16 MARCH 2002, Page 54

The siege of acres

Raymond Carr

WHO OWNS BRITAIN by Kevin Cahill Canongate, £25, pp. 450. ISBN 0862419123 I n the subtitle of his book Kelvin Cahill sets out his purpose. It is to expose 'The hidden facts behind landownership in the UK and Ireland'. He hopes to shock his readers by his discovery that a few great patrician landowners survive as owners of large estates. This is scarcely a revelation. Over a decade ago, Professor F. M. Thompson suggested that 'reports of the virtual disappearance of great estates in the last 100 years have been greatly exaggerated"; perhaps a third of the land in Britain, he calculated, was held in estates of over 1,000 acres. While rich middle-class parents usually divide their possessions between their offspring, aristocrats practise primogeniture and by strict settlements they have endeavoured to keep their landed possessions intact. Thus that conscientious landlord, the Duke of Buccleugh. Cahill asserts, still owns some 270,000 acres.

What sticks in Cahill's gullet is that these survivors have been engaged in a conspiracy to hide their riches from the public view. In 1872, Lord Derby, owner of some 70,000 acres, alarmed at the use of the 1861 census by radicals in order to prove that the land of the UK was owned by only 30,000 people, ordered a government enquiry into landownership. The result was the Return of the Owners of Land, a monument to Victorian industry, which detailed the possession of every landowner in the UK. It proved, as Derby predicted, that there were many more than 30,000 landowners, but it backfired. The Return also revealed, as Cahill rightly observes, that vast areas of the country were owned by very few people; 12 men between them, for example, owned more than four million acres.

Ever since, aristocratic landowners, Cahill imagines, have conspired in countryhouse cocktail parties — the last time a cocktail-shaker appears in literature as an essential adjunct of aristocratic life is in Graham Greene's The Comedians — in order to secure that the Return was 'brushed out' of history, making it unavailable to the public. This is absurd. By driving 15 miles to my nearest public library, I can consult the Return at my leisure. He is correct in stating that the present Land Registry only covers about 50 per cent of the land of England and Wales. He seeks to remedy this by the investigative journalism that produces rich lists, the manufacture of which has been his professional occupation. If there had been a rich list in 1880, it would have been dominated by the great patrician landlords. Not so today. Cahill relishes the radical undertone of David Cannadine's massive Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy (1990). Yet Cannadine chronicles what he calls a 'silent revolution'; the irreversible decline, social, economic and political, of a once governing landed class after 1880. The agricultural depression of the late 19th century slashed rents and forced sales. What the economics left standing, penal death duties eroded after 1945.

With no power at Westminster after the 1910 Parliament Act they had ceased to be 'little kings in their counties', surviving as unpaid workers for local charities. But for Cahill the history of British landownership proves that land gave power, and it still does. The landlords, as a special interest group, are Inextricably bound up with the Conservative party', yet Lady Thatcher preferred self-made men to patrician grandees and every Conservative leader since Peel has seen that to remain a landlord's party in an increasingly urbanised and industralised Britain was to commit electoral suicide.

What has happened since the 1880s is that some patrician landowners, especially those like the Grosvenors, the Howard de Waldens and Cadogans, who owned valuable London urban property, remained very rich. Some, like the Devonshires, have remained grandees but have been forced to sell off some of their land and their artistic treasures to pay death duties_ Merely by surviving they could cash in on the rise in land values after the 1950s and benefit indirectly from the agricultural subsidies to farmers. Others have been less fortunate. On the death of her father in 1938, my wife's family owned bits of Holborn and employed 20 servants. To meet death duties, the London property and the pictures were sold off and the house is run by two dailies, the ten loose-boxes in the stable empty.

For Cahill the present owners of the great estates left standing after the gales that brought down the squires are sitting on property 'stolen' from the people of Britain; they are 'criminals', from the 'gang' who came over with William the Conqueror to those who swallowed up the Church lands at the Reformation and their successors who robbed the poor of their common lands by the 18th-century Enclosure Acts passed by a parliament dominated by landowners. True, the Cecils and Churchills had done the state some service; but their rewards were extortionate. As beneficiaries of 200 years of stolen goods, these could be restored to the people with a minimum of compensation'. The thieves have acquired accomplices; they include the National Trust whose approach to the preservation of the great country houses is

a desecration of the memory of thousands,

hundreds of thousands and probably mil lions, who perished in the legalised greed of the enclosures which made these mansions possible.

The purpose of Cahill's rhetoric and his statistics is that our prime minster, the hero who has finally destroyed the surviving powers of the hereditary peers, should take up the mantle of Lloyd George for whom the great patricians were parasites enjoying great possessions but 'who toil not neither do they spin'. Their lands, if returned to the people, would solve the housing shortage, while the death of landlordism in the Republic of Ireland has brought to its inhabitants unaccustomed prosperity. For Cahill, in the UK landlordism is alive and kicking. But to destroy it would entail a massive attack on property as such, which Tony Blair is unlikely to undertake even though he poses as a populist demagogue to quieten murmers on his left. In 1909 Lloyd George's assault on landlordism was a burning issue and a vote-catcher. It is doubtful if a renewed assault will now set the English electorate on fire. Scotland is another country. Cahill hopes that the ominous noises coming from the Edinburgh parliament will be the prelude of a frontal attack on landlordism that may seep south of the border.

Patrician landlords may feel on the defensive, but they are unlikely to panic and give hostages to fortune as they did in 1909. The Duke of Buccleugh, confronted by Lloyd George's modest taxes on land, threatened to withdraw his subscription of a guinea to the Dumfriessshire Football Club and the Duke of Beaufort suggested that all liberal reformists 'be put in the middle of 20 couples of dog hounds'. Their successors are not so foolish. The Duke of Westminster recognises that 'we are no longer a politically acceptable group'. Dukes could recognise the social and political consequences of Cannadine's 'silent revolution'. Cahill cannot, since his con

spiracy theory even the Church of England has used 'presentational deceit to

conceal its landholdings' — demands that patrician landowners and the nouveaux riches and foreigners who have joined their ranks should, as in 1880, still present a threat to democracy and economic wellbeing. This book is full of statistics, reliable and otherwise, and few readers will turn to the detailed analysis of the accounts of the Forestry Commission for light reading. It is the sound and fury of Cahill's polemics that infuse a rare vigour to his prose.