Tuesday, 16 December 2014
I want the whole of the moon
The current state of the land reform debate infuriates me. People who should know a damn sight better are doffing their caps and tugging their forelocks at 'radical' proposals on land reform from the Scottish Government which are no more than pissing in the ocean - so feeble and timid that they will in practice make not a ha'pennys worth of difference to the landscape of rural Scotland.
Michael Gray, on Common Space, writes: 'Peter Peacock, policy director of Community Land Scotland (CLS), whose members manage 500,000 acres of land, told Common Space that the Holyrood's movements on the subject are "encouraging".' Well, with all respect to Peter, that's not encouraging in the least. Scotland has nineteen million acres, so the proportion that is community 'managed' - and note, that's 'managed', not owned - is 2.6%. OK, that's the situation as it is now - before this vaunted bill. But as Peter very accurately says, 'a huge amount of effort will be put into [the reform bill] by vested interests.'
But the consequence of all this fawning, uncritical overselling of the Government's very lacklustre proposals is that a lot of people who ought to be as angry as I am are sitting back, thinking land reform is going just swimmingly, thinking there's nothing they need do.
So what do these 'encouraging' proposals that will 'alter Scotland permanently' actually amount to? What is actually promised, at this stage?
You'll find the full answer in paragraph 29 of 'A Consultation on the Future of Land Reform in Scotland', but I'll briefly paraphrase.
Community right to buy
The Government are committed to 'improving and extending existing community rights to buy and introducing a new community right to buy for neglected or abandoned land, within the existing Community Empowerment (Scotland) Bill.' So what does 'neglected or abandoned land' mean, pray? The answer is that at this stage it means nothing.
It could mean something very radical - it could mean every last hectare of sporting estates in Scotland. I suspect, however, that it will not. I believe that it will probably end up meaning land that no-one is prepared to defend ownership of; land so polluted with industrial wastes, for example, that no-one wants it. And in any case, why should the community have a 'right to buy' something that was always and is inalienably ours?
The Government say they are 'developing a strategy to achieve a target for 1 million acres in community ownership by 2020'. That's one million out of, as I said earlier, over nineteen; an increase from 2.6% to 5.1% of the land. If their strategy is delivered; if it works. Colour me unstartled.
The Government are going to 'review' changing the succession laws - and if their 'review' has the outcome they want, they'll allow all children, not just the eldest male, to inherit land equally.
Sounds good, doesn't it? Sounds fair?
The Duke of Buccleuch has 109,000 hectares. The average number of children for a Scottish couple is 1.8; an equal share of the land of Scotland is 1.47 hectares. Suppose His Grace has two children who survive to inherit, and that each of his descendants in turn has two children - and assume that none of his descendants inherit anything from any other forebear - it will be sixteen generations before each of his descendants owns an average share of Scotland. Sixteen generations. Four hundred years. Are you prepared to wait that long for land reform?
But wait. It's worse than that.
The families who now own the four hundred largest estates form a small and cohesive social group. Suppose each owner has two children, each of whom marries someone else in the same social group - and let's face it, people mostly do marry into their own social group - and it goes on like that down the generations. If that happens, no land at all will be redistributed out of that tight social group, and in four hundred years time the same four hundred (or fewer) families will still own half of Scotland.
In practice it will be somewhere in between. Some landed aristocrats will marry other landed aristocrats, some won't. In four hundred years time, some of that half of Scotland will be in somewhat more numerous, somewhat smaller estates. And some won't. So: are you prepared to wait four hundred years for a tiny bit of not very thorough land reform?
So far, so underwhelming. What else - what else concrete - is promised?
...tumbleweed rolls gently through the glen; the wind sussurates among the empty hillsides... What do you think?
What did you expect?
Nothing! Nothing else is promised. Not a tarnished bawbee. Not a mouldy potato. Not a rancid slice of square sausage. This is all us forelock tugging, cap-doffing peasants are deemed worth; all the supposedly-left-leaning SNP are prepared to offer us. They offer the crescent; I want the whole of the moon.
Land reform acts - inevitably, necessarily - do not come around often. The last - which at least let us walk over the land we can't own - was in 2003. Politicians are driven by the tides of influence and opinion. Remember, the ten percent of Scots who own most of the land are, not coincidentally, the same ten percent who own more than half of the wealth. The ten percent who can afford to hire the expensive lawyers, publicists and lobbyists. The ten percent who can give large donations to political parties. They will make their voices heard.
They have the land. They have the wealth. They have the lawyers. They have the media. They even have the guns. All we have is numbers, and the only numbers we have are those of us who are prepared to get off our arses to come together, to formulate a policy, and to campaign to get the politicians to listen to us. So unless we work our little cotton socks off, some meaningless fluff will be passed by Parliament, and nothing will change.
Oh, and we have until the 10th February - eight weeks, and with Christmas and the New Year in the middle of it.
What can we do?
The more united a voice we speak with, the more the politicians will listen to us. So I believe that it is important that we get a meeting of activists together, and it cannot really be later than the weekend of 24th January, since after we've met and thrashed out an agreement we then have to persuade as many people as possible to unite behind it - before the 10th February (yes, I know it's an arbitrary date, but it's the date the Government has set).
Obviously, I can't tell you what to agree. Obviously, I have my own proposals, which I'll argue for. But obviously, we will not get all we ask for because the forces of reaction arrayed against us are powerful and well organised; and therefore I believe it is important to be maximalist in our position.
Once we're agreed we need to lobby. Firstly our own organisations: Radical Independence. Common Weal. The Scottish Left Project. The Scottish Tenant Farmers Association. The Crofting Federation. The SSP. The Greens. If we could get all - or even most - of those organisations to express support for a radical proposal, the politicians would have to listen to us.
But we also need, all of us, to lobby our politicians directly. To meet with them, to give them our agreed statement, to argue its merits with them.
The consultation closes on the 10th February, but the job isn't over then. It's hardly begun. After the consultation closes, the legislation has to be drafted, and then it will be put before Parliament - some time in 2015, we don't yet know when. We need to keep the issue alive and in the public eye until it is. We need the public informed and on our side. Which means we have to communicate.
The Yes Campaign taught us how to do that, and has built for us the tools with which to do it.
But there's one thing we can do with land that we couldn't do so vividly with Scotland: we can occupy it. The Land Reform Act 2003 - a poor thing, but our own - gives us the right to 'be' on the land, and to camp on it. The occupation of a significant sporting estate in the run up to the discussions in Parliament would be a significant statement.