If you’re someone who’s interested in Britain – and I mean Britain tout court: the whole 80,823 square miles of its physical existence – then this is a book you must read. If, further, you’re any kind of student of the nation (its politics, its social forms, its economic particularities) then Brett Christophers’ painstaking survey of land privatisation since the Thatcher era will tell you many things you already know. But it will also reveal how all these things you already know are, in fact, underpinned by a single terra incognita – in this case a literal one... since 1979, no less than 10% of the land area of Britain has been sold by the state – in all its various guises and incarnations – to the private sector.
in Christophers’s words, ‘the people of Britain are increasingly being distanced – economically, socially and politically – from the land they inhabit.’ As I read that sentence in this fine and valuable book, I thought of a continuum of public ignorance (including my own) that reached back to the time when we neither knew, nor bothered to try to discover, who had bought the old barracks, the wild playground at the end of the street. What were our parents thinking about? Perhaps it was Suez – something else, at any rate. As now with Europe, we have never been very good at identifying the true agents of our discontent.
Christophers’ account may come as a shock to many readers. That in itself is worthy of comment. How did land become so invisible as part of the privatisation story? Since time immemorial it has been the dominant asset. Back to the Domesday Book of the Normans, economic and political power depended on land ownership. Beginning in earnest in the 1500s, the wave of enclosures — fencing in land previously used for common grazing — supercharged the development of agrarian capitalism. Right up until the beginning of the 20th century, the landed elite were a dominant force in British politics and society. As such, they also attracted criticism.