind that blows nobody any good, and the Peers, having spent their strength in rejecting the Education Bill, deemed it safer not to risk any further exercise of their authority. They showed much less consideration for the rights of the tenants when in 1883 they mauled and mutilated Mr. Gladstone's Agricultural Holdings Bill. Three years later they "amended" in like fashion the Scottish Crofters Bill.

But these are only straws showing the direction of the current. The whole course of land legislation in England from the days of the Conqueror downwards has been legislation by the Lords, for the Lords, and through the Lords. And as it has been, so it will be as long as the House of Landlords is allowed to possess a veto upon all the decisions of the representatives of the people. In Mr. Morley's phrase, "It is not a Senate, it is a privileged interest."

Yet another reason for objecting to the House of Lords is to be found in the fact that although personally the Peers are free from the stain of corruption, collectively they are as corrupt a legislative body as is to be found in the world. Mr. Morton, M.P., speaking at Portsmouth, February 13th, 1891, put this charge in plain words:—

The Lords uniformly used their political position to further their personal pecuniary interests. Why was it that they threw out the principle of Betterment? For no other reason than that many of them wore pecuniarily interested in the ground rents of London. But who were the Peers that had led to the mutilation of the Employers' Liability Bill? They were Lord Dudley and Lord Londonderry, the largest coal owners in the country. Why is it that they had never been able to solve the Land Question in England? Simply because the Lords were also the landlords. It was the duty of the people of this country to see that a final stop was put upon these fraudulent proceedings.

If the rule were enforced that no legislator should speak or vote on any question in which he was financially interested, how many of the Lords would be left to deal with Land Bills?

In 1898 the consent of the Lords to the passing of the Irish Local Government Bill was purchased by an agricultural dole, of which £300,000 went straight into the pockets of the Irish landlords. Mr. Thomas Shaw, the late Lord Advocate, denounced the arrangement as being in the nature of a corrupt bargain, productive of much social mischief, if not of social disorder. Mr. Dillon described it as a flagitious waste of public money, but said that although it was a scandalous arrangement he would rather pay the price than lose the Bill. Part of the price was the equivalent in the shape of rate reduction of a perpetual annuity of £858 to the Duke of Devonshire and £788 to Lord Lansdowne, who were at that time both members of the Government.

The fiscal policy favoured by the Peers was admittedly based upon self-interest. They refused to condemn the Corn Laws because dear bread meant high rent, and they naturally regarded Cobden and Bright as the enemies of the human race. As they were in 1839, 1840, 1842 and 1843, so they are to-day.

This has come out very clearly in the raging of the Dukes and their satellites against the Budget of 1909. Mr. Lloyd George carried that page 40 measure through the House of Commons after seventy-two sittings, scoring a majority of 230 on the third reading. The Lords rejected it by 350 votes to 75, not because they denied the need of raising the money voted by the Commons, but because it proposed to value their land, to tax 20 per cent. of their unearned increment, and to levy ½d. in the pound on the value of their undeveloped estates. This they denounced as Socialism, forgetting that the King, when Prince of Wales, sitting as a member of the Royal Commission on the Housing of the Working Classes, signed a Report recommending the taxing of undeveloped land.

"If this land (the Commissioners say) were rated at, say, 4 per cent. on its selling value, the owners would have a more direct incentive to part with it to those who arc desirous of building, and a twofold advantage would result to the community.

"First, all the valuable property would contribute to the rates, and thus the burden on the occupiers would be diminished by the increase in the rateable property.

"Secondly, the owners of the building land would be forced to offer their land for sale."

"Your Majesty's Commissioners," the paragraph concluded, "recommend that these matters should be included in legislation when the law of rating comes to be dealt with by Parliament."

But despite the recommendations of Royalty and of Royal Commissioners nothing was done until Mr. Lloyd George took the matter in hand. Where upon the House of Lords promptly threw the Budget out. They did so for the same reason that Mr. Lloyd George proposed to pass it. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, in the preface to his "Budget Speeches," says:—

The greatest provision of all for unemployment, in my judgment, is contained in the Land Clauses of the Budget. Those provisions must have the effect eventually of destroying the selfish and stupid monopoly which now so egregiously mismanages the land. Only the business community in this country, and those who have been associated with it all their lives, can fully appreciate the extent to which the present ownership of land hampers and embarrasses trade and industry. Ask any man with a growing business in town or village in this country, and he will tell you more than all the theorists and agitators in Europe about the mischief done by the unintelligent greed of some of the land-owning classes. It is not merely that extravagant prices are demanded and impossible conditions imposed; but what a business man minds even more is that an atmosphere of uncertainty is created by the powers of incessant interference and inquisition reserved for the landlord and his agents. The Budget strikes the first real blow at this mechanism of extortion and petty persecution. No class of the community will have greater reason to feel joy at the triumph of the Budget than the men engaged in putting their best quality of mind and morale into the building up of the commercial greatness of our nation.