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Reviewed by:
  • Land and Society in Edwardian Britain
  • Walter L. Arnstein
Land and Society in Edwardian Britain. By Brian Short (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997. xvii plus 378pp. $69.95).

When historians look back on the activities of the pre-1914 Liberal Government in Great Britain, they are most likely to emphasize the manner in which David Lloyd George (as Chancellor of the Exchequer) and his colleagues laid the foundations of the twentieth-century “welfare state” in the form of old age pensions, government-operated labor exchanges, a system of contributory national health insurance, a pioneering program of unemployment insurance, and the earliest example of the progressive income tax. What they have often tended to forget is that the “Wizard of Wales” first entered Parliament as the professed enemy of “landlordism,” and that it was his hope to use his office to redistribute the national wealth by taxing wealthy landlords in order “to wage implacable warfare against poverty and squalidness.” (p. 19) But was Britain’s wealth in the [End Page 230] early twentieth-century primarily to be found among the great landlords rather than among industrialists and financiers? Or was Oscar Wilde’s Lady Bracknell correct in alerting us to the paradox that “land gives one position, but prevents one from keeping it up”?

Whatever the case, the turn-of-the century radical land reform movement did secure two significant clauses in the “People’s Budget” of 1909. One of them was a tax on “unearned increment” in land (e.g. land that gained in value solely because it chanced to be located on the outskirts of an expanding city); the other was a tax on “unimproved” land, property held not to produce crops or as a building site but solely for purposes of speculation. After a storm of controversy and a new general election, that budget was enacted into law, and the clauses were put into effect. Critics continued to berate the policy as a prelude to land nationalization, however, and as an attack on all private property. Ten years later, after adverse legal judgments and four years of world war, and while Lloyd George was presiding as prime minister over a predominantly Conservative cabinet, the two taxes were quietly repealed. The cost of administration had proved four times as high as the amounts collected. These were the very years (1918—1922), to be sure, when a quarter of all land in England changed hands and when, in the new Irish Free State, the old Anglo-Irish landowning class was bought out altogether. In England the prime catalyst to such sales was an inheritance tax as high as forty per cent. (Curiously enough, what may have been the most rapid transfer of land in England since the Norman Conquest goes unmentioned in this book.)

Because they were soon repealed, the land taxes in the 1909 Budget are remembered as no more than a curious interlude, but as we are reminded by Dr. Brian Short, Reader in Human Geography at the University of Sussex, the requisite prelude to those two taxes was the great Valuation of 1910—1914, the first (and only) attempt since the Domesday Book of 1086 (which involved one-twentieth as many people) to describe and to assess the value of every single piece of landed property in England and Wales, urban and rural, from the largest estate to the smallest cottage. Some 10,700,000 forms were sent out; 9,600,000 were returned. A majority of the individual returns were afterwards destroyed, but the process led to the amassing of 95,000 Field Books with forty million pieces of information, “the most comprehensive set of property records ever compiled in the United Kingdom” (p. 125) and “the largest data bank in British history.” (p. 342) Having first explained how that great valuation came to be, Dr. Short devotes the remainder of the volume to an assessment of both the importamce and the limitations of this vast (and thus far little used) body of information. He goes on to provide a series of well-documented case studies (supplemented by tables, photographs, and cartoons) based in whole or in part on the survey. They illuminate...

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