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Editorial: Land use and land ownership are vital questions for the left

WHO owns the land is always a deeply political question, always smouldering underground — sometimes bursting into flame.

Full marks to the Ban the Burn campaign, which has ignited a discussion about the burning of moorland for grouse shooting that highlights the class essence of the environmental question.

There are powerful conservation issues at stake. Bogland filters water, resists wildfires and helps reduce flood risk, while burning changes the ecological balance so that heather begins to dominate.

The unrestrained pursuit of grouse to grace the dinner tables of the landed elite and their weekend guests is a principal cause of the deepening degradation of upland moors. 

Grouse shooting is a quintessentially bourgeois pursuit. The pretensions of the nouveau riche ensure that it continues as a powerful signifier of class position and as a lucrative business for landowners when seen as a market opportunity.

The Climate Change Committee — charged with giving independent advice to the government on preparing for climate change — was absolutely clear on the matter: “Wetland habitats, including the majority of upland areas with carbon-rich peat soils, are in poor condition. The damaging practice of burning peat to increase grouse yields continues, including on internationally protected sites.”

The topography of Britain today bears little resemblance to the landscape that nature left alone would allow. 

When the rise of capitalism fused the feudal lords with the new capitalist class, it left enormous tracts of land under the ownership of families whose titles derived from feudal theft — while much of the common land disappeared with the highland clearances in Scotland and the Enclosure Acts in England and Wales.

The Duke of Buccleuch and Queensberry claims 240,000 acres as his own, the Duke of Atholl a mere 145,700 acres and the Duke of Westminster with his 133,100 acres — even more than Elizabeth Windsor’s 19,768 acres — are typical beneficiaries of this robbery.

These lords of the land do not have the vote and it is unlikely that this troubles them much. They derive their power from their capital and land holdings and need not turn a day’s work to live in luxury. 

Indeed, the young Duke of Westminster was able to jump over his sisters to inherit a £9 billion fortune without paying any significant death duty.

Working-class power must, in the final analysis, rest on the common ownership of the land. Indeed the triumph of counter-revolution and capitalist restoration in the former Soviet Union was not secure until this was complete.

Socialist societies make a distinction between private property — the basis of the exploitation of human labour — and personal property. Landlordism must end even when, under socialism, we were still to have the title to the house in which we live.

There is a lively discussion in the labour movement grounded in the view that the value of land rests in the labour expended on it by the whole community. 

This underpins the argument for a switch away from taxes on economically productive activities like work, trade, enterprise and investment, and onto unearned land wealth.

The Labour Land Campaign says that a tax on the value of land, irrespective of any improvements made by its owners (such as buildings) is fair, easy to administer and more economically efficient than taxes on productive activity.

It says that all land should be valued and taxed according to its assessed value and this would help repair the broken British land market — characterised by speculation and underuse — that causes housing shortage and benefits a small but powerful, wealthy minority.

In present conditions this is a powerful campaigning tool and would deepen socialist consciousness.

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