1930s >> 1939 >> no-414-february-1939

The Land and the Labourer

The discontent of the small-capitalist agriculturalists, known as farmers, with the present Government, is finding expression upon the political field. One Independent Conservative candidate threatened to fight a National Liberal nominee in East Norfolk, and only withdrew at the last moment, and similar action is being threatened in other constituencies. At least one influential daily paper, the Daily Express, openly favours them.

In passing, it is interesting to notice how any special section of the property-owning class which desires an alteration in Government policy is prepared to exploit the war-scare. Do the railway companies wish to be rid of century-old restrictions? They profess deep concern for their ability to act efficiently in war-time. Are the farmers out to re-establish century-old restrictions upon foreign imports ? Their appeal is based upon the need for national independence as regards a food supply.

The Government’s policy is an attempt to maintain internal agricultural prices by restricting production by means of a marketing board. The farmers’ grouse is that this policy, so far from helping them, has merely subsidised the distributive concerns. The middleman, as usual, comes in for vituperation. He is, however, fairly safe in the knowledge that both economic conditions and the principles of his class ensure that given quantities of capital receive a proportionate rate of profit. The large scale upon which commerce in agricultural, as in other, products is carried on to-day requires a correspondingly large capital, which accounts to a large degree for the disparity between wholesale and retail prices, of which we hear so much.

Another factor which distresses many farmers is the fact that they were practically compelled by their one-time landlords to buy their farms when prices of land were high as a result of the war-boom. The purchases were made largely on a mortgage basis, with the result that the, farmer found himself out of the frying-pan into the fire. Interest payments took the place of rent. The landlord was replaced by the banker.

Where does the agricultural labourer come in? Each candidate in the East Norfolk election professed concern for him. At that moment, of course, he had a vote, which they wanted; but what do Protection or regulated marketing mean to him ?

He can hardly have any strong, motive for wishing to return to the condition of his ancestors of a hundred years ago, before the repeal of the corn-laws; while his attitude to his calling to-day may be gauged from the fact that no less than 180,000 of his ilk lost their employment during the sixteen years prior to 1937, a rate of decline which still goes on.

Wages boards have failed to prevent this, but there appears to be no lack of people anxious to supply him with yet more boards. For instance, the Labour Party. Their policy is outlined by Lord Addison in a penny pamphlet published eighteen months ago (“Labour’s Policy for our Countryside“).

As is only to be expected, it advocates “National ownership of land”; but lest some workers should imagine that this will rid them of the burden of landlords and capitalist farmers, let a quotation from page 8 serve: —

“Fair payment would be made to the present owners. Land would be paid for by the issue of National Securities to the amount of the purchase price justly determined, and the State, which would be guarantor for these National Securities, would acquire the freehold and all other rights in exchange.
“The Labour Party is opposed to confiscation, and the prejudice which its opponents seek to foster by false accusations on this subject should be disregarded. Many thoughtful men of all parties have long been convinced that National Ownership is the only way by which good cultivators can be freed from the crushing burdens of rent, mortgage interest and other charges. . . .
“Under Labour Government a farmer who does his work well need have no fear of disturbance.”

What is a farmer’s work? Briefly, it is to fleece his labourers as they do his sheep for him. They plough the fields and scatter the good seed on the land, but it is not to them that the noble Lord refers in his phrase “good cultivators.” The farmer takes the fruits of their labours and sells them for the best price he can get, but the Labour Party do not regard this process as confiscation. Out of his gross profits the farmer meets his “crushing burden” of rent and interest, but any attempt to restore the wealth taken from the workers is opposed by the Labour Party. In their eyes, as in the eyes of Liberals and Tories, such a restoration would be confiscation. Thus do they take the “Soc” out of Socialism.

Instead of Farmer Giles paying his rent to Lord Tomnoddy, he will hand it in to a Government department, which will spend it on an improved Air Force to scare the crows away. His Lordship will, no doubt, spend the interest on his National Security in Switzerland or Monte Carlo, what time labourer Hodge consoles himself with a National Wages Board (see page 12), which is to prescribe a National Minimum Wage.

Thus the essential features of capitalism in agriculture would remain. Such farmers as failed to pay the Minimum Wage, and were discovered, would be prosecuted, no doubt, from time to time, but there is no hint in the Labour Party programme of any danger of them losing their farms over it; and the steady increase in agricultural unemployment going on, Hodge is unlikely to be excessively fussy.

The farmers are promised easier credit, lower rents, guaranteed prices and control of imports; but, apart from the fact that the Labour Party, like their Liberal and Tory rivals, find it easier to make promises than to keep them, none of these proposals show any promise of helping the agricultural workers. It is not because the farmers are poor that the labourers suffer. Volumes have been written, from Professor Thorold Rogers downwards, to show that the height of the farmers prosperity through the centuries was founded upon the deepest degradation.of the workers.

After the Napoleonic Wars, during which the farmers (along with the landlords, bankers, merchants and manufacturers, stockbrokers and army contractors) had made fortunes, the agricultural workers were semi-paupers, having their wages made up by parish relief.

In 1830, with Protection still in force, their misery was revealed “by the light of blazing corn- stacks,” to quote the expression of one writer of the time (S. Laing, in “National Distress”).

In 1863, in spite of an enormous improvement in agricultural methods and equipment, fed by State subsidies during the previous twenty years, the land-workers were worse fed than convicts, and had to do twice as much work (“Royal Commission’s Report on Penal Servitude”).

Thus experience shows that good conditions for the farmers hold no guarantee for the comfort and security of those who produce their wealth. Their lot, whether under Free Trade or Protection, has been little, if anything, better than starvation. As for the rest of the workers, they are offered food at “fair prices,” as a bait for supporting the Labour Party’s scheme.

Here again, experience of a comparatively recent date shows the hollowness of the promise. After the War the general cost of living fell. Did the workers gain? No, wages fell with prices.

Whatever effect upon prices the schemes of the Labour Party may have, the workers cannot afford to place their hopes in them. Their task, so far as their wages are concerned, will still be to use their trade unions as weapons of defence; but a still greater task awaits them, i.e., to free themselves from wage-slavery by making the land and factories, etc., the common property of the whole people.

Eric Boden