The Properties of Democracy
In modern Britain the rights to freedom of speech and freedom of association are rightly among those most treasured. Following on their heels is the right to property, although at times it seems a rather weaker cousin. Speaking and meeting with others come naturally, but owning property is a bit more involved. If, like most, we do not inherit great wealth, we must work for it. If we cannot work we might perhaps vote for the State to provide. In any event, like speech and freedom of association, property does play a vital role in national life and in the democratic process.
Because I have worked for it, I tend to care very much about my property. It matters to me that it be recognised as mine and that I be free to dispose of it as I wish. While I recognise that the right to property is not absolute, still projected curtailments of it ought always to be thought out very carefully.
The most widespread instance of property ownership is housing. For Britons today property means first and foremost a home that we own. But, as house-prices rise sharply, especially in the capital, this aspiration is increasingly beyond the reach for those lower down the income scale. Of course, it’s not as if the British have always owned their own homes. An Englishman’s home may well be something like his castle but, like universal suffrage widespread home-ownership is barely a hundred years old.
By its nature property ownership, like the vote, entails a stake in the country. It is the realisation of what the owner has worked for, or the actualisation of his or her creative potential. Far from being simply a response to the material need for shelter home-ownership reaches deep into one’s identity and becomes a part of self-understanding and of how one relates to others. In times gone by the village church, built by the villagers themselves, might well have been the only stone building for miles around, and it was in this place that collective identity was shaped. As resources have become more freely available we have taken to making our own homes out of durable materials and have established more private means for grounding ourselves and our families in land.
In the fifteenth century during the reign of King Henry VI it was established that men who owned property to the value of forty shillings per year should be entitled to vote. These became known as ‘forty-shilling freeholders’. Initially this was an attempt to avoid confusion with too many people standing for public office, but it served a dual purpose. By restricting the franchise to men of moderate wealth Parliament could be sure that those voting were not only responsible and capable of conducting their own affairs effectively but also that they had a demonstrable interest in running the country.
Such property-based restrictions on the franchise may seem archaic in the twenty-first century but as public disengagement with, and indifference, to politics continues to spread it may be time to see widespread home ownership as more than a popular aspiration and, like freedom of speech, as something integral to the democratic process itself.