"Men of England, wherefore plough / For the lords who lay ye low? / Wherefore weave with toil and care / The rich robes your tyrants wear?" In the year 1819 When Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote 'Song to the Men of England' just 5% of the population had the vote and some MPs were elected by a single constituent. Shelley's England was unimaginably different to ours, yet nearly two hundred years later, the question of why workers toil for the lords and tyrants who oppressed them remains surprisingly relevant.
The old system of landlordism and rack rents may have gone, but today Britain has the second most unequal distribution of land in the world. Only in the agricultural developing economy of Brazil do so few plutocrats own so much land. Just 0.36% of our population own two-thirds of England's earth, with much of that in the hands of cynical developers who hoard unused land which they drip-feed onto the market, keeping house prices artificially high and blighting the economy with stagnation. The same applies to wealth too; income inequality is growing faster in the UK than any other rich country, helped on by the coalition of privilege: The Tory-Lib Dem government of Oxbridge millionaires and businessmen.
In 'The Mask of Anarchy', which may be the greatest English political poem ever written, Shelley attacked the 1819 Tory cabinet one by one. Foreign secretary Castlereagh, once responsible for rigging the Act of Union vote in Ireland with bribery, is characterised as 'Murder'. Shelley continues, 'Very smooth he looked, yet grim; Seven blood-hounds followed him.' Lord Sidmouth is 'Hypocrisy' whilst Eldon is 'Fraud', but then prime minister Lord Liverpool is Anarchy himself: 'With a pace stately and fast, / Over English land he passed, / Trampling to a mire of blood / The adoring multitude'.
If you wanted an image of the leader of today's ruling class, David Cameron, leading his cabinet of privileged cronies and 'smooth yet grim' ministers, this is it.
The poem is worth reading in full. Whilst gladly today's Tories do not elicit the assassination plots and Jacobin revolts on Yorkshire moors that Lord Liverpool faced, today the men and women of England have means of resistance at their disposal that Shelley would have envied. Our democratic processes that many malign and reject offer the means for which legislation can be enacted to break the choke-hold the landed few have over the toiling many.
Today just under 500,000 job vacancies are expected to go round 9m underemployed and unemployed workers. Those who cannot beat the odds are to be punished with cuts to public services, disability benefit, whilst the NHS is sold off to private companies at the expense of patients, schools are increasingly run for profit not pupils, and the legal system is privatised beyond function as defendants face the prospect of being represented by the same company which would jail them. The prevalence of foodbanks has shot up 1000%, whilst the poor and disabled are literally killing themselves after their benefits are snatched from them by a cabinet of millionaires. The austerity experiment increasingly looks like an experiment in human despair. Discredited by Nobel-prize winning economists Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz with 80% of polled economists in agreement, austerity will result in suffering for the masses. Half of British children will grow up in poverty by the time the current Parliament expires in 2015.
Yet the 'lords who lay ye low' are still sat atop the tree, while the rest weave and toil. The Times rich list showed the richest Britons wealth increase by 20% in 2012, whilst the Tories handed millionaires a £100,000 tax cut by lowering income tax at the top to 45%, and cuts in corporation tax from 28% to 20% of profits benefit the elite all the more.
To demand that the rich landowners pay their fair share, a land value tax should be implemented, once championed by Winston Churchill and Adam Smith. The tax would apply to all non-residential properties to penalise greedy developers from underutilising land. If you aren't living on the land, you should be forced to pay a rate of tax, encouraging the land to be made profitable. By valuing land at its optimum usage, which is whatever planning dictates it is best suited for, investment will be encouraged and jobs delivered.
Land taxes already exist in Denmark, Hong Kong and parts of the US and Australia. Labour's Land Campaign demonstrated how it could be effective, taking the town of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania as example. In 1982, Harrisburg was the second most run-down city in the US. After it employed the land value tax vacant sites fell by 85%, $4bn was invested in 32,000 new building permits, and the number of businesses shot from 1,908 to 8,864. Unsurprisingly given such a revival, unemployment fell 19%. Such policies are popular too. Harrisburg's mayor has been re-elected continuously since creating the tax thirty years ago.
If there is one unintended advantage to the parochial and nationalistic history syllabus drawn up by Michael Gove this year, it is that English children may learn about the brave men and women whose popular struggles against ruling elites have delivered us our welfare-based democracy. Figures like Tom Paine, the Chartists, Sylvia Pankhurst and Nye Bevan campaigned for the benefits and society we enjoy. Once again, Shelley faced it all, and understood what must be done. The Masque of Anarchy finishes: 'The old laws of England - they / Whose reverend heads with age are gray, / Children of a wiser day; / And whose solemn voice must be / Thine own echo - Liberty!'
To defeat the coalition of privilege and achieve real liberty, including freedom from poverty and want, we must commit to challenging the wealth of the few at the top who exploit the many below.