Why everything returns to land
LAND has always held a special place in men’s hearts. Land to settle, to till and to own. Holding land and fighting for it is a constant theme of history and a continual cause of conflict. It is, therefore, Britain’s greatest good fortune that we haven’t been fought over for more than 250 years.
What an uncovenanted advantage it has been not to have been invaded or occupied since Bonnie Prince Charlie fled and the Hanoverian succession was secured. Since then, the security of property has been entrenched by the rule of law. No wonder that the right to own property is one of the fundamental human rights delineated both in the European Charter and that of the United Nations.
None of our neighbours has had our good fortune. The quest for territory continues to convulse countries on the continent of Europe even today. Napoleon, the Prussians, the Kaiser, Hitler, the Soviets: the battles over land have been constant. They still continue in Ukraine and the threat is palpable in the Baltic states and Moldova.
It’s easy to see all this aggression in the simple terms of political ambition—individuals and nations seeking wealth and power—yet it’s never merely been the simple quest for power. It’s the territorial imperative expressed in terms of imperialism, Lebensraum or the search for an ethnic homeland. Beneath it all is the search for security that possessing land gives to nations and to individuals alike.
For generations, the British have spent the money they made in the towns on buying land in the countryside. Land has given a solidity to achievement and established roots for the trader and the entrepreneur. The ebb and flow of commerce or of a profession has found its stable state when a man has become lord of all he surveys.
All of this has been, for we British, part of the natural order of things for nearly three centuries, so much so that we take it for granted and hardly recognise the important part it plays nor how unthreatened it has seemed to be. It must have been much like this for the Romans in the comfort of the Pax Romana immediately before the world as they knew it collapsed. Property, security and stability: these formed their bedrock. However, these were things that much of the world lacked and longed for. Ultimately, they were the things from which the dispossessed were no longer willing to be excluded, the things they finally took by force.
We are at such a turning point today. Global communication lays bare our privilege for the whole world to see. Our very stability portrayed on television, the internet and social media is a constant reminder to three-quarters of humankind of what they lack. However, it’s at this time that the institutions that protect our society are under siege.
Donald Trump sidelines the United Nations, draws back from NATO and threatens the Paris agreement. The British media attacks overseas aid, glorifies Brexit and belittles the rule of law. France, Germany and the Netherlands entertain populist nationalist alternatives and Benjamin Netanyahu pushes for more settlements on other people’s land.
All the apparatus of international law and liberal democracy is under attack by the very people it most defends. Instead of redoubling our efforts to build a world in which more and more can enjoy what we take for granted, we sabotage the institutions that ensure our stability. We should remember that property provides security only where law prevails. We should never forget just how fragile is our good fortune and how important are the institutions upon which it depends.
‘We should remember that property provides security only where law prevails