Who owns the world?

The Queen, the family of the actress Nicole Kidman, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and the media tyco

The world relative to its human population is quite large. It is 123 billion acres in size, of which 37 billion acres are land. This means that there are a notional four acres available for every man, woman and child in the predicted 2050 world population 0f nine billion, which would be an increase of two billion on the present population. But notional is not real, and what is noticeable when looking at how the 37 billion acres are used by nature and humanity is that the urban area, humanity's footprint on the land patch, is extremely small, at 1.5 per cent. This conflicts with the common rhetoric of environmentalists, which too often comes fact-free.

Land use has historically tended to follow claims to ownership, defined as the right to the use of and disposal of land. The relationship between humans and land begins with a fundamental claim by some people or countries to "own" land. On that basis, the world divides into two simple categories: those countries that allow citizens to own the land to which they hold legal title and those that grant only tenancies to their citizens, permitting the state to claim a total prior right to the use of all land within its borders.

Those countries that allow their people to own the land to which they hold legal title are among the most economically successful - such as the United States, Germany and France. Those operating what is essentially a feudal or pre-feudal system, in which the state or monarch claims legal rights to all land, tend to be less developed, with rare exceptions such as the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

The latter category, in which citizens cannot own land legally, is dominated by one of the oddest situations on earth: the legal ownership by a single individual of all land in a number of countries and the consequent downgrading of all citizens of those countries to the status of feudal vassals in relation to land.

The world's primary feudal landowner is Queen Elizabeth II. She is Queen of 32 countries, head of a Commonwealth of 54 countries in which a quarter of the world's population lives, and legal owner of about 6.6 billion acres of land, one-sixth of the earth's land surface. Her position is a relic of the last and largest land empire in history, rumours of whose demise would appear to be somewhat premature based on her position and possessions. But her power is real, or at least legally real, and it derives from a tradition based on a specific and unbalanced relationship between rulers and the ruled.

1066 and all thatFeudalism begins with the idea that all land and people are the possession of the gods, with the gods devolving that ownership to a human representative. The divine origin of land ownership became all-pervasive in classical times and took its most brutal general form in the deified Roman emperors, from whom all land in the empire was held. The Romans brought the idea of imperial ownership to Britain in 43AD.

Following the Norman Conquest in 1066, the last time Britain was invaded, the idea of a singular, absolute, monarchical owner of land became entrenched in constitution and practice. With the expansion of the British empire, this version of the feudal system was imposed on about a quarter of the world.

Today we have two kinds of feudal state: the inherited state, usually with a monarch at its head, such as the UK; and the state that claims ownership of all land and is feudal in its conception and often totalitarian, such as China. But the core surviving feudal structure in the modern world is inherited, transnational and covers many countries. It has no formal name. It is, in fact, the British crown and its wearer, Elizabeth II. Her legal title runs thus: "by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of Her other Realms and Territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith".

This constitutional statement includes some vast territories where the Queen is quite separately the sovereign head of state and legal owner. First among these is Australia, which, if its Antarctic territories are included, is the second-largest country on earth. And the Queen, in effect, owns it. She also owns the third-largest country, Canada.

When the Queen's territories are added together, the Russian Federation ceases to be the largest single political entity on earth. Like the Queen's realms, the Russian Federation is dramatically underpopulated and immensely rich in mineral wealth of all kinds.

Together, the Queen's realms have a depth of international political defence unlike any other alliance. They are combined together in the Commonwealth, the largest single bloc in the United Nations, the largest single combination of nations outside the UN, and they are all headed by the same diminutive octogenarian. If the Queen could convert her landholdings into cash, she would not only be the richest individual on earth, but also the richest person who has ever lived. Another way she could achieve that, however, is by turning upside down the 13 tax havens of which she is both ruler and owner and shaking the cash out of them.

A tax haven is, fundamentally, a bandits' lair, as in those old-style Hollywood westerns where the bad guys gather with their stolen loot. Modern tax havens are where the international kleptocracy, often the rulers of states and their families, hide the money they steal while in office and where multinational corporations keep the cash and assets on which they have no wish to pay tax. Indeed, with its own peculiar rules of domicile, the UK, the Queen's primary realm, is itself a kind of tax haven for many.

Of the world's 24 largest tax havens (see the table above right), the Queen is sovereign of no fewer than 13. Their existence is currently dividing the coalition government, with the Liberal Democrats seeking to regulate all of them and the Tories unwilling to terminate the source of so much of their party's donations.

The list of the world's largest individual or family landowners (see table above), dominated by the Queen, has some interesting entrants. The largest individual landowner after the Queen is another monarch, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. He holds the land in trust for the people and as a gift from God. This ancient constitutional formulation also applies in Scotland, where the monarch holds the land in trust from her ultimate feudal superior, God. The same religious formula applies to the King of Morocco, Sultan Quaboos of Oman, King Abdullah of Jordan, the Emir of Kuwait and Sheikh Hamad of Qatar.

Unlike the Queen, however, the majority of the Islamic custodians of land are personally active in its allocation. The Queen is wholly remote from land transactions, except in connection with her private estates. In the UK, most of the country has been allocated through freehold transactions, sometimes as far back as the early middle ages. Transactions are mostly between estates, corporations and individuals, and are conducted by lawyers in association with the land registries.

In Canada, New Zealand and Australia, government agencies allocate and dispose of land on behalf of the Crown. There is no formal record of any of these countries remitting funds to the UK on behalf of the Queen.

The Pope, who is a head of state and a monarch in international law, also acts as God's representative but not in quite the same way as Muslim monarchs. In Catholic dogma, all land does indeed come from God, and for many centuries the Pope had nearly as many acres as Elizabeth II has today - between 20 and 30 per cent of Europe and the same proportion of South America. Most of those lands have been lost, but the Pope is understood to own all the land of the Catholic Church's institutions, religious orders and dioceses as monarch, on much the same basis as the Queen owns her acres. The estimated total of land held by the Pope is around 177 million acres.

At eight on the list of individual and family landowners are the farms and ranches of the Kidmans in Australia, to whom the actress Nicole Kidman is related. Theirs is the largest private, non-monarchical, non-state land­holding on earth. The Kidmans cannot "own" land in Australia; only the Queen does so there. What the Kidmans possess is a mixture of specific Crown leases for fixed periods of time and freehold leases for indefinite periods.

The first American on the list, Ted Turner, is at number 24. As Australia demonstrates, a small population can create huge landholdings if there is plenty of available land. Despite its vast size, America has a relatively large population in relation to land availability, especially for agricultural use. Both countries practice free-market capitalism, but the American model is based largely on industry and population, while Australia's is based on a combination of agriculture and mined minerals.

Alongside the Kidman holdings, there are no fewer than eight other Australian ranches on the list, the smallest of which, the Colonial Agricultural Company, is over 4.5 million acres in size. While the Kidman holding is larger than Hungary, larger even than 90 of the world's smaller states, Colonial Agricultural is bigger than the world's smallest 43 countries. These huge holdings, which are are not replicated in either the home of free-market capitalism, the US, or Canada, suggest that economic prosperity at a corporate level is not formally impeded by feudal structures, so long as there is flexibility in their application, matched by entrepreneurial aggression in forcing that flexibility to operate.

Homestead bound

The relative failure of the US to develop huge agricultural corporations probably had much to do with its populist form of capitalism, combined with the unusually large quantity of land, most of it in potential farming areas held by the federal government. American populism is inherently, if ineffectively, anti-monopoly corporatist, especially over land. The federal government doled out land only under popular pressure (in the Homestead Act of 1862) and generally used a basic unit of 160 acres per homestead.

In Australia, there was no such form of popular constraint and no instinct to endow Australians with viable farm units. However, what it should alert us to - and the place to look is Russia - is the formation of huge land corporations that will interdict any attempt to solve the combined problem of deindustrialisation and population growth through a more effective use and distribution of land.

The tables accompanying this article have never been compiled or published before. What they show is a world dominated by ancient structures of land ownership, none of which reflect the modern world, its people or their needs. The primary need for the one-third of the world's population who live in dire poverty and in rural areas is to have enough available land to grow food and survive on, as well as for basic shelter. The rest of us,
especially in the industrialised world, need secure shelter in the form of an owned, not rented, home.

There is one dominant worldwide trend and that is the movement of people from rural to urban areas, which began in Europe in the 18th century and is being replicated in Africa and Asia today. This is driven overwhelmingly by the need to find work and by the poverty of rural living.

However, in less than 50 years, a counter trend will produce a wholly predictable crisis. From the first day of mechanisation and then automation, jobs were eliminated. Combine mechanisation and automation with computerisation and nearly all manufacturing employment may disappear. A capacity to manufacture almost anything in any quantity, with little or no human intervention or supervision, is almost upon us just as more and more of us are living beyond the age of 70. There is only one escape route from these intersecting trends: we need a new approach to land use and ownership, not just in Britain as discussed in my article last week, but throughout the world.

At the same time, we need a new approach to employment and taxation, one that free-market capitalism cannot provide with its reliance on private-sector employment and perpetual consumer growth as the engines of a basic income stream. Socialist governments have attempted to solve the employment problem by expanding the public sector. This has failed, because the tax base shrinks - the number of people and businesses paying tax falls, though the amount of tax charged by the government rises.

Some form of world population curb would seem desirable, as David Attenborough argued in his RSA lecture on 10 March. But, historically, it is prosperity that has tended to curb population growth, not legislation or war. The route to prosperity in the past has often lain in land. Perhaps it will do so again, based on a fairer, more democratic model of ownership and distribution.

Kevin Cahill's book "Who Owns the World: the Hidden Facts Behind Landownership" is published by Mainstream. Read "The Great Property Swindle", the first part of the author's exclusive investigation into land ownership for the New Statesman.