David Boyle discusses the history of the liberal distributist tradition in British politics.
Towards the end of his life, the great writer and campaigner G. K. Chesterton looked back at his awkward relationship with Liberalism like this:
“As much as I ever did, more than I ever did, I believe in Liberalism. But there was a rosy time of innocence when I believed in Liberals.”
It is worth asking what happened to Chesterton and his immediate circle and their commitment to Liberalism, including Hilaire Belloc, who was Liberal MP for Salford South until 1911.
The answer is that they were part of the wider consequences of the so-called Marconi scandal, involving insider trading by ministers in the Asquith government.
They left the party under the influence of Belloc’s 1912 book The Servile State, which was later incorporated back into mainstream Liberalism under Jo Grimond in the 1950s. The idea was that both capitalism and socialism tended towards slavery.
Instead, Belloc called his alternative political ideology ‘distributism’. In the fullness of time, his political party, the Distributist League was also formally incorporated back into the Liberals.
I find myself in sympathy with the distributists – though perhaps as they radical anti-monopoly campaigners they were in the 1920s, readopting Joseph Chamberlain’s old radical slogan ‘Three acres and a cow’. In the 1880s, that was what Chamberlain’s sidekick Jesse Collings – Liberal MP for Ipswich and then Birmingham Bordesley – believed was necessary to lead an independent life.
Belloc argued that this possibility of independence was necessary and could be achieved by the big distributist idea: that land holdings needed to be broken up to provide everyone with that basic economic independence. This was small scale land ownership as well – nobody could be fully independent as renters, however enlightened or official the landlord.
Belloc used to warn, for example, that social credit – a basic income – could not solve this fundamental problem: if the government gave everyone enough money to live on, they would soon be overwhelmingly tempted by forced labour. The distribution of land came first, in other words.
Chesterton was the distributist propagandist, spreading ideas via his weekly newspaper, books like An Outline of Sanity, and a series of setpiece debates with Bernard Shaw, representing the Fabian socialists.
In fact it is possible to see distributism as the direction Liberals would have taken if they had not swung behind Fabian ideas in the early years of the last century.
But while the idea of land reform (redistribution, not nationalisation) was a distributist objective that remains relevant. So is the business of growing things for independence – which must be some of the reason why allotments are now so popular. Otherwise there is no doubt that distributism isn’t exactly trendy.
This is partly because Belloc swung to the right having left the Liberals. He was a lifelong Catholic apologist and distributism owed a huge amount to Catholic social doctrine, which also owed something to UK Liberalism, via Cardinal Manning and John Ruskin (that was where the word ‘subsidiarity’ came from).
He and Chesterton became increasingly conservative Catholics, defending Franco and Mussolini – though, in their defence, both were early warning about the threat that Hitler posed to the Jews and the peace of Europe.
Like so many radical movements before and since, the distributists took up more Catholic causes alongside their back-to-the-land campaigning. No more were they taking on the municipal monopolists London General by buying their own buses to steal their customers.
You can read a little more about them in my short book about the back-to-the-land tradition.
So, what might they mean for today? One of the paradoxes of distributism was its attitude to women. They were predictably old-fashioned, yet so many of their leaders were women, including the founder of the women’s police, Nina Boyle (not a very close relative!).
They were also great wordsmiths. The defence of small-scale and rural was wonderful, but I don’t believe they expected to win. “Do anything, however small, that will delay the work of capitalist combination,” wrote Chesterton in 1926. “Save one shop out of a hundred shops. Save one croft out of a hundred crofts. Keep open one door out of a hundred doors; for so long as one door is open, we are not in prison.”
It is wonderful stuff but it isn’t the rhetoric of victory. Perhaps that was why the distributists failed, as they clearly expected to. They were melancholic theorists rather than optimistic doers.
But things have changed over the past generation, which means that back to the land may once again become a political factor. Yes, it has an obvious relevance to the climate crisis and the issues around local regeneration and how to achieve it. But, even more importantly, women are now the driving forces.
Perhaps this began with the American distributist Dorothy Day, editor of the Catholic Worker, who marked a shift of energy in the back to the land movement from predominantly male to predominantly female.
After her death in 1980, those who came after her – from Pam Warhurst of Incredible Edible in Todmorden to Greenbelt founder Wangari Maathai in Nairobi, from the pioneers of the local food movement across New England to the tree-hugging Chipko women of Uttar Pradesh – have tended to be women.
It was the distributists who had led the way battling against eugenics, agricultural cruelty and pesticides. But while their forerunners Ruskin wrote and Samuel Palmer painted, and did it very well, the women acted. Gandhi’s programme of agrarian devolution plus nation-rebuilding – in some ways an offshoot of the same English tradition – is now so often led by women.
Perhaps the most obvious symptom of this shift is the change in the status of allotments in the UK. By the 1970s, this tended to be a dwindling retirement activity for men of a certain age, like pigeon-fancying.
Now the 100,000 people waiting for allotments in London alone, and those who are growing things on the extraordinary multi-ethnic informal landscapes that allotment sites have become, are overwhelmingly women.
So perhaps in ways they never quite expected, the distributists are back…
There are now political academics who use the term ‘distributist’, shorn of its Catholic accretions, as a shorthand for the bearded sandals wing of the party. As one of that persuasion myself, I feel myself increasingly alone and misunderstood by either technocratic wing – neither right nor left seem to understand why I might be against big business but in favour of small, why I might be in favour of entrepreneurs but against corporates.
I hope a few more might get these fine distinctions now…
David Boyle is a former editor of Liberal Democrat News and a Lib Dem parliamentary candidate. He is the author of Back to the Land (the Real Press).