DLT: Henry George Foundation

Duncan Brack and Ed Randall, authors of the Dictionary of Liberal Thought, have kindly agreed to let us publish extracts on Lib Dem Voice. Last month Henry George; this month in follow-up, the Henry George Foundation. The entire book is available on Amazon here and can also be bought at the Westminster Bookshop.

Henry George Foundation

A charity that promotes the theories of Henry George, the Foundation is the principal supporter in the UK of taxes on the value of land (and other natural resources) as a means to promote social justice, alleviate poverty and increase economic efficiency.

Concerned about urban overcrowding and the plight of the poor, in February 1884 the British followers of Henry George (q.v.) established the Scottish Land Restoration League in Glasgow, with 1,800 members. Three months later they captured the London-based Land Reform Union (LRU) and renamed it the English Land Restoration League.

The Georgeite leagues were soon strongly connected with the Radical (q.v.) wing of the Liberal Party, and in 1894, the now-renamed United Committee for the Taxation of Ground Rents and Values started a journal, The Single Tax (later renamed Land Values and still extant as Land and Liberty), which by 1896 had a circulation of 5,000.

Most supporters of land value taxation saw it as a mildly progressive way to redistribute land-owners’ wealth. At the core of the movement, however, were the Single-Taxers, who in the years before 1914 included the MPs Josiah Wedgwood, Philip Morrell and Charles Trevelyan, the Scottish Lord Advocate Alexander Ure, and the American soap millionaire Joseph Fels, along with several thousand activists nationwide – mostly in the large cities – who, enthused by George’s mixture of simple economics and pseudo-religious moral certainty, wanted a radical reformation of economics, politics and morality.

A combination of the House of Lords’ recalcitrance, the reform’s inherent complexity and the advent of the First World War, however, meant that attempts to introduce taxes on land values were frustrated before 1914. And while the minority Labour government did enact rating based on site values in 1931, that government’s prompt fall, and the general Conservative dominance of inter-war politics, meant that land value taxes were never actually implemented.

Perhaps more significantly, the land-taxers were never again the force they had been before 1914, both because their aristocratic bête noire had lost much of its potency and because their own activists had splintered along with the Liberal Party. After 1945, collectivism – not least in the form of subsidised council housing – seemed to relegate George’s ideas to a historical footnote, where they stayed even when more libertarian (q.v.) economic views were revived by British governments after 1979.

The Henry George Foundation (the name it adopted in 1920) mirrored the decline of wider support for George’s ideas. It still survives, but its supporters now number in the hundreds, while its funds have declined until it can no longer afford any full-time staff. And yet it continues to keep the message of Henry George alive, at least on the internet, encouraged by the occasional support that taxes on land and other ‘common resources’ receive from academia or economic commentators, and a recent revival in political interest in land value taxation, including the Liberal Democrat proposal to base local business taxes on site value.

Further reading

• Roy Douglas, Land, People and Politics (Allison & Busby, 1976)

• Dominic Maxwell & Anthony Vigor (eds.), Time For A Land Value Tax? (IPPR, 2005)

• Paul Mulvey, The British Liberal Party and the Taxation of Land Values, 1906–1914 (www.schalkenbach.org/scholars-forum/Radicalisms-Last-Gasp.html, 2006)

Paul Mulvey

The Dictionary of Liberal Thought is one of the many titles available from the Liberal Democrat History Group. Find out more about them on their website.

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