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Who Owns Britain

Christopher Gasson, New Statesman, 14th January 2002

Book Review:

Who Owns Britain, Kevin Cahill, Canongate Books, 2001, pp465

Who Owns Britain might have been on the Christmas list of many a country squire with marriageable daughters. The blurb inside the cover suggests that it gives "comprehensive details of who owns land in every county of Britain and Ireland". It might have appeared a comfortable tome to sit on the shelves alongside Debrett's and Burke's (Peerage and Baronetage). But no country gentleman is likely to feel the cosiness of aristocratic interconnection as he settles down to read Kevin Cahill's book. Instead, he is likely to feel the full force of a double-barrelled shotgun discharged in his face. Cahill is a class warrior, with the landed aristocracy in his sights. He wants land reform, without full compensation, and he wants it now. The Zanu-PF tendency is alive and well, it seems, and writing books in Devon.

According to Cahill, the landed classes in general, and Old Etonians in particular, are guilty of pushing the British economy into stagnation, manipulating the housing market, receiving enormous subsidies while paying no taxes and conspiring to keep their landholdings secret so that the public at large are unaware of the extent of their own oppression. This last conspiracy means that Who Owns Britain cannot, in fact, provide the promised "comprehensive details of who owns land in every county of Britain and Ireland". The best Cahill can do is list four or five landowners (not necessarily the largest ones) in each county, and to reprint data from the 1872 Return of Owners of Land - the last full survey of British land ownership. So what he lacks in factual most asset-rich detail, he makes up for in polemic.

There are some good points in the book:

bulletWhy do we give subsidies to some of the most asset-rich people in our society?
bulletWhy don't we at least make them say how much they own before giving them the money?
bulletWhy does the Queen and her closest family, need to own so much land in a country as densely populated as Britain?

But one of the most engaging aspects of Who Owns Britain is just how much it cuts against the grain of current political thought. We are not supposed to expound the politics of envy any more, and to a great extent we do not.

The landed aristocracy no longer inspire the hatreds of old, because they have been stripped of much of their power and money. A powerful Labour government, the eviction of hereditary peers from the House of Lords and collapsing farm incomes have ensured that it is difficult to think of the big landowners as the bugbears they once were. We are also immune it seems to big salaries being paid elsewhere in the economy. In 1995, there was uproar about the UKŁ475,000 salary Cedric Brown, then the boss of British Gas; today, an executive has to pocket more than UKŁ10 million before he or she makes the news. We may have Premiership football to thank for changing attitudes to these matters. Even the most committed Marxists among Manchester United supporters would understand the need to pay Roy Keane UKŁ52,000 a week to keep him at Old Trafford.

Yet we are not entirely immune to other people's wealth. The most obvious flashpoint is the London property market. City bonuses have rocketed in recent years; in 1990, there were scarcely 100 people in the City earning more than UKŁ1 million a year. In 2000, according to one head-hunter I know, there were 10,000. This mass of money being poured into the London property market has had an impact on house buyers everywhere. Together with increased demand for housing, it has created a perverse situation where most people are forced to live in smaller houses with fewer amenities than their parents had at the same age, despite earning more in real terms. In this sense, the increase in the standard of living for the very richest people has led to a direct decrease in the standard of living for everyone else. The nurses and teachers struggling to buy houses in London might have preferred it had Cahill aimed his shotgun at City-rich cash buyers, rather than at dilapidated aristocrats with 2,000 acres of foot-and-mouth blighted land.

Christopher Gasson is a financial journalist

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