TOPICS OF THE DAY.
THE LAND-PURCHASE BILL.
MR. GLADSTONE'S Land-purchase Scheme is a bad one. We write the words with regret, for we entirely agree with him that, owing to the past history of Ireland, England—not Scotland—is bound to protect the landlords she has planted there, and that, owing to recent legislation, the United Kingdom, as a whole, has accepted the obligation. We have always held, moreover, that until the agrarian war has ended in Ireland there will be no peace in the island, and that it will end only when the tenants become freeholders, or sit as perpetual tenants at a very low quit-rent,—a result only to be attained through British credit, secured by firm, con- sistent, and honest government. This scheme, however, though well-intentioned, is lacking in boldness, in simplicity, and in safety. It imposes a heavy financial risk upon Great Britain, yet it does not provide compensation for the landlords, and it will not be considered by the tenants to im- prove their position in any marked way. It will not, there- fore, heal the agrarian dispute or abate the determination of the cultivators to enjoy, so far as possible, the whole of the profit of cultivation ; while it will involve serious risks of collision between the two Governments and peoples. It will, if it fails, leave things worse than they were before ; and it will, if it succeeds, burden the new Irish State with the per- manent hostility of the cultivating class.
The idea of the Bill, stated broadly, is that any owner of rural land may ask the State for twenty years' purchase of his net rental, and shall receive from a State Agent, called in the Bill the " Statutory Authority," that sum in Consols at par. His encumbrances are taken over by the State Agent, who will deduct their amount from the price, pay them off, or keep on paying them at discretion, and the landlord will be relieved, with his land, of all the burdens incidental to its possession. The "net rental," again, is to be the judicial rental, or an equivalent to be settled by Commissioners, reduced by the amount of the public burdens. This is a fluctuating quantity, varying from a fifth to a tenth of the judicial rental ; but the average sum left for the landlord will, we are told, be about eighteen years' purchase,—a low rate, if we take what landlords expect ; but a high one, if we take to-day's selling value ; and an enormous one, if we take the selling value after the Irish Parliament is installed. The landlords thus com- pensated, and the land conveyed to the State Agent, the Bill declares the tenants to be owners, with every right of ownership, but subject to an annual payment of redemption- money, equal, speaking broadly, to four-fifths of the judicial rent. They are to pay this to the State Agent for forty-nine years, and are then to become freeholders in the fullest sense for ever. This, at least, will be the usual course ; but it will be open to the State Agent to declare a district " congested," and in such a district to ask nothing from the poorer tenantry except a rent which we imagine he will fix just like a common landlord, varying the amount with the pressure of the times.
This looks at first sight a reasonable and moderate scheme, and in many countries it would be an acceptable one ; but we have to consider actual conditions in Ireland, and when they are taken into account the plan is seen to be, at best, full of the gravest uncertainties. Let us look at the operation of the Bill as it affects, first of all, the tenantry ; next, the landlords ; and, last of all, the British people as the guaran- teeing power. It is very doubtful, to begin with, whether the tenantry, if they believe that the redemption-money will be levied, will say " Thank you" for the Bill. They gain under it two important advantages,—a nominal ownership which releases them from landlords, land agents, and interference generally ; and a reduction of 20 per cent. on the judicial rent for forty-nine years, with ownership at the end of the time. Those are gains ; but there are serious counteracting drawbacks,—in the loss of the tenant-right, which in some cases has been more saleable than the ownership; and in the exchange of a personal landlord, who may be persuaded, or cajoled, or defied, or shot, for an impersonal and irresistible Statutory Authority. From the date on which the Act comes into operation till 1935, the payment of rent, under the name of "Redemption-money," will become as much a necessity as the payment of rent in London, and like that payment, will be independent alike of prices and seasons. Even English tenants would regard these as serious drawbacks ; but the Irish tenants are men who
have successfully revolted against rents, who regard evic- tion as unjust, who have been inflamed with promises that they should have the land at prairie value, who expected even in their hearts a reduction of one-half of the judicial rent, and who, under the Home-rule Act, will have become the masters of the country. Forty-nine years is to such men an eternity, and they will pine for further reductions at once, and they will send up Members pledged to concede them and to prevent evictions for default. We do not believe they will receive the Bill as any boon at all, and it is quite possible that they may instruct their representatives to fight for a longer term of payment in Committee, or even to vote it down. They hoped for better terms, and their dis- appointment will make them bitter even with Mr. Parnell.
The landlords, however, will be compensated ? Will they I Then, clearly fifty millions will not cover the cost. The value of the judicial rent in Ireland may be taken, at twenty years' purchase, at £180,000,000 ; or, allowing for an average reduc- tion of one-sixth for the public burdens, at £150,000,000. If, therefore, all the landlords ask for their compensation, that must be the sum to be provided. The Government cannot with any fairness admit some landlords and leave out others, pay out the Duke of Leinster and leave the Marquis of Down- shire to take his chance ; nor can it deny that the Bill was intended to affect all. Mr. Gladstone may hope, and does hope, that many landlords will trust the Irish Parliament ; but his words are so explicit, that if ratified by a vote they become almost a formal pledge on behalf of Parliament. He said :—" The object of this Act is to give to all Irish land- owners the option of being bought out on the terms of the Act ; to give to all Irish landowners one opening towards the exercise of that option. I will show later on how a portion of them can exercise it if they like under the terms of this par- ticular Act ; but the policy is a policy distinctly understood— a policy giving this option to all Irish landowners—to all Irish landowners as regards their rented land, and those, again, with certain exceptions, which I will state more particularly ; but I may describe them in one word, as their rent is rent from agricultural land." Nothing could be more explicit or more binding ; and if the landlords ask for it, the money must be found, or Parliament must break its pecuniary faith with them. We cannot but believe they will ask for it. Mr. Gladstone evidently thought so at first, for in the earlier draft of his scheme he fixed on £113,000,000 as the amount of risk to be incurred, and we see no sound reason for his subsequent change of opinion. The Bill itself will force most tenants to wish their landlords to accept, for if not, they will not get their 20 per cent. reduction ; and what Irish tenants wish, Irish landlords under Home-rule will certainly have to do. Moreover, the Bill offers to mortgagees a strong reason for exacting their dues, for if they force the landlords to claim their option, they will be paid money, of which at present they almost despair. It is true Mr. Gladstone has foreseen this, and has tried to prevent it by refusing the option of claiming Consols to mortgagees who foreclose ; but still, mortgagees can worry their debtors without foreclosing, and we may feel sure they will worry them to the extent of their power. The landlords, moreover, under Home-rule, will not be protected by the police, and will dread their tenants even more than before ; and, harassed by uncer- tainties, by debts, and by reductions, they will, we may be sure, sigh for that "sweet security" of Three per Cent. which begins to look so charming to landlords, even in England and Wales. Ten pounds in gold has more spending in it than there is in a right to fight a lawsuit for a claim of thirty pounds. We fear, therefore, one of two results must follow on the Bill. Either all landlords in Ireland will accept it, in which case it does not provide enough money by one hundred millions ; or only part of them will accept it, in which case two-thirds of the land- lords of Ireland will be left unprotected to the considerateness of a Parliament sent up by Irish tenants.
Lastly, there is the security. If Irish tenants wish to pay, and Irish Members wish they should pay, and Irish voters insist on payment, then undoubtedly the security is perfect. That is Mr. Gladstone's conviction, and as he entertains it, we wonder he did not go farther, ask for £150,000,000, reduce the judicial rent one-half, and make the halved rent, or £4,500,000 a year, the sole security to the Treasury. It would just meet the interest required. But if Irish tenants do not wish to pay, and Irish Members do not wish to make them, and Irish voters do not insist on payment, where is the security then ? It will be found, we are told, in the amount of the debt being made the first charge on a revenue of nine
millions, all of which is to be paid by the collectors to a Receiver-General, who will only part with the surplus after the British Treasury is satisfied. But is this security, elabo- rate as it is, worth much ? It is sufficient in Egypt, from which it has been borrowed, because the Caisse is protected by the European Powers, who, if defied, would punish un- scrupulously ; but will it be sufficient in Ireland Will the bailiffs of the Statutory Authority collect rent in a bad year by evicting voters And if they do not, where is the money to come from ? It is all very well to talk about " first charges," but the true " first charge " on every Treasury, whether it be that of Cairo or Dublin, is the cost of an Administration ; and if there is no money when that is paid, the British Treasury will get none. Does Mr. Gladstone expect that an Irish Parliament will tax the poor in order to pay off extinct landlords, or to provide for a debt levied by a " foreign " law, and due to a foreign Exchequer? There will be no repudiation, no refusal to pay, no denial of the claim ; nothing but a plea for time, because the seasons are bad and no money has been collected. The time will be granted, the plea will be renewed, and Parliament at last, in utter weariness, will either lower its charge for interest or sweep it off altogether as an irredeemable debt. That will be the best result of the loan, while the worst will be a blank refusal to pay, upon the distinct argu- ment, already to be heard in Ireland, that compensation to land- lords is a British affair, to be settled from British funds. What are we to do, then? Are we to collect the debt by shelling Dublin, or by prohibiting the import of Irish cattle ? If we know our countrymen, they will do neither ; and we regard the "security," therefore, exactly as we should regard the rent of an Irish estate,—as something to be expected sometimes, but never in its entirety, and never from willing payers. We are not greatly concerned about fifty millions, and could find it in our hearts on certain terms to vote the money as a free grant from the British people ; but this is a request to lend £150,000,000 to unwilling borrowers, upon security which is worth nothing, unless we sell them up. We shall not sell them up.