A revolutionary who won over Victorian liberals

Asquith, Lloyd George and Winston Churchill all backed proposals to end the landlords' monopoly. So,

While land reform has been alive in British radical thinking since 1066, it was an American who managed to craft the first credible programme for change. Medieval critics of the "Norman Yoke", the Diggers and Levellers of the English civil war, and the 18th-century opponents of land enclosure had all longed without success for the return of a golden age in which land would be equitably distributed according to need. But the campaigning California journalist Henry George transformed nostalgia into public policy with a tour through 1880s Britain, energising public opinion and making land reform the foundation stone of progressive politics.

Late 19th-century Britain enjoyed a wealth of radical debate. New ideas, new movements and new leaders were systematically unpicking the intellectual hegemony of mid-Victorian laissez-faire. In the town halls of Birmingham, Glasgow and London, the coming creed of municipal socialism was displaying the practical benefits of an activist council; the works of Marx and Engels were being translated and distributed; even John Stuart Mill, the high priest of negative liberty, was turning his attention in "Chapters on Socialism" towards a future ideal of communal harmony. Mill showed that forms of property ownership, rather than being the sacrosanct foundations of modern society, simply reflected the cultural ethos of each civilisation. Private property had no unimpeachable status.

At the same time, there was a growing awareness that the wealth wrought by the industrial revolution and empire was not being evenly spread. The 1880s downturn witnessed the rediscovery of poverty as the dark continents of outcast London, Manchester and Liverpool were traversed by growing numbers of journalists and social investigators. While W T Stead exposed in the Pall Mall Gazette the immoral underbelly of the capital, Charles Booth walked the streets of the East End to discover rates of poverty far higher than even the socialists had predicted. As Beatrice Webb put it, there was "a growing uneasiness . . . that the industrial organisation, which had yielded rent, interest, and profits on a stupendous scale, had failed to provide a decent livelihood and tolerable conditions for a majority of the inhabitants of Great Britain".

Into this fertile intellectual terrain stepped Henry George to deliver a series of lectures on his book, Progress and Poverty (1879). Initially employed in Ireland as an American correspondent for Irish World, he soon immersed himself in Irish politics and caught the nationalists' attention with his case for land reform. He was arrested for speaking out against the British - a political coup which made his eventual entry into British public life all the more anticipated. Thousands turned up to hear his lectures; tens of thousands read his book.

After 80 years of economic growth, George considered that "the association of poverty with progress [is] the great enigma of the day". Moreover, it was in the most highly developed capitalist economies such as the United States and Great Britain that were found "the deepest poverty, the sharpest struggle for existence, the most enforced idleness". An Atlanticist radical in the vein of Paine and Cobbett, George identified the problem as one of monopoly. (Lizzie Magie, the future inventor of the board game Monopoly, was a keen follower of George.) Where the "natural" means of production had been privately appropriated, rent absorbed all increases in the nation's wealth. The monopoly of land caused fundamental inequality and poverty, because whenever there was an increase in efficiency the profits would go not to the workers - or even to the capitalists - but to the landlords.

Such a grotesque monopoly of wealth was clearly in opposition to natural law. No man made the land, and by ancient right and custom it should not be permanently alienated from the nation at large. As a monopoly, held in trust for the people, land must be made to bear its fair obligations to the public weal.

George's solution was a land-value tax, a "single tax" that would both confiscate the rent from land and remove all other forms of taxation. This would enable progress to alleviate poverty, as economic growth would be distributed more widely and a land tax would also allow for the subsidy of a vast network of public services, from utilities and housing to culture.

The clarity of George's proposals and the power of his rhetoric pushed land reform to the top of political debate. J A Hobson declared that George "exercised a more directly powerful, formative and educative influence over English radicalism of the last 15 years than any other man". Both liberals and socialists were drawn to his ideas. In the Fabian pamphlet Capital and Land, Sydney Olivier proposed that the landlords' "unearned increment" ought to be confiscated through taxation. Reform movements such as the Land Nationalisation Society and the English Land Restoration League sprang up around George's public meetings, while the Marxists of the Social Democratic Federation were clearly attracted to the nationalisation argument.

Yet George was ambivalent about full-blooded socialism. The management of land through market mechanisms such as taxation, rather than government control, was his favoured option for reform. This explains why so many liberals were equally drawn to Progress and Poverty. Joseph Chamberlain declared himself "electrified" by the book and the ensuing Radical Programme reflected this pressing concern with the land question. The liberal Winston Churchill argued that the land monopoly was detrimental to the public interest, while Herbert Asquith supported Lloyd George's proposal "to free the land that from this very hour is shackled with the chains of feudalism".

In reality, only the aristocratic liberals could have delivered land reform. The Labour Party was tarred by the socialist spectre of violent, arbitrary nationalisation. So with the early 20th-century demise of Liberal England went any hope of Henry George's land tax. Ironically, it could only be under Tony Blair's new Labour, party of the radical centre and proud of its Liberal lineage, that a red-blooded socialist ambition might at last be attempted.

Tristram Hunt has written a new introduction to Robert Tressell's The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists (Penguin Classics)