William Francis

Ownership for all

One of the most glaring contradictions of British politics is the increasing attention paid to economic inequality by academics and the public, whilst decisions made by the central government do little to address this problem and actively make it worse. I suspect this has to do with wealth inequality being framed as an abstraction; something to be vaguely 'tackled' rather than a clear narrative about how policy should improve the lived experiences of ordinary people. A positive Liberal case for mass ownership could be the remedy to this problem.

Liberals have long seen property as fundamental for creating liberty. For the Liberal MP Hilaire Belloc, this chiefly meant promoting ownership of small landholdings and stakes in co-operative enterprises. This was a cornerstone of Distributism, a proposed alternative to what Belloc saw as the collectivist ideologies of socialism and capitalism. That ideology was highly influential among the Unservile State group, who saw property as a form of economic security independent of employment or state welfare, with the Liberal Parliamentary candidate Ramsay Muir, arguing that 'liberty will be strengthened by the almost universal possession of "a bit of property" '.

The authors of the 1959 Ownership for All report knew of the broader social implications of their vision, as seen with their use of an establishing quotation from Milovan Djilas, the Yugoslav socialist intellectual and famous anti-Soviet dissident:

'Whenever there has been a higher degree of freedom for Society as a whole, the ruling classes have been forced, in one way or another, to renounce monopoly of ownership. The reverse is true also: whenever monopoly of ownership has been impossible, freedom, to some degree has become inevitable'.

In a similar vein the Cornish Liberal MP, John Pardoe, saw the broadening ownership of wealth as crucial for a large-scale transformation of Britain, as outlined in his 1975 Liberal News article Towards a Post-Capitalist Society. Whilst Peter Wiles of the Unservile State Group saw property as a superior vehicle to obtain social justice rather than an impersonal and bureaucratic welfare state. Class divisions would be eroded, and strict divisions of owners of property and workers would be blurred then dissolved. As such Yellow book's authors confidently proclaimed:

'The result of an intelligent system for encouraging the small investor, added to the results of a policy of distributing a reasonable share of industry-created capital among workers, should be… a real advance towards that goal of Liberalism in which everybody will be a capitalist, and everybody a worker, as everybody is a citizen.'

Another Unservile State Group member, Nathaniel Micklem, saw property as essential to the radical Liberal aim of 'the abolition of the proletariat and the emancipation of workers by making property owners of them all'. This was probably what Jo Grimond was referring to when he declared:

'I would abolish the working classes'.

Wiles was even more optimistic, if not naïve, about the effects of broadening ownership of consumer durables, arguing:

'A man is just as much a capitalist if he has his own washing-machine as if he possesses shares in a laundry'.

But property is about more than class and economic power. It is inextricably linked to Liberal values and is necessary for their promotion. Thus, its mass proliferation is needed to perpetuate, and strengthen a Liberal society.

For Donald Wade, the Liberal MP for Huddersfield West, property was not to be used to limit democracy but to expand it. Mass ownership was a means to promote mass participation and act as part of a wider system of industrial democracy, in contrast to the paternalism embedded in Tory notions of "Property Owning Democracy". Under his vision, citizenship would have an economic dimension, with people in a 'genuinely enterprising society' being investors in a wide variety of enterprises, as well as owning their homes. The end goal being 'politically conscious citizens with a sense of responsibility' living within a more 'democratic' economy.

These views were shared by the Liberal writer Elliot Dodds who saw 'the widespread ownership of property is the firmest guarantee against dictatorship', and Grimond pondered how best to promote 'the transition from industrial oligarchy to industrial democracy' back in 1959.

"Ownership for all" is a unique narrative, relevant to a broad cross section of the public and rooted in Liberal conceptions of what society ought to be: individual empowerment in place of distant and opaque bureaucracies of central government and big business, as well as freedom from economic, social, and cultural marginalisation and oppression.

The Radical Association has recently set up an Ownership For All subcommittee that seeks to promote a vision of the country, where property ownership is broadly spread, so everyone has access to economic security, broader capacity to participate in their community economically as well as politically, and the means for self-development.

If you wish to build a vision of Ownership for All for the 21st century, please join us, and together we can build a more free, more democratic, more participatory, and ultimately more Liberal Britain.

William Francis is the Co-Chair of the Ownership for All subcommittee and executive member of the Radical Association. Anyone interested in joining the subcommittee please email him at william.francis11@btinternet.com.

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