17 MAY 1919, Page 5


MILE Coal Commission has developed into something of

a scandal—perhaps an amusing scandal, but still a scandal. This country has a fine political record in the solution of knotty problems by means of Commissions and Committees, which have always employed the judicial apparatus or spirit for sifting evidence and reaching de- cisions on the facts. No nation in the world has such a record as ours in its earnest determination to keep rhetoric in check and not to allow it to prevail against plain and truthful statements. Sometimes this British passion for facts is very trying and disconcerting, but certainly nothing in our national habits is more valuable. It is because we have seen the Coal Commission allowed day by day to slip further into rhetoric and empty fantastic debate that we, for our part, have read the reports of its proceedings with much more concern than amusement. The tendency came to a head when the nationalizing members of the Com- mission decided to call as witnesses the Dukes and Peers who possess mining royalties. Of course we can make no objection whatever to the act of calling these witnesses ; it is as necessary for a Duke as for any other man to satisfy the nation Of his good faith in a matter of public concern. But Mr. Smillie and the other nationalizers ought first to have been convinced that the Dukes could give them more relevant information than other witnesses could give. Otherwise time was obviously going to be wasted. It would be difficult indeed for Mr. Smillie to persuade us that any such conviction was in his mind. Surely, if the only thing which counted with him was to obtain the facts, he ought to have paid far more attention to the royalty-owners' agents, whose business it is day by day and year by year to. administer the business of the royalties. But what Mr. Smillie and his friends were intent upon was to make a public display of baiting the Dukes.

Their object was spectacular or rhetorical ; it was a Pitiable and disgusting negation of the spirit in which British Commissions have always tried to inform them- selves and the public. Mr. Smillie has done Labour a very bad turn. Our ancestors of three or four hundred years ago used to indulge themselves on public holidays with the cruel game of baiting a bear, a bull, a horse, a badger, or some other animal, but above all a bear. It is taus that a bull was considered to give sport only less entertaining than that given by a bear, particularly when his nose had been filled with pepper, and the canons of spottsmanship had been satisfied by allowing the bull a hole in the ground for burying his nose. The bull's nose was the chief target of the dogs. But to turn to the bear—it was chained

up so that the odds were heavily against it, though a dog which was not quick on its feet might easily enough be

killed when it rushed in at. the chained animal. Mr. Smillie thought that it would be great political fun— profitable fun, too—to have a bear-baiting of the Dukes, though we cannot imagine why in a democratic country, where the dignity of all citizens is supposed to be recognized, Mr. Smillie should not allow as much consideration to a Duke as is now by common consent shown to a bear, a horse, or a badger. Our ancestors specially liked bear-baiting because of the extraordinarily undiscriminating, ill-timed, and clumsy ferocity of the victim. Probably this clumsy ferocity was what Mr. Smillie expected to provoke and reproduce in the Dukes. If that is what he expected, his plans miscarried, as the audience at the Commission when the Duke of Northumberland was baited, having followed the points of the game with close attention, burst into applause at the very spirited fight put up by the "Sir," exclaimed Colonel Pcnruddock, as reported in an eighteenth-century trial, "you have put me in a bearskin and now you will bait me with a witness." The game is not new, then, even in politics ; but we had not thought in these days to see it so seriously revived.

All Mr. Smillie's citations from Coke and Blackstone about the nature of property were curiously unreal and left the point untouched. Leaving the true objects of the Com- mission far behind, he declared in a perfectly unjudicial outburst that he was "out for the taking over not only of coal but of all kinds of land also." Then he put the follow- ing question: "Would it surprise you to hear that, accord- ing to the highest legal authorities (such as Blackstone and Williams), it is contrary to the laws of England that land should be owned by any private person ? " Speaking for ourselves, we can say that it would surprise us very much indeed, for we know the exact contrary to be true. Every one with even the rudiments of a general education who has looked into the law of property knows the difference between real property and personal property, and is aware that real property is necessarily subject to certain restric- tions which it is unnecessary to apply to personal property. Nevertheless there are restrictions, explicit or implied, in the use of all property. It is only a matter of degree. We are all servants of the State, and must use what we own so as not to do injury to the public interest or to good morals. Mr. Smillie in his cursory reading of the great lawyers seems to have mistaken the restrictions for pro- hibitions. We have quoted on a previous occasion what Lord St. Leonards said about landowning, but it is worth repeating. We have not the exact words, but it amounted to this "Theoretically no subject is supposed to have an absolute property in land, but if he obeys a few simple legal rules be can deal with the land exactly as he likes, and as if in theory he possessed it absolutely." As for ownership in general, it is no doubt a very difficult thing to define exactly in law, but a definition which meets all legiti- mate doubts is that "a man is owner of whatever the law of the land allows him to sell." The rights of landowners are easily enough defined, because obviously a man is exercising no more than his rights when the State gives him full protection in his exercise of them. Mr. &Alio bemused himself by reading in Blackstone the mediaeval theory which was invented in order to legalize the desires of the Sovereigns to tax the people and to exact military service. But the feudal theory under which land was supposed to be held for and from the King was only a kind of interlude. Land had been owned before that theory was ever heard of, and ever since its invention the tendency has been to free the owner of land from his disabilities.

It would have been an act of wisdom—and we cannot help feeling that it was a duty--on the part of Mr. Justice Sankey, the Chairman of the Commission, to inform the Commission of the real state of the law. To his acutely trained legal mind Mr. Smillie's flounderings and blind followings of false scents musthave seemed highlyridiculous, yet he did not keep the inquiry to the point. The worst of rhetoric is that, just because it is vague and covers so many matters while settling none, it can always be referred to afterwards as having established this or that truth. It is quite likely that it will be said in future, for instance, that it was proved before the Coal Commission of 1919 that all the land in England belonged to the State. The Chairman could have kept the members of the Commission on the right lines without becoming a partisan, or even seeming to take sides. He ought to have informed them that they were wasting their breath and misleading the public in making the atmosphere dense with legal theories of the Middle Ages. A Judge in any Court of Law would surely have felt that he must intervene in similar circum- stances and give a ruling. He would have done so in the mere routine of justice. We hope that before the Com- mission comes to an end somebody will again raise this question of ownership and have the truth set forth in the records of the Commission.

It is a strange thing that when mud is being thrown at the owners of property the victims are nearly always the least deserving of abuse among the whole class of men who have great possessions. Mr. Lloyd George in his famous "People's Budget" sent all his pack of supporters off in pursuit of the wrong animal. To any one who thinks the matter out, it must be obvious that a landowner gives hostages to criticism by the mere possession of land. Every- body knows to whom the land belongs. More often than not the landowner lives on his land, and if he is unfaithful to his public duties he becomes a kind of Aunt Sally for the peltings of all the onlookers. If he is thought not to be doing his duty by the place and by his tenants, he soon hears of it in the local newspapers and in local gossip. There is a legend that every landowner tries to direct the toting of his tenants and workmen at political elections. In our experience of the matter, the landowner is much too terrified of what people will say about him to attempt any such audacious dictation. As a rule he does a good deal of work on local bodies, and, for the rest, does not pretend to any monopoly of the truth. Yet this man whose deeds are all more or less open because he cannot plan his life other- wise is held up to obloquy, while a man whose wealth is invisible escapes all attention. Consider the case of some rich manufacturer—perhaps a Radical—who denounces his landowning neighbours. He may have made a great deal of money out of war contracts, and nobody knows how his profits are invested or what they amount to. He may be a very rich man indeed ; he may be one of the richest men in England ; but just because he is not attached to the land, because he has no territorial respon- sibility (or shall we say territorial incubus ?), he passes on his way unchallenged and unmolested. He may even at election time try to procure all the votes in his factory for his political party; but what is a crime in the landowner is in him a sign of political earnestness. Can cant go further than this ?

If we wanted to give Mr. Smillie a little friendly advice, we should whisper in his ear that even when Labour leaders are out for such popular things as nationalization, increases of wages, and so forth, they would do well to be fair if they wish to please the British public. Unless they convince the majority of the nation, they will never get their way, at all events not by Constitutional means. The British public when it read the insinuations which were uttered at the Commission about the Duke of Northumber- land, for example, being an idle man, had a pretty shrewd notion who occupied himself the more busily in helping the nation to win the war—the Duke of Northumberland or Mr. Smillie. The Duke of Northumberland happens to be an enthusiastic and hard-working soldier. In writings and addresses before the war he tried to warn the public of what Germany intended to do, and we remember in particular an address delivered by him in April, 1913, in which he sketched with extraordinary accuracy of detail the scheme of invasion which Germany was planning against Belgium, Luxemburg, and France. Did Mr. Smillie do any one thing as useful as that / Another thing which the public will not stand is that the miners

should pretend that they are advancing the rule of the people when they are really claiming privileges for them- selves at the heavy expense of others. A good, or rather a bad, example of this tendency is provided by the Welsh miners, who are refusing to pay Income Tax. Some miners have been earning as much as 110 and £12 a week. Of course not all earn so much, but an appreciable number of miners earn more than is earned by clerks who pay their taxes like men. As Labour Members in the House of Commons recently asked Mr. Chamberlain to remove all indirect taxation, the contention of a great many working men seems to be that people who earn less than 1250 a year should not pay any taxes at all, and that a man who earns his living with his hands should not pay any taxa- tion, however large his income may be 1 What kind of democratic government does all this lead- to ? The aris- tocracy of former days put forth many foolish and wicked claims in the interests of a small class, but probably nothing more unashamedly aristocratic in spirit than this.