© 2021 Paul Mobbs; released under the Creative Commons license.
Created: Sunday 7th November 2021.
Length: ~950 words.
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The power of certain books is that they can introduce you to new ideas and information which allow you to understand the world in more detail. There are another set of books which do not teach you anything ‘new’, but in the quality of their writing, or the way in which they order that information, they allow you to see what you already knew in a more practical way – and articulate those ideas more coherently.
‘This Land is Our Land’, First Edition, 1987. ISBN 9780586084731.
‘This Land is Our Land’, Revised Edition, 1997. ISBN 9781856750646.
By the late 1980s, my experiences walking and camping had made me aware of how the environment was being changed by agriculture. And my reading on this had taught me much of the history as to why that system was as it was. But it was one book which allowed me to organise that information to form my own personal viewpoint.
‘This Land is Our Land’ was published by Marion Shoard in 1987. This copy is the reissue published in 1997; my original copy having been leant out and never returned (always the sign of a good book!).
Shoard had worked for the Council for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE) in the 1970s. This was the time when the introduction of mechanised intensive agriculture saw a reshaping of the landscape, to an extent not seen since the inclosure movement of the Eighteenth Century.
Her previous book, ‘The Theft of the Countryside’ (1980), which I read after this one, outlined the present-day issues of land ownership and control in Britain – which have resurfaced lately in the work of Guy Shrubsole or Nick Hayes. The power of her 1987 work was to take those ideas and put them into an historical context – explaining how we got to this point:
We are accustomed to thinking of the Norman Conquest as the subjection of one people by a foreign tribe. And so it was… The new Norman régime took control of the land itself and placed it in the hands of a class created for the purpose of managing it; as the Romans, for example, had never bothered to do. Feudalism, as the new system came to be known, was not as oppressive as is now often thought… But by requiring the dispossession of the common people it paved the way for abuse and ultimate catastrophe.
The book traces an arc of how the shift from Feudalism into Capitalism, via the reciprocal Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions, not only changed the landscape, but also created many of the social ills that still afflict society today:
Feudalism had at least guaranteed the livelihood of large numbers of people by providing them with employment and enabling them to grow their own food on land which their lord was expected to provide for them… But under capitalism, hired labourers and people working land they had leased for a money rent were at the mercy of the laws of the market. And these worked to the advantage of the landowner rather than that of his poorer tenants… Landowners came to view their property less and less as a trust to be exercised on behalf of the sovereign and more and more as a source of wealth.
During the 1980s I began to form a view of how I related to the issues of land ownership and ecological exploitation in Britain. I had grown up in a family who grew their own food, and foraged, and so I was never wholly ‘sold’ on the growing power of consumerism. The book spoke directly to those perceptions:
Pitted against the attitudes of Britain’s landowners are those of the landless… the ideas behind them are often fundamentally at odds with those of the landowners. Not only is the landowner’s claim to control his property contested, the right of any man or men to absolute sway over the natural environment is now widely questioned. The old Christian notion that God created the earth for Man to have dominion over it is no longer universally accepted. As traditional Christianity has withered, many people have come to see the environment as something in which all creatures have rights — not just human beings without title deeds but even animals.
As people consider the climate crisis today, I’m concerned that they lack an appreciation of the foundational relationship between people and the land – a relationship which is at the heart of what this book describes. If we are to solve that greater ecological crisis, then in this country that means resolving this contested relationship:
To wrest a share of control over the countryside from its firmly entrenched rulers may seem an almost impossibly difficult task… In fact, the chance of change is real enough… The landowners’ carefully nurtured base of public acceptance has been kicked from under them as the media have woken up to the damage being done to the countryside. The sudden public revulsion against modern agricultural methods that took place in the early 1980s has changed the atmosphere in which rural affairs are discussed.
To understand the ecological crisis requires an understanding of our relationship to the land; and that in turn requires that we understand why land in England and Wales is the exclusive preserve of a narrow section of society – who have held that position for almost a millennia, and with that control over the political and economic state too.
Almost thirty-five years after it was published, I’m still recommending this book to those who want to have a greater understanding of their relationship to the land. ‘This Land is Our Land’ is a vital book in the body of literature on environmentalism in Britain. Though a little dated, the questions it asks are still live issues; and with the ecological crisis, they have become ever more pressing since its first publication.