For 11 months of the year the British are largely oblivious to the UK's largest landowner. Yet in December we all develop an urge to buy one of its little fir trees and decorate it with lights and tinsel. The Forestry Commission is one nationalized industry no reforming politician so far seems able to touch.
It is a curious historical anomaly. It was set up as an emergency measure in World War I to ensure that enough lumber for coal-mine tunnels and railroad tracks were supplied to defeat the Kaiser. Nobody has since had the nerve to instruct it to desist from such patriotic efforts.
Like many rural enterprises, the state's forestry venture invokes all the assumptions of mercantilism. It is anxious that the UK be as "self-sufficient" in timber as possible. Imports are thought to represent defeat - though tropical timbers are grudgingly accepted. Yet Britain has no comparative advantage in timber. If we can import timber and timber products, such as newsprint, more cheaply than produce them ourselves, it is a misdirection of resources to keep a subsidy-driven domestic forestry estate.
The sums involved are modest: the government expenditure is no more than £200 million a year, even if we have been burning through these sums for more than 90 years. The land area, how