Pagina-afbeeldingen
PDF
ePub

CONFISCATION AND COMPENSATION.

It is contended, with some show of reason, by the authors and advocates of the Irish Land Bill, that the measure cannot possibly create a precedent for legislation affecting landed property in England, and that English members may therefore regard it with platonic coolness. There is, however, one feature in the Bill which cannot be thus isolated in its effect. Whether the peculiar economic and social conditions prevailing in Ireland are, or are not, essentially different from those prevailing in England, and require, therefore, a different treatment; may be matter for argument, but there can be no pretence that any such differences justify the application of varying principles in dealing with legal rights annulled, invaded, or impaired by legislation. If Parliament, in the public interest, deems it necessary and right to confiscate' any man's property, whether it be in land or houses or Government stock, in England, in Scotland, or in Ireland, the principles upon which the claim of the owner to be compensated has to be considered cannot be subject to local and fluctuating conditions. Political economy has been banished from Ireland to‘Jupiter

Saturn,' but no such decree has yet gone forth against political morality; and heretofore the political morality accepted in theory and applied in practice by all English statesmen has included an admission, that when private rights, previously acknowledged and enforced by law, are interfered with by legislation, the State is bound to compensate the persons damnified by the change. If the Irish Land Bill departs from this sound principle, it is quite certain that the mischievous effect of the precedent will not hereafter be limited to Ireland only.

The Irish Land Bill, as introduced and defended by the Government, contains no provisions for compensating the landlords who are called upon to surrender a portion of their legal rights. The explanations of Ministers on this point have hitherto, in Parliament at least, been ambiguous and contradictory. But Mr. Chamberlain in a speech delivered at Birmingham on the 7th of June-a speech extolled by some admirers of the Ministry as supplying a triumphant demonstration that the so-called Radical members of the Cabinet are

6

a

in truth the most moderate of men was extremely candid in his exposition of the ministerial views. His candour, indeed, must to some extent surprise his cautious colleague, the Attorney-General for Ireland, who has protested in the House of Commons against being

entrapped' into explanatory statements by questions from the front Opposition bench with respect to the meaning of the language of certain provisions of the Bill. Mr. Chamberlain not only scoffs at the notion that the landlords have any claim to compensation, but arraigns the Opposition as equally guilty of obstruction with the • Irish party,' because they have ventured to put forward that claim in committee. He said at Birmingham:

The Bill has also been delayed by the action of the Tories, who are striving by amendments and by discussions to force upon the Government provisions for the compensation of the landlords for what they call the confiscation of their property. I

very much doubt whether these amendments are really suggested by Irish landlords, who, I believe, as a rule are anxious only for a reasonable settlement. I am inclined to think they are suggested by English landlords who are afraid of inconvenient precedents. But in any case I say that these amendments are unreasonable, and ought to be rejected. What have we to compensate the landlords of Ireland for? We do not propose to do anything above and beyond this: to make compulsory upon all landlords the practice which we are assured the majority of landlords, and certainly of good landlords, now adopt. Good landlords do not rack-rent their tenants; why should bad landlords be compensated for a legal right which they cannot equitably exercise ? A good landlord will not forfeit the property or the improvements of his tenants, and he will not lightly evict from his holdingwhich, perhaps, is the only means of livelihood which the tenant has—a man who, himself and his family, has remained, perhaps, longer on the ground even than the landlord has. Bad landlords have done this in some cases, and might do in many more ; but I cannot conceive that they have any right to claim compensation for restriction and limitation of powers which they ought never to have been permitted to enjoy. In our English legislation there are numberless precedents in which legal rights have been found to be in conflict with public morality and public interest, and have been restricted and limited, and I am not aware of any such cases in which compensation has been given to those who have been thus treated.

This remarkable statement contains several startling propositions, but the most important is the assumption that when legal rights are abolished, no claim to compensation arises if it can be argued that those rights are inequitable.' It can be shown, I think, that the Bill interferes with and impairs rights which not even Mr. Chamberlain would pronounce inconsistent with equity, and I intend to give particular instances of hardship and loss of various degrees and kinds. But, waiving this point for the present, let us consider the scope of Mr. Chamberlain's principle. It involves not only confiscation, but penal confiscation ; the verdict of guilty,' on the ground of which the sentence is passed, is brought in, not by any responsible tribunal, but by the vague and shifting mass of political opinion dominant for the moment in the House of Commons. The impossibility of finding any basis for general agreement as to what is and what is not equitable requires no demonstration. What is regarded as

| The Spectator writes on June 11 : “We ask confidently whether a more sincerely moderate and, in the best sense, Conservative speech than Mr. Chamberlain's on the subject of Ireland could by any possibility have been delivered by a Liberal minister ?

equity' in relation to landed property by Mr. Parnell and Mr. Dillon may be deemed iniquitous by Mr. Gladstone, Sir Stafford Northcote, and possibly Mr. Chamberlain himself. The converse is equally true. The Irish agrarian agitators denounce as inequitable powers of which no English Liberal, however advanced his opinions, condemns the exercise. According to Mr. Chamberlain's strange doctrine,

justice is to be measured by the length of the judge's foot,' and the judge in this case is to be the parliamentary majority for the time being.

It is almost humiliating to have to state formally the reasons against admitting Mr. Chamberlain's principle, which it is clear must apply to every other legislative change affecting any sort of property just as much as to the tenure of land in Ireland. But Mr. Chamberlain's position as a Cabinet Minister gives weight to his words, while the intentions of the Government are still obscure; for it is to be observed that the Prime Minister, though he has carefully wrapt up his meaning in a cloud of verbiage, appears inclined to take up of defence inconsistent with that bluntly avowed by the member for Birmingham. Mr. Forster, however, has more distinctly placed on record the alternative method of arguing against compensation. In the debate on the second reading, he said :

The right hon. and learned Member for the University spoke of compensation to the landlords, and I think I am not mistaken in supposing that that was the real meaning of his speech; he hoped that terms would be made for affording compensation to them by large State payments. Now, the state of things in Ireland is this—that equity gives one thing and statute law enforces another. The statute law has not admitted in many parts of Ireland the right of the tenant to his occupancy, and even in Ireland, where that right is admitted, it is not guarded against being invaded ; whereas equity now demands that it should be so guarded. We have had cases very often in which we have had to change the law in order to carry out the principles of equity, and there have been cases sometimes in which large compensation has been given out of State funds. I, therefore, am not surprised to hear a claim made for compensation. But the English law in the matter depends upon whether damage can be proved, and my firm belief is that no damage can be proved ; on the other hand, that if the landlord were compensated, you would compensate him for conferring on him a benefit.

a line

To which of these defences do the Ministry intend to adhere, when the question of compensation is raised ? Will they contend with Mr. Chamberlain that the landlords have no claim to be compensated for the abolition or restriction of rights they ought never to have been permitted to enjoy,' or will they strive to show with Mr. Forster that no loss has resulted from the legislative intervention with those rights? Each line of defence is open to grave objection ; and there are several cases arising out of the Bill as it stands, which are covered by neither the one nor the other.

The unbroken practice of English legislation has established legality, not equity, as the test of interference with rights by Parliament which creates a claim for compensation. Of one remarkable chapter of English history, those who say, as Mr. Chamberlain says, that they are not aware of compensation being ever given for abrogating rights which have been found to be in conflict with public morality and public interest,' must be ignorant. The emancipation of the slaves in the British colonies is a crucial instance of the application of the principle, which Mr. Chamberlain summarily dismisses as preposterous. If there ever were legal rights in contradiction with

natural equity,' the rights of the West Indian proprietors to their property in human flesh and blood were to be classed among them. The utmost abuse of power with which a small minority of Irish landlords are chargeable--for the main body of them, as Mr. Gladstone said in his speech on the introduction of the Bill, have been tried and acquitted-is not to be compared with the elementary and indelible wrong implied in slavery. Yet when the Emancipation Bill was brought forward the claim of the West India proprietors to compensation was recognised by Parliament, and, in spite of the opposition of a few fanatics, was admitted by the leading abolitionists, including Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton himself. A protest addressed to Parliament on the part of the persons affected by the Bill in May 1833, contains the following passage, every word of which applies with increased force to the case of the Irish landlords under the proposed change in the tenure of land : “There is no stronger title to property than that which is derived from positive law, and no other security against spoliation than that the Government will respect the rights and interests which have grown up under the laws it has made. The proprietors of negro slaves possess them under the sanction of British laws, which enabled, and especially encouraged, the people of Great Britain to convey slaves from Africa, and to sell them to their fellow-subjects in the colonies. Looking to the rights thus acquired, the West India proprietors do solemnly protest against any measure which takes away their property without adequate compensation-a measure which, if carried through, will shake the foundations of every species of property, and establish a precedent which may speedily lead to every other species of property being similarly dealt with. This appeal was effectual, though there were even then some persons in Parliament ready to contend, as Mr. Chamberlain contends, that because the legal rights of the slave proprietors were inequitable, and such as they ought never to have been permitted to enjoy,' their abolition was not to be compensated by the State. The principle of the compensation clause was not challenged in the House of Commons, and a motion to reduce the sum voted from 20 to 15 millions was rejected on a division by 304 to 56.

This is only one example out of a whole host that might be cited, in which Parliament has recognised that the abrogation of rights established by law ought to be accompanied by compensation at the public charge. Mr. Gladstone was able to point to only one apparent exception, the Scotch Patronage Bill of 1874, where the property was practically valueless and the great majority of the owners of advowsons deliberately waived their rights. The other cases cited by the Prime Minister were curiously irrelevant. No compensation was given, he says, to Irish tenants when various changes in the land laws detrimental to their unrecognised, but real, occupancy right were carried in Parliament. This may be regrettable, but it affords no precedent for dealing with rights not vague and unrecognised, but secured by positive law. In truth Mr. Gladstone, after flinging this argument at his opponents’ heads, falls back himself upon the ground that no confiscation can be proved, and no compensation therefore ought to be demanded. He thus admits that when legal rights are taken away for public objects, the loss ought not to fall on those who have enjoyed those rights by long prescription and with the express sanction of the law.

Moreover, it is to be noted that the most extreme proposals put forward for the settlement of the Irish land question by men of the most advanced views have heretofore safeguarded the principle at which Mr. Chamberlain boldly strikes. Mr. Mill in 1868 propounded a scheme of Irish land reform avowedly as an ideal object, the recognition of which might induce a nation loving compromises to go further in practical measures. After describing his plan of expropriation, he said :

Such a change may be revolutionary, but revolutionary measures are the thing now required. It is not necessary that the revolution should be violent, still less that it should be unjust. It may and it ought to respect existing pecuniary interests which have the sanction of law. An equivalent ought to be given for the bare pecuniary value of all mischievous rights which landlords or any others are required to part with. But no mercy ought to be shown to the mischievous rights themselves; no scruples of purely English birth ought to stay our hands from effecting, since it has come to that, a real revolution in the economical and social constitution of Ireland. . . . There must be compulsory powers, and a strictly judicial inquiry. It must be ascertained in each case, as promptly as is consistent with due investigation, what annual payment would be an equivalent to the landlord for the rent he now receives (provided that rent be not excessive), and for the present value of whatever prospect there may be of an increase, from any other source than the peasant's own exertions. This annual sum should be secured to the landlord under the guarantee of law. He should have the option of receiving it directly from the national treasury by being inscribed as the owner of Consols sufficient to yield the amount. Those landlords who are the least useful in Ireland, and on the worst terms with their tenantry, would probably accept this opportunity of severing altogether their connection with the Irish soil.2

* Mr. Mill, in his Autobiography, says that his plan (above referred to) offered each individual landlord State purchase as an alternative, if he liked better to sell his estate than to retain it on the new conditions. He adds: “I fully anticipated that most landlords would continue to prefer the position of landowners to that of

« VorigeDoorgaan »