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Landgrabbing – Scottish Review of Books
by George Rosie


October 29, 2009 | by George Rosie

OVER THE YEARS I’ve spent more time than I care to remember scratching around in the old Register of Sasines and the newer Land Register trying to find out who sold what piece of land to whom and for how much. Usually I was trying to track down some dodgy deal done on the shores of the Cromarty Firth or in the sodden bogs of Caithness or the rocky uplands of Sutherland or Wester Ross. Sometimes the searches involved colourful figures from various parts of the world: Dutch industrialists, minor Arab royalty, Irish bankers, castle-hungry Americans. More often, though, the dramatis personae turned out to be local wheeler-dealers, crooks or councillors.

These land-deal stories were always worth the effort. Response from readers was usually good. Articles would be cut out and kept. Sympathetic councillors would fulminate. Every now and again a story was picked up by an MP or a junior minister and ‘questions would be asked’ or outrage expressed in the House of Commons. Plainly, there was – and is – an appetite for stories about land and who owns it. It’s an issue that touches raw nerves, and not just in the Highlands and Islands.

But it’s some time since I’ve hunted through the record volumes in Edinburgh, partly because it’s far more complicated and expensive than it used to be, and partly because it really is a job for younger, more energetic hacks. A full-blown, land-deal story is a seriously daunting prospect. Which is why I approached Kevin Cahill’s new book Who Owns the World with a mixture of admiration and incredulity. Knowing how much work is involved trying to find out who’s trading in bits of rural Scotland, the idea of doing the same thing for the whole planet seemed an impossible task.

And, of course, so it is. Somewhere in the world land is changing hands every hour of every day. By the time Cahill had written a page there’s a fair chance that it would have been out of date. Which is why, I imagine, he eschewed the nitty-gritty and climbed to a lofty (and Leftish) position from where he deliberates. The result is a very large book (640 pages including the index) stuffed with tables, facts and statistics. Some of them are general, some quite specific. They are the basis from which Cahill offers his insights on land ownership, past and present.

His book is divided into two parts. The first he describes as an “overview and analysis” which looks at landowning and landowners through the ages, roughly from 8,000 BC (believe it or not) to 2006. The second part is made up of detailed, country-by-country (and in the case of the USA, state-by-state) descriptions of how much land there is, how many people there are per acre and how land is owned, held and registered. Which seemed to me to be the more interesting of the two parts, if only by virtue of it being (relatively) free of Cahill’s opinions.

Because these, I have to say, irritated me. They became my problem with the book. This is one of those vast, complex, multifaceted subjects that are best treated in a dispassionate, straightforward way. Instead Cahill interjects his views on the iniquities of the past and the shortcomings of the present at every opportunity. I tired of hearing about William the Conqueror (or William the Bastard as Cahill prefers to call him) and the iniquity of the feudal system he inflicted on Britain and through Britain on much of the world. Cahill bangs on about him like any 17th century Leveller or Digger or Muggletonian complaining of the `Norman Yoke’.

And as a republican of long standing it pains me to come to the defence of Queen Elizabeth II, but I lost count of the number of times Cahill told me that because all of Britain and its dominions (Australia, Canada, New Zealand and so on) is ‘held’ by the Crown, the Queen is, therefore, the biggest land owner on the planet. According to Cahill she’s proud possessor of about twenty percent of the earth’s surface. Time after tiresome time he drags in this constitutional oddity as if, somehow, it has kept the countries of the Commonwealth in poverty and misery.

This British version of feudalism (there are others) is a particularly noisy bee in Cahill’s bonnet. He claims that it reduces us to the status of landless serfs. And by us he includes the people of Ireland who left the United Kingdom in 1922 but retained the British system of holding land. In fact, he goes on to argue that the reason that Britain doesn’t have a written constitution is to “conceal the Crown’s superior right to all land in the UK and elsewhere, and to avoid granting proper rights to citizens…”.

Which is a bit of a puzzle. As Cahill himself points out, the ‘serfs’ of what used to be the British Empire are doing pretty well. Home ownership among Brits, Aussies, Canucks and Kiwis is proportionally higher than it is among Americans who have an ‘absolute right’ to own land. Our fellow serfs in Ireland own even more of their own homes and farms than we do as well as having wages that are among the highest in Europe. But Cahill claims that this property wealth is a delusion and that at any time the Queen or her minions could come along and take it all away from us.

Does he really believe that the property developers of, let’s say, Sydney Harbour or Canary Wharf in London are inhibited from sinking their cash into real estate by this constitutional quirk? Does he honestly think that Her Majesty is likely to chopper in to the Athabasca oil sands in Manitoba and tell the oil companies to clear off because she needs the oil revenues to pay for the next royal wedding? If she ever tried it she’d be given her head in her hands to play with (metaphorically, of course).

At one point Cahill blames the ‘British landholding tradition’ (i.e. the Queen) for making “first-time home ownership in the UK among the most expensive on the planet”. No, Mr Cahill, the Queen wasn’t responsible. Mrs Thatcher was. Her government deregulated banks and building societies in the Eighties in a way that encouraged them to lend on two salaries, rather than just one. Which, of course, more or less doubled the amount of money chasing the same amount of property. It was a classic recipe for the inflation with which we’ve been living ever since.

I have to confess that as I read my way through Cahill’s tome I kept hearing the voice of Private Eye’s house leftie Dave Spart. The narrative is peppered with stuff worthy of Spart himself. Here is Cahill on tax: “The fact, that only the peasants paid tax, is true for 9,800 years of history. The role of monarchs, owners and the nobility was to collect tax and spend it mostly on themselves. Are modern governments any different?”

Yes, Mr Cahill, they are. Or at least they are in the world’s better regulated states. Our taxes go to pay for all those roads, bridges, hospitals, schools, day-centres, universities, colleges, nurseries, policemen, doctors, street lighting, dole money, invalidity benefit, tax credits, old age pensions and all the rest of it. Including, of course, the state’s guns, warplanes, aircraft carriers, nuclear-tipped missiles and nuclear-powered submarines. To suggest that government ministers “spend it mostly on themselves” is Dave Spart at his daftest.

And Cahill does seem to skip over the fact that there’s land and then there’s land. An acre of arable farmland in Essex or East Lothian is worth an awful lot more than an acre of scrub and sand on the edge of the Sahara or an acre of rock and ice in the upper reaches of Greenland. Does he really believe that a Skye crofter with 30 acres of boulder-strewn rough grazing is better off than the local authority IT manager with his centrally-heated bungalow on a quarter of an acre on the outskirts of Broadford? Land does not necessarily equate with wealth.

Having said all that, there’s enough interesting information in part two of Cahill’s book to compensate for the editorialising in part one. He’s certainly done his homework. From a wide variety of international sources he has assembled a huge bank of information which he’s organised in an efficient, useful and I think readable manner. Country by country, from Greenland to Antarctica, he lists population, acreage, the number of acres per head, the per capita gross national income (GNI) and details (where available) of how land is held.

I particularly enjoyed the section which analyses the USA, state by state. The folk in Alaska have a whopping 670 acres per person while the denizens of the city-state of Washington DC have a mere 0.1 acre. The almost square state of New Mexico (which was carved out of Old Mexico in the 1840s) covers just under 79 million acres, slightly bigger than Poland. It seems that the biggest private landowner in the USA is the TV tycoon Ted Turner who owns 1.8 million acres in ten different states.

And he does a good job in reminding us that the 3.3 billion acres that make up Antarctica (under which there may well lie rich mineral deposits) is currently regulated by the 45 countries who signed the Antarctic Treaty although only seven of them (Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway and the UK) actually make territorial claims. Britain’s claim, which dates back to 1908, is for 422 million acres. How they divvied up the land around the South Pole would make a book in itself.

But it seems to me that most of Cahill’s facts and figures are inclined to undermine his argument that land ownership is crucial to a nation’s health and well-being. His figures show that some of the poorest populations on earth are the ones with the most elbow room. The people of Kazakhstan, for example, have 45 acres per person and a GNI of $2,260 while the folk of Lichtenstein have a paltry 1.4 acres per head out of which they manage to squeeze a GNI $56, 230 per head despite it being “unclear how the grand duchy is owned”.

Nor do vast natural assets translate into wealth for all. The oil and gas riches of Saudi Arabia (25.1 acres per person) produce a modest per capita GNI of $10,430 while little Israel (0.8 acres per person), with not a drop of hydrocarbons to its name, contrives to pay its embattled people £17,360 a head? Yet Cahill suggests that countries prosper best when they have a written constitution (which Israel doesn’t) and a well-run land registry (which Israel doesn’t). In fact, Israel’s system is reputed to be a shambles of modern Israeli, colonial British and old-style Ottoman systems.

And some of the information in part two set me wondering. For example, does it really cost a massive $107,000 just to register a property in Sweden as Cahill claims on page 595? Is it the case that the Belgians charge a slightly more modest $89,609 (including taxes)? Are these examples of extraordinary bureaucratic avarice, or should there be a full stop in the figures where there is currently a comma. Which would make the sums a more reasonable $107 and $89 respectively? That’s not just nitpicking: the credibility of the book depends on the accuracy of the information.

There’s no doubt that this is a hugely ambitious piece of work. Kevin Cahill has set out to reveal the use and abuse of a small planet and to some extent he has succeeded. His book is wide-ranging, interesting, packed with facts and well put together. It may be a bit too heavily loaded with the author’s opinions but I certainly cannot think of another like it. Kevin Cahill has put in years of hard work and for that I’ve nothing but admiration.

But I’m not convinced that it all adds up to the publisher’s claim that Who Owns the World is of “huge political, economic and social importance” and will “revolutionise our understanding of our planet, its history and its land”. That book, it seems to me, is still to be written.

Kevin Cahill
Mainstream Publishing, £25.00
pp640 ISBN 1845961587

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