Jonathan Gordon-Farleigh: You have written extensively about land inequality and have claimed that 0.6% of the population owns 69% of the land in the UK. How bad has it become?
George Monbiot: In the past ten years or so landholding has concentrated by a further 10-12% and this is a remarkably rapid rate of consolidation, perhaps as rapid as anything we’ve seen in Britain since the Highland Clearances. What’s happening is small farmers are selling and being bought up by absentee landowners, and city institutions are using bonuses to invest in land. The City does not believe in itself because if it did it would be investing in stock, shares and bonds, but instead it’s investing in land and houses. This really limits the scope for alternative land use. The vicious combination of rising land prices, as a result of the speculative interest in the land and the artificially boosted prices caused by farm subsidies, really stops community projects and new entrants who want to do something more interesting with the land, such as rewilding, even more difficult. It makes being proactive on the land ten times harder.
JGF: In the same way in which the housing crisis has refocused the public’s attention on vacant homes, second homes and under-occupied homes, what will it take for the inequality in land distribution to become a public issue?
GM: It’s a good question because we are almost uniquely removed from issues of land ownership in this country because we’ve been excluded from it for so long, but also because the dominant system of land ownership is so long established, really dating back to the Norman Conquest. It is accepted as the way things are because we have a very powerful culture of deference, which is constantly reinforced. So, for instance, a few months ago Fraser Nelson — the editor of the The Spectator who is very tuned in to Tory thinking — wrote an article where he argued that anyone who cared about wildlife was a Londoner, and that true country people didn’t care about wildlife and the environment. Yet, David Cameron is a true country person, even though he’s lived in the city all of his adult life, and only goes to his Witney home at the weekend to go shooting, and so he’s a true country person. What he’s really talking about is class: this to say that the only authentic country people are the landowning class, many of whom don’t even live there but only return to their estates on the weekend. Only the landowning class has a legitimate voice in the countryside — everyone else is illegitimate.
One of the ways this message is constantly reinforced is through something I call agricultural hegemony, taken from what Antonio Gramsci calls cultural hegemony. Agricultural hegemony is when the demands and perspective of the farmers and landowners is being conflated with the demands and desire of the whole rural population. I’ve been very struck by this in recent times where I’ve come across people who are supposed to be working on behalf of the entire rural population, but are only interested in what the farmers want. They conflate the farmers with the rural population as if they’re one and the same. This is not just happening here in England — you see this happening at the level of other national governments in the UK as well.
When I went to interview Elin Jones, who is minister for Rural Affairs in Wales, it was very frustrating because she was wholly incapable of answering any of the big questions I put to her. When she sat down she set out her notes in front of her, and beside it put down the National Farmers Union diary. Every time she opened her mouth it was the National Farmers Union talking. The problem is she does not just represent the interests of the farmers, she is minister for rural affairs and should represent the whole rural people of Wales. Now, in Wales, which is considered to be a very agricultural nation, only 5% of rural people are farmers (including part-time farmers), meaning that 95% of rural people are basically marginalised in political decision making. This is also similar in England but not quite so much in Scotland. What you’ve got here is a real democratic deficit — a real lack of democracy — because the majority of rural people do not really have a voice in what happens in the countryside. Meanwhile, farmers have a disproportionately powerful voice: They command all the money through farm subsidies; they have all these exceptions when purchasing or applying for planning permission; they are able to treat the land without any reference to the people who live around it, often causing devastating environmental damage. Yet, somehow we have come to accept all of this, and pay for all of it.
I’ve been surprised when writing about farm subsidies because I would have thought that, in an age when basic public services are being cut with devastating consequences for the poorest people, this would be a really explosive issue: that we’re paying millions every year to keep the Duke of Westminster in racehorses and to keep all the other large landowners in business. Basically, farm subsidies, because they are paid on the basis of how much land you own, are exactly the same as in the feudal tax that used to be paid by the vassals to their lord for the benefit of him owning all the land. It’s exactly the same today, there’s no difference at all, yet in this age of austerity we pay it without complaint.
What I’ve been struck by is that when I’ve have written about this issue there is very little public outcry against this like there is with other issues such as corporations not paying their tax where people get really inflamed and angry. But we are so removed from thinking about land, agriculture and the rural economy, have been confined to the cities for so long, have such a powerful cultural deference in this country that we are not aware of this grotesque injustice which is carried out against us.
JGF: After the successful campaign to stop the government from selling off England’s forests in 2011, campaigners pointed to the need for a piece of legislation that would stop future governments from resubmitting the same proposal for privatisation. How important do you think it is to create new legal ordinances and community charters to protect our shared commons?
GM: There’s an analogy here to the village green and commons, that once they’re registered they remain this way. I believe this needs to be widely extended and certainly the national forest would be a very good candidate for this. Well, the ‘public forest estate’ would be more accurate. However, it’s all going in the opposite direction with the move towards marketising them and this has to be seen as a new wave of enclosure. What is effectively being said is that biodiversity, the hydrological cycle, typography and all these other public benefits — such as the rain — no longer belong to everyone and no-one but now they belong to the landowner. It is now proposed that the landowner would be paid for supplying it. Now, I would be slightly more sympathetic to the landowners if they were fined for failing to supply them. For instance, if every time your house flooded because of poor management of the uplands (which is one of the biggest reasons for increasing floods, even more so than climate change) the farmers would have to pay for the damage, then you would be looking at a market. However, it’s currently a private financial initiative because the landowner takes the profit and the state keeps the liabilities. There is no downside for them, and even if it was a market there would be many problems.
JGF: They socialize the costs, and privatize the profits?
GM: That’s exactly what they’ve done and it’s going even further because they’re securitising it and getting the City to incorporate it into secondary markets. It’s insane but it’s become the prevailing trend the government is currently supporting with their Ecosystem Markets Task Force and the Natural Capital Committee. They are all rigorously supporting these schemes.
These have to be seen as new acts of enclosure: They are taking it from the public, from the common domain, by deeming all of these natural assets, even including the rain, to belong to the landowners. Who’s doing this? Well, the landowning class. You just have to look who’s in Defra. Richard Benyon, who is minister for the environment, food and rural affairs is the biggest conflict of interest since Ernest Marples, a motorway builder, became the transport minister and, as soon as he took office, closed the railways.
The minister for the environment, Richard Benyon, is also a huge land estate owner. He first attempted to do a buzzard cull because two of his gamekeepers complained about them killing some of his pheasants. He is now selling quarrying rights on his land that will completely trash the local wildlife trust’s ambitions. He has ruled out precarious liability for landowners if their gamekeepers poison birds of prey. He owns a huge estate in the south of England and a grouse estate in Scotland. He has also ruled out a right to kayak and canoe on rivers and owns official rights on the Kennet and Pang.
Here’s the interesting thing though, and it comes back to my point about farm subsidies. This is an issue that I’m kicking up about it in the Guardian and I’m not sure many people are interested in it. If, for example, this was part of the urban economy and we found out that Michael Gove had owned a private education company and that his policies were directly benefitting his shares in that company there would be a massive outcry. He quite simply wouldn’t be able to remain in office. However, because this is to do with the rural economy, because it’s about land and agriculture from which we’ve been successfully excluded from by previous waves of enclosure, we believe it’s got nothing to do with us. This is the real impact of enclosure, or the lasting impact to be more precise: Our minds have been enclosed. There are all sorts of places we don’t go, even in our own minds — there are trespassing signs all over our minds. We’re not going to go past that point because it’s someone else’s business. We’ve been shut out of the intellectual commons by being shut out of the physical commons.