Review | Who Owns England?

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Guy Shrubsole Who Owns England?:  How We lost Our Green and Pleasant Land – And How to Take It Back (London: William Collins, 2019), pp. 376  ISBN: 9780008321673  £20 (Release: May 2019)

To call this book alarmist you don’t need to be particularly perceptive.  It’s very much in your face.  Starting with the sub-title and going on with some of the chapter titles, such as ‘This Land Is Not My Land’ or ‘England’s Darkest Secret.’  The concentration of wealth – in England, particularly landed wealth – is a most serious issue.  Income inequality would not be at the top of our activists’ list of troubling economic structural worries if it were not.  But a discussion of it is not helped by beginning with, ‘Land ownership [in England] remains our oldest, darkest, best-kept secret.’

Certainly, English property law has long been a bit of a mystery to us non-English.  I recall my own graduate student days in Sam Thorne’s class on early English law.  Frederic Maitland’s magisterial (and hefty) two volumes were our basic source but, while Maitland was one of those rare historians whom it was sheer pleasure to read, the legal concepts he was attempting to delineate were something else. ‘Socage’ and ‘seisin.’  My brain still aches.  But these were the technicalities of land possession.  More pertinent, perhaps, to Shrubsole’s present argument was the pleasantry you often heard about my college: ‘You could walk from Oxford to Cambridge without stepping foot off land owned by St John’s.’ Well, that’s no longer true, but the privileged wealth it boasted of remains a real problem.

For instance, hearing this should take you aback: ‘Nearly half the county I grew up in is owned by just thirty landowners.’   To be precise, 44 percent of West Berkshire is owned by those thirty individuals and organizations, while 40 percent of the county’s population (66,000 people) live on just some 2.4 percent of the land.  How this came about, its affects (for both good and ill), and what to do about it all is worth better than a cursory examination, but our author does himself no good by setting out a stall which is more than a tad paranoid.  It’s all us versus the ‘lord of the manor’ and every use of land by them is ‘craven.’  For instance, ‘Venturing out into horsey territory for Sunday walks, it was always obvious how rich the area was.  Colonnaded mansions…’  You get the picture.  It goes on, ‘…most of the racing studs and surrounding fields were owned offshore, in tax havens, and…many of them also receive generous taxpayer-funded farm subsidies.’   No mention whatsoever of the employment created by these ‘horsey’ establishments nor of the general economic benefits they generate.  Nor, for that matter, of the pleasure many common people take in following horse racing.

This prejudicial take by the author thoroughly determines his entire argument and presentation.  On his survey of the other large owners of West Berkshire, he features Greenham Common, once the site of a major U.S. Air Force base and the focus of very large-scale (tens of thousands) of anti-nuclear protests during the ‘80s over the stationing there of Cruise missiles – a defense action which, in the author’s view, ‘represented a significant escalation in tactics by the hawkish…President Ronald Reagan, who had reversed years of détente with the Soviet Union….’  This is the re-writing of history with a paranoid vengeance.  The stationing of Cruise missiles in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Italy, and West Germany was a decision by those NATO members to counter (I repeat, ‘to counter’) the stationing of SS-20s (intermediate-range ballistic missiles with nuclear war-heads) by the Soviet Union in its Eastern European satellites, an aggressive action by the Soviets intended to cause the European members of NATO to seek a separate deal with the Soviet Union.  Our NATO dual-track approach (the stationing of Cruise missiles while pursuing negotiations to eliminate all such missiles) kept NATO together and forced the Soviet Union to cave.  But our author goes on (and on), ‘Eventually, with the sudden end of the Cold War…,’ as though the Cold War were some natural phenomenon.  It wasn’t.  It was a consequence of human action and, as Gorbachev declared, NATO’s forceful counterbalance to the Soviets’ adventure, was critical in convincing him to end the arms race and terminate the Cold War.

Such altogether one-sided or dubious assertions by the author make it difficult to put any trust in the reliability of his factual assertions, much less his judgment (his characterization of the Domesday Book as a ‘swag list’?).  Still, there is a lot in this book which is at least interesting to be alerted to.  My favorite here is the table in an appendix setting out ‘Land owned by the dukes, and the subsidies they get.’  In it, we’re given the acreage owned by Britain’s twenty-four non-royal dukes, first in 1873 and, then, in 2001.  Some totals are truly staggering, particularly the near 130,000 acres of the duke of Westminster — and doubly so when you consider where those acres are located.  Which reminds me of a scene from a Hollywood romantic comedy from the early ‘60s:  Two Texans are out for the night in New York and their escorts are naturally curious about certain things.  One of the Texans is an oil man; the other isn’t. Nor is he a cattleman.   In fact, he only owns a bit more than a hundred acres.  Rather deflated, one of the young New York women says, ‘Well, what’s it called?’  The Texan drawls, ‘Last I checked, it was downtown Dallas.’ Location, location, location.

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