In a few days, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson will finally be able to claim “we delivered Brexit.” But what kind of Brexit will it be? Nobody knows what the UK will look like in a few years’ time. Will it remain close with the European Union, its biggest trading partner? Or will Johnson pursue closer ties with the United States? The geopolitical course he chooses will also determine what will happen to healthcare, education, taxes, and social inequality in the United Kingdom.
It is possible that the UK will become “Singapore-on-Thames”, embracing the raw capitalist model of the US and aggressively competing with EU countries. Several pressure groups and individuals are working to achieve this. But I don’t bet on this scenario. Why? For one simple reason: an American-style meritocracy will undermine the livelihoods, political influence, and way of life of many citizens who vote Conservative – in other words, those who won a resounding victory in last December’s elections.
Like many people in the UK and beyond, Guy Shrubsole, a researcher at environmental NGO Friends of the Earth, often wondered in recent years what it would mean to “take back control over our country”. He realised that, to answer that question, he would first have to answer a simple question: who owns the country?
In France and the Netherlands, land ownership is public information. In the UK, this is not the case – as Shrubsole knew. In 1980 Kevin Cahill began trying to answer exactly the same question. It took Cahill 20 years to do so. In the UK, the Land Registry is not public. A request for information carries a fee of around £3 per plot. Mapping the entire country would cost more than £72m. Eventually, in 2001, Cahill showed in his groundbreaking book Who Owns Britain that around 36,000 people owned half the land in the UK. Many of them are aristocrats with vast estates that have been in the family for generations. The public sector – local government, universities or the Ministry of Defence – owned 17 per cent of the land, while ordinary homeowners accounted for 5 per cent. For each district, Cahill meticulously mapped out ownership. Page after page, it was a long list of lords, viscounts, and barons.
The landowners were terrified of a victory for Labour under Jeremy Corbyn
Cahill wrote that large landowners receive most government subsidies, top positions at banks and public institutions, and appointments to the House of Lords – all this outside the reach of the House of Commons, according to Cahill. “This seamless web of control of the country’s finances through the city by the same families who dominated the upper house of Parliament and who were the abiding influence within the Conservative party gave the landowners such an intimate and enduring link to, and grip on, power. It was power which made their ancestors rich, as the Sunday Times ‘Richest of the Rich’ lists in 2000 showed, and it is power that has kept them rich right into the first year of the new millennium.”
Last summer, Shrubsole published Who Owns England, a sequel to Cahill’s book in which he confirms that, 20 years on, all this is still true: aristocrats own one-third of the land; newly moneyed industrialists, bankers, and oligarchs 17 percent; companies 18 percent; the public sector 8.5 percent; ordinary homeowners 5 percent; the Crown 1.4 percent; and the church 0.5 percent. Seventeen percent of the country is still unregistered, because aristocrats who are selling land do not need to register this. Land reforms such as those in Ireland have never taken place in the UK. Reform is what Shrubsole now advocates, because “less than one percent of the population owns half of the land”.
Brexit was not the idea of the Conservative Party, aside from a small and vocal minority within it. The UK Independence Party (UKIP) started campaigning for Brexit, representing the nouveau riche and the disillusioned working class. If UKIP won power, landowners would lose the grip they now have on the country through their political vehicle, the Conservative Party. In the end, the Conservatives embraced Brexit to defeat UKIP. It worked. After getting rid of UKIP, they defeated Labour.
The landowners were terrified of a victory for Labour under Jeremy Corbyn, who would have destroyed their status, their privileges, and their political power. This explains why many moderate Tories who opposed Brexit still voted for Boris Johnson in December – his lies and clownish, sometimes undignified behaviour notwithstanding. No one but Johnson could guarantee the preservation of their power and their way of life.
Kenneth Clarke, a Tory MP who was fired by Johnson for opposing his Brexit policies, was recently asked by the Financial Times if he felt “a little pleased” that the Tories won in December. “In a way, I do” was the answer.
Having defeated both UKIP and Labour, the Tories can afford to be a little more moderate on Brexit. Don’t be surprised if they try to stay close to the EU. The alternative would be to embrace the American system of diehard capitalism and meritocracy, which would eventually push aside traditional landowners’ power and privileges. Most Tories are no revolutionaries – on the contrary, they have just prevented the revolution. For them, Brexit was a way to keep many things as they were.
Caroline de Gruyter is a Europe correspondent and columnist for the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad and a Council Member of the European Council on Foreign Relations. This article is a translated and edited version of an article which first appeared on 25 January in NRC Handelsblad.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.