Liberation is a concept which is entrenched in the Scottish psyche. It has a strong emotive resonance for people who define themselves as Scottish, pulling on the heart-strings in a way that is difficult to define. It penetrates deep into our collective mind and surfaces during debates around governance, rule and today’s hot topic; independence. Most commonly heard as ‘freedom,’ the language of liberation is banded about in political speeches, newspapers and every-day conversation. Much of this surely stems from our national(ist) history, taught in schools and presented to tourists (including of course that Hollywood blockbuster ‘Braveheart’). We are told of brave William Wallace fighting for freedom against the cruel English and valiant Robert the Bruce defeating Edward Longshanks at Bannockburn to win freedom for Scotland. It feels as if we have always been fighting an oppressor: dear Scotland, the proud and courageous underdog. Still now, nearly 700 years after that ‘victory,’ we regularly hear talk of ‘freedom’ from England. News reports and comments from politicians are littered with phrases such as ‘economic freedom,’ ‘political freedom’ and ‘broadcasting freedom.’ It has even been mentioned that the referendum is taking place in the year of the 700th anniversary of the battle of Bannockburn, to tug at our weary hearts no doubt.
A vital question which all this emotive talk brings to mind is what would such freedoms mean for the people who live on this piece of rock called Scotland? Would independence bring us closer to what we would each personally consider liberation? Would freedom from the UK equate to anything other than different overlords ruling from a different palace? To begin unravelling such a complex concept we must first look at where the idea comes from. Tracing the origins of liberty reveals how much of our freedoms are denied to us today and that much of this loss comes directly from control over land. The history of freedom shows that only in removing such control will we become free.
The origins of liberty
Freedom is a concept which has a murkier past than you may realise. David Graeber wrote that two thousand years ago the idea of freedom emerged in early Rome and it did so as the opposite to slavery (1). The legal definition of a slave at this time in Rome was a person who was also a thing. This meant that owner of a slave had absolute right to do as they pleased with their slave: from marry to execute. Such absolute power was derived from the idea of the Roman household, domus, where the paternal figure had absolute power over everyone in the household. This concept of absolute power was expanded over time from originally relating to only people (the household) to include people who were also a thing (slaves). Roman jurists continued this idea to cover all things which the law had to deal with, from cups to coliseums. In this way dominium came to mean the absolute right of an individual to do as they wished with their private property. This is where our modern laws and ideas of private property stem from.
The ideas of freedom and slavery were thus created back to back. Libertas meant what it was not to be a slave and dominium was the power to do as you wished with your slave, as with your other things. Over time libertas morphed so that by the 2nd Century it came to mean the power of the master. In late Rome emperors began to command something like dominium over the land, meaning total power to do as they wished. Following the downfall of the Roman Empire, the feudal system that resulted kept this idea of libertas so that freedom came to mean a lord’s right to do as he wished over his land. In this way, by the 12th Century dominium meant both ‘lordship’ and ‘private property’ in legal terms.
It was thinkers of the 15th Century who came to the conclusion that if you can own your rights such as freedom, then freedom is a property itself. It was in this way that slavery was justified by the European Empires who decided that nothing was intrinsically wrong with slavery, since freedom could be bought and sold as with any other property. Later thinkers concluded that whereas slavery is the extreme, being the complete removal of freedom, a citizen’s relationship with the State is in effect a contract whereby the individual has given up some of their natural rights (freedoms) to the state. Citizens are placed somewhere on the freedom scale between slave and master. Taken up to present day, this concession of freedom also includes wage labour. An individual gives up part of their natural rights to their boss. By working for a wage we are renting out our liberties in the same way they are sold with slavery.
Let us then consider what ‘economic freedom,’ ‘political freedom,’ and ‘broadcasting freedom’ might actually mean. In light of the origins of liberty it is plain to see that these ‘freedoms’ really mean the power to control such things (money, markets, media…) over a people. They are also the liberties which we as individual citizens give up in our ‘contract’ with the nation state. Just as the master had total control over the slave and the lord commanded control over his land, modern nation states have a monopoly on freedom. There can be little doubt that the Scottish National Party intends to become dominium over the nation of Scotland. This grows clearer when you consider the unrelenting drive for economic expansion so often at the cost of people’s health and well-being. Prime examples are the Donald Trump debacle where people’s homes were threatened in the name of big business and energy expansion such as open cast coal mining and the Beauly-Denny power line which serve multinational energy companies. This is what is truly meant by economic ‘freedom.’
The question is would our individual freedom to live a happy, self-determined and un-harassed life be improved by a vote for independence? Such an ambition is unlikely to be significant unless we tackle the root of disparity and the cause of our modern slavery, more commonly know as the land question. Just as private property came to be synonymous with power in Roman times, in modern Scotland a powerful elite have control over an appalling extent of the land. This country is home to the most concentrated pattern of private land ownership anywhere in the world, with 0.025% of the population owning 67% of privately owned rural land(2). This occurs throughout Scotland in towns, cities and the countryside in a manner experienced nowhere else in the world. A tiny minority dictate how the land is treated, what is built or grown and who gets to use it. The impact is that the average person has no say over their immediate environment so is acutely dis-empowered. We are far from being free.
Wealth drawn from the land
Let us delve deeper into the land question, to show that this is where our freedom has truly been lost. All wealth is drawn from the land, from apples to Apple Mac computers. Land is not something which any person can make or take away. But by owning the earth the privileged minority not only gain from other people’s work through none of their own, they ensure the economic dependence of those without land. This not only creates a surplus of labour (unemployment) essential to maximising profits but also drives down wages. Those with the power extract the maximum possible whilst giving out the minimum possible. Think of a tenant farmer, working long days to give up much of his/her earnings to the laird. Or a shopkeeper whose wage packet is give up to the landowner. You produce your own wages but only receive a fraction because someone else owns the land. Is this not theft? It is definitely dominium.
So, following the monopolising of land ownership, which included the removal of people, the landed effectively remove the maximum produce for their profit directly from the labours of others. This is achieved through the taking of private rent for the use of land. Not only does this take wealth from those who create it, but also removes a community fund which could be used to support local needs. Land should be rented from the community, not the community charged by the landowning elite. The tenant farmer could be supporting a school instead of skiing holidays.
In this manner an unjust society is maintained. Those who hold dominium, just as Roman overlords did, control where the wealth produced from the land goes: away from the worker, straight past the community and into their pockets. This creates widening disparity, maintains the injustice of poverty and wrecks the natural environment. There are many clear examples like the 48,000-acre Glenfiddich sporting estate owned by Christopher Moran where houses lie in ruin, ¾ of the population lost in the last century, whilst deer and sheep graze the hillside bare.
If in seeking independence we hope to achieve more freedom, we will be sorely short changed if a system of land monopoly is upheld. The history of liberty shows that those with dominion will continually strive to extend their freedoms by to the consequence of others. Removing the current land ownership system may sound radical but it is absolutely necessary to achieve true liberation. We could decide how the land is treated, we would gain personally from our own labour without having to rent our freedoms and the rent of the land would go back into the community. It is no coincidence that this would require a much smaller and decentralised state. We all have the wool pulled before our eyes from centuries of domination. It’s time to set a fire beneath the seat of those with dominion over us. The SNP can’t resolve this, but we can.
It all goes way back
Perhaps one of the reasons that liberty resonates with Scottish people is that we have seen so little of it over the course of history. It has been a long time since dominium over our own governance, access to land and food production was removed. The feudal system which was introduced in 12th Century solidified the control of the laird and the lord over the peasant classes who had to pay in-kind rent for the soil they toiled. When the agricultural ‘improvements’ came the people were ejected from the land they had worked for centuries and had to rent their freedom as wage labourers. A similar story with clan chiefs in the Highlands caused the Clearances a little later. For so long have our liberties been allocated to us by those in power, a fraction of what they allow themselves. For so long have our natural rights to dictate what happens beneath our feet been denied.
Here and now
Take the northern community of Coigach as a striking example. In need of affordable housing, with school age children dropping every year and three families living in caravans, they have attempted to acquire some from the landlord. Sale was refused and he wouldn’t allow any development by the community. This demonstrates that the only freedom here is that of the landed power to do as he wishes with the land. Just like a ruler of old he has dominion to dictate what the community can and can’t do. The freedoms he holds are those which the community is denied. In sharp contrast, island communities have been hard at reclaiming their freedom with two thirds of the Western Isles now in community ownership. Eigg is a strong example of somewhere that the local people have made rapid and tangible improvements to their lives and to the wider environment since the island came under community ownership. Young people are returning, the islanders have their own renewable power supply and new businesses are appearing because folk can realise their ideas. In this way communities are liberated in that they govern themselves and decide what happens to their immediate environment. Their freedoms are distinctly greater than those of the people of Coigach.
This is not only a rural issue. In Linwood people have had no control over the land they live on, with dire consequences. Following the collapse of a car plant which employed so many of the residents, the town centre began shutting down and a wealthy investor began buying it up. This was no more than a front for Tescos which pushed every other retailer out before setting up as the only shop in town. In this way they dictate people’s lives so strongly by defining the town centre, where people work, what people buy and of course where from. Give the community ownership of the town and see how they can support themselves from it. Better still, remove ownership completely and create a community fund by those using the land renting it from everyone. This would be economic freedom. Unlike the SNP version it requires less centralised power and greater local empowerment.
Give us freedom
Is it possible to be free – individually self determining – when the land which we call Scotland remains with the privileged few? The origins of liberty show us that freedom comes as the antithesis of slavery, and that it has been dominated by the powerful through violence, removing the natural rights of the individual. We have involuntarily given up our freedoms and been edged into something short of modern slavery. To truly be free we must remove this power and liberate the land. Community ownership is a path to such empowerment, but we should go beyond this to true liberation by removing ownership of the land. This will never come with a powerful centralised government such as exists now and the SNP desire to continue following a vote for independence. Our task is to wrestle it from them. These changes can only come from the bottom as they threaten the very mantle which our Government holds on to.
If we go forward and vote for independence, it must happen in the knowledge that this is the start. We must also bring an end to a long history of dominium and do so from the ground up. The path towards a liberated Scotland involves increasing community control, cooperation and the fair distribution of wealth. For this, the freedom for those living on the land to decide what happens to it is essential. Let’s replace dukes and lords with laughing children and healthy woodland. For no person should have dominium over this land. So join a community group or trust, help dig a community garden. Take over spaces and demand more power. And don’t forget that true freedom lies in liberating the land. There is a great, silenced collective voice screaming to make local decisions on local issues, using locally produced wealth to benefit people locally. Independence could be part of the journey towards making it heard. That’s probably enough to make voting ‘yes’ worthwhile. But it must be raised to a shout whatever the outcome of the referendum. For we are in the middle of a great story which will have a happier ending if we have the freedom to write it ourselves.
(1) David Greuber (2012). Debt: the first 5000 years.
(2) Andy Wightman (2011). The poor had no lawyers.
(3) Henry George (1908). Progress and poverty.
(4) Shirley-Anne Hardy (2011). Stolen land, stolen lives and the great con trick of DEBT!