I lived in Britain for 11 years in two different periods, the first in North Kensington not far from the slums, the second among the nobs of South Kensington, and one of the reasons that British life never really appealed to me was my knowledge that the whole goddammed place was owned and operated by the aristocracy.
That may be a slight exaggeration, but the fact is that one thing that always stuck in my craw was the unchallenged position at the head of society of this network of nobs whose wealth came from their ownership of much of the land, usually granted to them by some king or other centuries before, and whose leadership, of the British Empire no less, was guaranteed by their having passed through a tight network of privately-run schools from which they graduated into directorships of the major businesses, and, in politics, into the House of Commons, the House of Lords, or the governing Cabinet. (This unsavoury system still exists, right into the present day, in spite of all efforts to change it by various Labour governments. Half of all the Prime Ministers of Britain since the Second World War have attended private schools.)
I was brought up in a nation of small towns that had traditionally emphasised the welfare of all its people, so I really didn’t take kindly to the many areas of British life in which most people still lived in overcrowded, ugly conditions that were a hangover from the days of Imperial grandeur based on the Industrial Revolution, while the top dogs lived in glorious luxury. (It is worth mentioning, as has only recently been revealed by assiduous researchers, that the wealth behind the Industrial Revolution came largely from the huge reparations paid to the slave-owners when slavery was abolished: a typically British action, that the reparations did not go to the slaves, but to their owners, who included many of the noble families of Britain.)
This question of the ownership of the land of Britain has not been much written about in England itself, but, as with most subjects, the facts could be discovered with a bit of an effort. When I took up my post as correspondent for The Montreal Star in London, I had already, during my previous four years in Britain, had a peek into this world of landlord and tenant when I had worked for a small weekly newspaper in Coventry, where one of my duties was to write a column called Our Farmer Friends that involved my visiting local farmers and interviewing them as to their operations. I discovered to my great surprise that almost all the farmers around us in Warwickshire were tenants to some overweening landlord, who not only owned most of the land, but also many of the villages, including the houses in which people were mere long-term tenants.
So, when I returned in the 1960s as a reporter, and was confronted with writing about life in the nation’s capital --- I have never complained about this arduous task, because I soon found that if one couldn't find something to write about in London every day of the week, there must be something wrong with one’s perception of what is interesting ---- I made it my business to investigate this nexus of landlord and tenant and how it affected the city’s life.
The reason I have now returned to this subject is that according to the newspapers, a report has recently been issued covering the remarkable subject of ownership of the land in Britain, and showing figures that, sixty years after I wrote my pieces, seem hardly to have changed at all. According to Guy Shrubsole, author of the book quoted, Who Owns England? half of England is owned by 25,000 landowners, mostly of the aristocracy, who make up one per cent of the population.
His figures suggest that 30 per cent of the land of England is still owned by the aristocracy and gentry, 18 per cent by corporations, 17 by oligarchs and city bankers, only 8.5 per cent by the public sector, five per cent by homeowners, 1.4 per cent by the Crown and royal family, 2 per cent by charitable conservationists, and 0.5 per cent by the Church of England. This is a portrait of a country that would appear to be totally ingrown on itself, and perhaps explains the sclerotic performance of their elected representatives as they struggle to free themselves from the domination of those distrusted foreigners on the other side of the English channel.
This comes as no surprise to me, I have to confess. I discovered in the early 1960s, for example, that the London squares, with which the great capital city is dotted, were mostly owned by the Duke of Westminster, who appeared to own about half or more of the land in London. Surprisingly, some of these squares, I can remember Grosvenor Square, for example, although in a posh semi-residential district, and Leicester Square, right in the heart of business London, had been opened to the public during the post-war years when the English electorate, that thought it had been fighting to create a better life, did try, through the medium of their Labour government, to bring in some ameliorative and democratic measures that would equalize daily life.
The ancient custom was that these squares belonged to the landowner of the houses around the square, and occupancy of these houses entitled the tenant to a key for entrance to the square, which was reserved to this specialized use. I discovered that landowners, faced with this movement to open the squares to public use, had fought a doughty battle, and in many cases had won. Not many had been opened: most, for example Eaton Square, in the heart of Belgravia, was never opened. Even today, as a search on Wikipedia reveals, some of the squares are identified as ranking among the favourite places of the upper class, note being made of one square that was founded in 1685, and is surrounded by houses valued at up to $40 million, a figure that answers questions as to why they were never opened: money talks, especially in a traditionally conservative country like Britain.
Central London is almost dominated by its magnificent, extremely large parks, which all began as Royal hunting territories, and to which public access was granted following use being made of them by the public. This, persistent public use, has been a standard for the opening of public recreational spaces: for example, the Inns of Court in London are small parks to which public access was granted after generations of the public having made use of them.
Incidentally, a few years ago we had an issue in Ottawa over public use of a large park, namely the grounds of the residence of the Governor-General, which has been open to public use ---- for example, for playing cricket --- since even before Canada was founded. One Governor-General, Jean Sauve, who took office in 1984, suddenly announced that the public was henceforth banned from entering the grounds. Outraged, I wrote an article for The Ottawa Citizen in which I accused Mme. Sauve of being the most reactionary Royal personnage in relation to open space since Henry VIII! That did not seem to bother the lady, who continued to ban public use so long as she was in office. (An exception was made for the cricketers, who continued to play every weekend, and, to my disgust, never raised a squeak of protest.) When her successor Ray Hnatyshyn re-opened the grounds to the public, a small group of us, about 25 protesters, bought a bottle of champagne and marched on to the ground where we rather self-consciously toasted his decision. A rare victory lap, as it were.