I've now posted a full write up of the history of 'The Land Song' on the History Workshop Online site - here's the link, do please take a look - there's audio, video and images
The Great Liberal Anthem 'The Land Song' - recorded in 1910
The audio above is a rendition of 'The Land Song' by George Hardy, issued as a 78rpm disc in 1910. It was the Liberal campaign tune in that year of two elections. It's still sung - so as you listen to this century-old recording, have a look below to find out more, and to hear Michael Foot's memories of what he described as his favourite political anthem.
The song features in a BBC World Service programme 'Witness' - broadcast on 11th May 2010, the day that the coalition deal was reached giving Liberal Democrats seats round the cabinet table for the first time since Liberals were part of the Second World War Churchill-led coalition govrnment.
I am in the process of writing a history of The Land Song, and if you have memories to share please do get in touch.
'The Land Song'
'The Land Song' is little known beyond the ranks of the Liberal Democrats' Glee Club - but it is one of the best political songs around. Michael Foot, among others, regarded it as his favourite political anthem.
It's sung to the tune of 'Marching through Georgia' and its origins lie in the United States in the 1880s, when Henry George developed a lively campaign in furtherance of "the single tax" on land. When a Liberal government sought to introduce a tax on land in Lloyd George's 'People's Budget' of 1909, 'The Land Song' became the anthem of Liberal radicals.
The song sheet on the left dates from this time - it's from the Centre for Political Song at Glasgow Caledonian University and is posted here with the Centre's permission.
Thc chorus of 'The Land Song' runs: The Land, The Land, 'Twas God that made the land The Land, The Land, the ground on which we stand Why should we be beggars with the ballot in our hand. God gave the land to the people!
The song was rediscovered by a new generation of radical Liberals in the 1960s, and remains the opening song of the Glee Club, an instiution which still thrives at Liberal Democrat conference - indeed 'Liberator' publishes a song book specially for the occasion.
I am not a Liberal Democrat member or activist but I''ve been ensnared by the song, and I'm seeking to put together an account of its history. All memories and anecdotes welcome. Send to me, please, at firstname.lastname@example.org - and when the article is written, I'll post it on this page.
'The Land Song' on disc
The conventional wisdom is that 'The Land Song' has never been conventionally recorded. But it has!
When I was researching the song's history, and its huge popularity particularly in the double eletion year of 1910 when it became a key part of the Liberals' campaign, I came across newspaper references to the song blaring out from gramophones.
It took quite a search to track down the recording. But with the help of the Scarce Sounds website, I have found a 78rpm disc - released early in 1910 - with George Hardy's renditions of the two songs on the sheet above, 'The Land Song' and 'Land Monopoly'. The label is shown here.
The song is accompanied by quite a lively brass section and is a touch slower in pace than I had expected. I know nothing of George Hardy, whose style of delivery is best described as idiosyncratic. 'The Laaaaaand' he sings. The audio is posted at the top of this page - and just below is the audio of the B side, 'Land Monopoly'. .
Above is 'Land Monopoly' performed by George Hardy, the B-side of the 78rpm disc released in or about 1910.
Michael Foot on 'The Land Song'
Here's the audio of Michael Foot talking about his favourite political song, interspersed with a rendition at a Liberal Democrat Glee Club
I interviewed Michael Foot back in November 1990 about 'The Land Song' after he had made reference to it in a 'Guardian' book review. This is the full account of what he told me: ‘I was brought up in a Liberal household down in Cornwall and Plymouth. My father was a Liberal Member of Parliament, a radical Liberal, and he taught me the song. Way back in the 1920s, I heard the song being sung. It wasn’t only the Liberals who sang it – it was sung by many others as well. I’m not quite sure who invented it. Lloyd George adopted it when he carried out his land campaign, and his attack on the landlords in 1909, 1910, and all the associated People’s Budget. And ‘The Land Song’ was the one which really seemed to strike terror into the hearts and minds of the landlords – as it should because it was directed at them.
‘I don’t mean any insult to other songs. There have been some very good songs: ‘England Arise’, which was the socialist song, was a very good song too, and in a sense that was the one that was most popular among the growing socialist or Labour parties at the beginning of the century; the ‘Internationale’ was a song which covered the whole world, and came back to England having travelled all round the continent; and the ‘Red Flag’ too, which became more officially the Labour Party song. All of them are very good songs. But for sheer effectiveness, and for a simple democratic message, I think ‘The Land’ still retains the vibrance and rhythm I’ve mentioned. It finishes up with the chorus: Why should we be beggars with the ballot in our hand God gave the land to the people.
'So it’s not only a land song, and it’s much more than a Liberal song, it’s a song that summarises the democratic case – how in fact, in order to achieve what people wanted, they should use their democratic powers, they were only just getting those democratic powers, to ensure there was a proper division of the landed property in the country.
‘It wasn’t a song sung only by Liberals. I can assure you that socialists were singing that song even more rightly and justly than Liberals were doing.’
For more about the favourite political songs of celebrated figures from Britain and abroad here's the link.
'The Land Song' as sung at the 2009 Liberal Democrat conference
The Youtube rendition above was at the Lib Dem Glee Club at Bournemouth in September 2009 - a century after Lloyd George's 'People's Budget' which propelled the song to prominence in British politics. Whether the singing is any more polished than that of George Hardy a century ago - posted at the top of this page - well, make up your own mind.
ritain’s ‘best political song’, yet many political insiders have never heard it sung. More than a century old, ‘The Land Song’ dates back to the glory days of Lloyd George Liberalism, and was revived from the 1960s by a new generation of Liberal radicals. History Workshop Journal editor Andrew Whitehead pursues the song’s history – discovers its only commercial recording – and traces the song’s contemporary echoes to the conference hotels of Bournemouth and Liverpool:
CLICK ABOVE TO LISTEN TO AN EXTRACT OF ‘THE LAND SONG’
My own familiarity with - and indeed non-partisan affection for – ‘The Land Song’ dates back twenty years or more, to my time as a lobby correspondent. For several years either side of the end of the Thatcher era, I used to spend a large part of the autumn traipsing around those seaside resorts which had managed to stave off hibernation at the end of the holiday season by attracting a party conference. Although we imagine that the dominance of the two main parties has only recently been challenged, circa 1990 the caravan of political correspondents rolled relentlessly for weeks on end: the Trades Union Congress, still a ‘must attend’ event back then; two centre party gatherings, Liberals (later Liberal Democrats) and Social Democrats; Labour; the Conservatives; and sometimes a quick jaunt north of the border to sample a resurgent Scottish National Party.
It was at this time that I first came across the Liberal Democrat Glee Club, a loud, late night and hugely well attended revue and ‘everybody join in’ evening of song: skits, lampoons, and some period pieces from the glory days of liberal radicalism. Of these, ‘The Land Song’, rendered at a gallop to the tune of ‘Marching through Georgia’, was always the first to be sung and the audience’s favourite. Although I considered myself one of the political cognoscenti, I had never come across this rousing song – nor, since my student days at the ‘Greyhound’ on Oxford’s Gloucester Green, had I encountered a lively forum for political song. I did a little light digging and feature reporting about the Liberal song tradition, but my career took me away from Westminster and party conferences and my fleeting interest in political song subsided.
In September 2009, I headed to the comfortable south coast resort of Bournemouth, once again as a journalist, to attend my first Liberal Democrat conference for almost twenty years. I wondered whether the Glee Club, hardly an event to suggest a contemporary cutting edge, might have fallen victim to a party drive towards sobriety and the political centre ground. It hadn’t. The evening was still organised by ‘Liberator’, a journal which regards itself as the disrespectful, radical ginger group within Britain’s third ranking political party. As an aide to participants, they publish a book of lyrics, underlining just how seriously liberals, architects of community politics, take their community singing. The 2009 edition was the twentieth, ran to forty-eight pages and had the words to more than seventy songs.
A little after ten o’clock at night, the Glee Club got underway with what those attending would regard without question as the liberal anthem – a song almost completely unknown outside party ranks. The words read:
Sound the call for freedom boys, and sound it far and wide,
March along to victory for God is on our side,
While the voice of nature thunders o’er the rising tide,
“God gave the land to the people!”
Chorus: The land, the land, ‘twas God who made the land,
The land, the land, the ground on which we stand,
Why should we be beggars with the ballot in our hand?
God made the land for the people.
Hark the sound is spreading from the East and from the West,
Why should we work hard and let the landlords take the best?
Make them pay their taxes on the land just like the rest,
The land was meant for the people.
Clear the way for liberty, the land must all be free,
Liberals will not falter from the fight, tho’ stern it be,
‘Til the flag we love so well will fly from sea to sea
O’er the land that is free for the people.
The army now is marching on, the battle to begin,
The standard now is raised on high to face the battle din,
We’ll never cease from fighting ‘til victory we win,
And the land is free for the people.
It’s never sung sitting down. On the chorus words ‘the land’, those assembled gently punch the air – and as they sing ‘why should we be beggars with the ballot in our hand’, everyone waves their song book as if an imaginary ballot paper. As I left the Glee Club at coming up to one o’clock in the morning, about 300 cheery conference delegates were singing ‘The Land Song’ for a second time – there’s a video of a rather bacchanalian rendition on You Tube.
SEE THE LAND SONG AS SUNG AT THE 2009 GLEE CLUB, CLICK ABOVE
Any song so loved, so carefully nurtured as an emblem of radicalism, must have quite a story. The Liberator Song Book provides, as befits such a serious minded movement, a brief historical note of all the items it contains. Those dating from the Liberals’ wilderness years need little explanation: ‘Losing Deposits’ sung to the tune of ‘Waltzing Matilda’, for instance. Others are weary recognition of the effort involved in outreach politics, such as ‘Climb Every Staircase’ to the music of ‘Climb Every Mountain’.
The swathe that date from the convulsions and excitements of the rise of the SDP in the 1980s, in alliance with the Liberals, sometimes need a little more context: ‘If you were the only Shirl in the world, and I were the only Woy’, for example, refers to two of the “gang of four” prominent Labour defectors who founded the SDP, and later were prominent in the Liberal Democrats. The Glee Club crowd tended to regard the Social Democrats as ‘soggies’, that is insufficiently radical and too concerned about their political careers. The alliance and subsequent merger prompted, a little like grit in the oyster, some pearls of the modern satirical political song.
Of ‘The Land Song’, the Liberator Song Book briefly records that its origins lay in the American land tax movement. ‘Liberals adopted the song in the two general elections of 1910, following the rejection by the House of Lords of Lloyd George’s 1909 People’s Budget, which proposed a tax on land.’ That made the Bournemouth sing-song a centenary rendition. Revitalised by the occasion, I sought to discover the song’s inception, the extent of its popularity among Lloyd George-era Liberal land campaigners, and the reasons for its restitution by Liberal radicals two generations later in part as a statement of political lineage. In the course of this quest, I have come across the only commercial recording of ‘The Land Song’ – a 78 rpm disc from 1910 – which is posted as part of this article. What I have failed to understand is why such a resonant anthem, which evokes strong identification and loyalty among those who still sing it, has such an inconspicuous place in the winder pantheon of political song.
FROM CHICAGO TO TRAFALGAR SQUARE
The words of ‘The Land Song’ appeared in a single tax publication in Chicago in 1887. No author was cited [Foner, pp261-2]. It was to be sung to the tune of ‘Marching through Georgia’, the stirring march composed a generation earlier at the end of the American Civil War which quickly became popular among veterans of the northern Union army. The lyrics have changed barely at all since that early published version.
While the land taxers were keen to state that the Liberal government was re-elected in January 1910 to the strains of ‘The Land Song’, the true story was more complex. Asquith’s administration emerged much diminished from the two elections of that year, and reliant on Irish nationalists for a majority in Parliament. In the first contest, the Liberals lost more than half their rural seats, which put something of a brake on the party’s enthusiasm for a land tax. The single taxers remained active and were buoyed by the success of their candidates in two high profile by-elections in 1912, one in rural Norfolk and the other at Hanley in the Potteries district. Josiah Wedgwood campaigned enthusiastically at Hanley, with the help of George Hardy’s disc. ‘It was a hot summer. All day and all night we declaimed in the [Hanley market] square to the accompaniment of the ‘Land Song’ on my gramophone’ [J. Wedgwood, pp83-4].
At around this time, the UCLTV republished the lyrics of ‘The Land Song’ as a leaflet – a reflection of its importance to the single tax campaign [Short, p17]. But when in the following year Lloyd George launched his land campaign and pledged to tackle the land monopoly, the centre piece was an agricultural minimum wage rather than a land tax. The single tax lobby managed to persuade the government to move towards site value rating, a form of taxation of the land, but implementation was derailed by the declaration of war.
THE LAND TAXERS LOSE OUT
The rump of land tax MPs were keenly aware of the irony when in 1920 a Conservative-dominated national government headed by Lloyd George rescinded the measures towards a land tax he had introduced as chancellor. The remnants of the single tax lobby went down to defeat to the tune they had made their own. ‘While the division was being taken’, The Times reported, ‘supporters of the amendment in the division lobby were heard singing “The Land Song”. Gradually the refrain of the song drew nearer the House and Mr Hogge [Liberal M.P. for Edinburgh East] and others entered the Chamber singing “The Land, the Land, ‘twas God who made the land”. The incident was greeted with some laughter and cries of “Order”.’ [Times, 15 July 1920; Amery, p342]
CLICK ABOVE TO HEAR MICHAEL FOOT REMINISCING ABOUT ‘THE LAND SONG’
While there may be some special pleading here from a socialist politician of radical Liberal pedigree, it is hardly surprising that when so many of the leading land taxers and their supporters – among them Josiah Wedgwood – eventually moved over to the Labour party, so too did the song. In the 1920s and 1930s, Labour sought to take over the Liberal mantle of rural radicalism. ‘The Land Song’ featured in a Daily Herald song sheet published around 1927, where it was ‘re-dedicated to Labour’s Agricultural Campaign’. In the following decade it was customized to serve Labour’s purpose in a Welsh rural by-election campaign. [Griffiths, p69] But there was little sustained interest in a land tax. ‘In spite of Labour conference resolutions calling for the taxation of land values, the Land-Taxers had little real influence in the trade union-dominated party, where land values taxation was either poorly understood of written off as an irrelevancy in a world of socialist class struggle, and by the late 1920s they were reduced to a small minority voice within the party.’ [Mulvey, ‘Radicalism’s Last Gasp?’]
In 1931, however, a Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Snowden, proposed a penny in the pound tax on land values. Lloyd George, no longer in harness with the Conservatives, made a fiery Commons speech in support of the measure. ‘The land, the value of which has been created by communal enterprise and expenditure, should make its contribution to taxation on the basis of its real value. That is the principle.’ He spoke with pride of the land tax measures of 1909-10, and mentioned Henry George by name. The measure was passed and the strains of ‘The Land Song’ were once more heard in the division lobbies, but the government fell before the measure was implemented. [Hansand HoC, 3 July 1931; Times, 4 July 1931] That was the last occasion on which a government put before Parliament a measure to tax land values.
If memory of ‘The Land Song’ lingered, it was as an emblem of the high water mark of Liberal radicalism in the years before the First World War. For as long as Lloyd George’s “people’s budget” was part of living memory, so too was the song. In his 1946 budget, Labour’s Hugh Dalton announced a national land fund and wove into his speech a taunt to the Conservative leader, Winston Churchill, who in 1909-10 had been a senior cabinet minister in the Liberal government.
Mr Dalton: Finally, I have a word to say about the land, and about the special fund to which I have already referred. In 1909, 37 years ago, David Lloyd George introduced a famous Budget. Liberals in those days sang the “Land Song” – “God gave the land to the people.” I think that the right hon. Member for Woodford used to sing that song.
Mr Churchill: I shall sing it again.
Mr Dalton: Then I hope for the right hon. Gentleman’s full support in the proposals I am about to make. The strains of that song have long since died away. But much land has passed, since then, from private into public ownership and ‘t is the declared policy of the Labour Party that much more should so pass [Hansard HoC, 9 April 1946]
Twenty years later, a new generation of Labour leaders still on occasion harked back to ‘The Land Song’ to make a partisan point. Harold Wilson, addressing the 1965 Labour Party conference as Prime Minister, proposed a Land Commission ‘to deal once and for all with racketeering in the price of land’, which he said would make a reality of ‘a basic theme of socialist belief, that profits arising through the action of the community should accrue to the community.’ Wilson contrasted that with the more cautious Liberal Party policy on land which, he argued, ‘places its present leadership some years behind the Liberals of some 60 years ago. In 1909 and 1910, they filled the land with song – “God gave the land to the people”. … While [Liberals] would not intend to throw doubt on the Almighty’s intention in this respect, their researches suggest he did not intend this declaration to be taken too literally.” (Laughter).’ [Times, 29 Sept 1965]
‘The Land Song’ was cited several times in the Parliamentary debate on the setting up of the Land Commission – and has been quoted in the chamber in more recent years, notably by Labour MPs (an online search of Hansard shows that the words of the song have been cited in the Commons by Austen Mitchell in 1981 and 1985, by Greville Janner in 1992 and by Tony Benn in 1996). In 1974, Dingle Foot – who had served as both a Liberal and a Labour MP and was Michael Foot’s older brother – devoted a substantial article in The Times to advocacy of land nationalization. He referred approvingly to Henry George and to the Lloyd George budget of 1909 and cited at length the words of ‘The Land Song’ before concluding: ‘We should sing the Land Song again.’ [Times, 14 Sept 1974]
By the time Dingle Foot invoked ‘The Land Song’, some were indeed singing the anthem once more. It’s not clear whether the song was sung continuously at Liberal Party events from the Lloyd George era into the 1960s – if so, it was a frail and tenuous tradition. The Young Liberals who blew new life into the anthem were resurrecting ‘The Land Song’ rather than reviving it. From the mid-1960s, the Young Liberals became the radical conscience of the party – advocating direct action (most notably in opposition to apartheid-era South African sporting tours of Britain), taking left-wing positions on social and foreign policy issues, and championing community politics.
This article has been written with the help and encouragement of the historians Kenneth Morgan, Paul Mulvey and Ian Packer; of John Powles at what was the Centre for Political Song at Glasgow Caledonian University; and of the political activists and singers Viv Bingham, Gwynoro Jones, Michael Meadowcroft, Mary Pendlebury, Stewart Rayment, Liz Rorison, Michael Steed and Simon Titley.
REFERENCES AND BIBLIOGRAPHY
Lord [Christopher] Addison, A Policy for British Agriculture, London, 1939
Leo Amery, My Political Life, 
John Barnes, Socialist Champion: portrait of the gentleman as crusader, Melbourne, 2006
Roy Douglas, Land, People and Politics: a history of the land question in the United Kingdom, 1878-1952, London, 1976
Philip S. Foner, American Labor Song of the Nineteenth Century, Univ. of Illinois Press, 1975
Clare V.J. Griffiths, Labour and the Countryside: the politics of rural Britain, 1918-1939, Oxford, 2007
Percy Harris, Forty Years in and out of Parliament, London, 
Peter d’A. Jones, Henry George and British Socialism, London, 1991
Elwood P. Lawrence, Henry George in the British Isles, East Lansing, 1957
Liberator Song Book, Liberator Publications, London, 2009
Graham Lippiatt, ‘Red Guard versus Old Guard? The influence of the Young Liberal movement on the Liberal Party in the 1960s and 1970s’, Journal of Liberal History, 2010, 68, pp.37-40
Paul Mulvey, ‘The Single-Taxers and the Future of Liberalism, 1906-14’, Journal of Liberal Democrat History, 2002, 34/35, pp.11-15