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Cooking the Books 2: The Property Rights Act

When Labour got back into office in 1997, one of the first things they did, to show without spending any money that they were reformers, was to sign up to the European Convention on Human Rights. This was supposed to give people more legal rights. Actually, as infringements could give rise to monetary compensation, it was more a bonanza for lawyers and has resulted in the further spread of compensation culture, capitalisms tendency to put a monetary value on everything.

But it has also had another effect: to entrench further the rights of property, as two recent legal cases have shown (Times, 18 April and 23 November). Before the entry into force of the 1998 Human Rights Act, squatters acquired a legal right to a property after occupying it unchallenged for at least 12 years.

The cases involved property companies which had acquired titles to land which had been squatted by farmers for more than the 12 years. The companies relied on an article of the Convention that states: Every natural person is entitled to the peaceful enjoyment of his possessions. No one shall be deprived of his possessions except in the public interest and subject to the conditions provided by law.

The judges in both cases (the second those of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasburg from which there is no appeal) ruled that the previous English law that allowed the farmers to assume ownership of the land was an infringement of the property companies rights as enshrined in the Convention. As a result they will receive as compensation a nice fat cheque, likely to run in one case to millions of pounds.

So-called human rights have always been linked to property rights. As C.B. Macpherson showed in his classic study of 16th and 17th English political philosophy, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism, the whole concept of human rights was based on the idea of every human being having a property right to their own body. The state is not supposed to stop them using their mental and physical energies as they think fit; this involves not just freedom from arbitrary arrest and imprisonment, but also the freedom to exercise their mental faculties in speech, publication and religion.

Property as such came to be regarded as a human right when it was argued that humans also had a right to what they themselves had got from nature by their own bodily efforts, i.e. by their own labour. However, given the existing unequal ownership of property, especially land, the bourgeois theorists of possessive individualism shied away from the egalitarian implications of this labour theory of property. Instead they came up with various more or less specious reasons as to why property, however acquired (and including land, which no one created by their labour, and even slaves), was, in the words of the French Revolutions 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, an inviolable and sacred right.

The freedom of property-owners from arbitrary dispossession by the state was what the French Revolution established in France, but which the so-called Glorious Revolution in England in 1688 and the US Constitution had already established in these countries.

The European Convention of Human Rights is a direct descendant of the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man, itself a reflection of the theory of possessive individualism. It is essentially a Convention on the Rights of Property – as neatly illustrated by the fact that the article under which the property companies won was not some obscure subsection, but Article I of Protocol I entitled “Protection of Property”.