One photo sums up, for me, the extraordinary events that took place in Aberdeen on Friday. In it, an SNP member is asking an embarrassed-looking young man to autograph his conference pass, saying “‘I’ve never got an autograph before, but I just had to get yours!”. The embarrassed man is Nicky Lowden McCrimmon, and shortly before I took the picture he was being cheered by a standing ovation of almost 300 SNP members.
We were at the ‘Our Land’ meeting – an unofficial fringe event of the SNP’s autumn conference – and earlier that day Nicky had led delegates in a vote to reject the watered-down land reform bill. “When you have radical land reform, then we’ll sign up to it” he told party leaders.
570 delegates agreed with him, and the motion supporting the current bill was rejected. It’s worth bearing in mind that this almost never happens, and certainly can’t have been expected by SNP leadership. It means that any amendments which will – undoubtedly, now – be brought forwards in the coming months will have to be very carefully considered. Minister Aileen McLeod, backer of the defeated motion, promised to listen to delegates concerns.
McLeod is the first minister to have land reform explicitly included in her portfolio – a sign of the SNP’s much-hyped commitment to a ‘radical’ land reform plan.
The growing pressure for reform was bolstered by the referendum debate. The stark inequalities that damage Scottish society so much were a frequent topic, and few statistics hit you so hard as ‘432:50’ – around 432 interests own half the private land in Scotland. That private land, incidentally, makes up 89% of our 19 million acres. Community ownership accounts for 2%. Just one man, the 10th Duke of Buccleuch, owns 1% of Scotland.
Memories of clearances, and current battles with derelict land and evictions give the debate an emotive tone too – sometimes helpful, sometimes not. Land became one of the central issues in the nation-wide discussion on Scotland’s future – helped undoubtedly by the ability of commentators like Lesley Riddoch to coherently and passionately describe exactly why all this mattered so much.
So when, post-referendum, all eyes were on the SNP, they jumped at the chance to be the ‘party of land reform’, even using the word ‘radical’ to describe their agenda. This isn’t a word you would really have heard from this party until very recently, and it’s fair to point out that they’ve not exactly been land reform advocates in the past either. So campaigners greeted the announcement with curiosity but a fair degree of scepticism. Would the SNP really deliver on an issue that requires bold, redistributive measures?
As recommendations and consultation came and went and draft legislation appeared, these sceptical voices were proved right, much to their dismay. Despite the high-pitched fury coming from certain landed interests and their newspapers over ‘Mugabe-style land grabs’, the bill represented nothing of the sort. The detailed, powerful proposals of the Land Reform Review Group had either appeared watered-down, been dropped from the bill, or never even made it into the public consultation in the first place. Where was the upper limit on landholdings so strongly recommended by the LRRG? The commitment to establishing a system of land value taxation? The re-establishment of business rates for sporting estates was welcome, as is the (vague) proposal for community purchase of mismanaged land. But these are sticking plasters.
The fact that 750,000 acres of Scotland will still be held in tax havens by a global, untraceable elite, is inexcusable. The removal from the bill of a measure which would have tackled this is partly what’s caused such anger among SNP members and land activists, as now even the UK government have stronger proposals for this problem.
It is suspected that the reluctance is coming from hesitant and risk-averse lawyers in the Scottish government – a poor approach for a government committed to any sort of meangingful social change. Corporations, said Robin McAlpine, take the attitude that if you aren’t winning, you need better lawyers. We can do that too. The minimum pricing policy has resulted in lengthy court battles for the government – but they were willing to go ahead regardless, because they believed it to be the right thing to do. Why is this courage lacking when it comes to land reform?
Another group looking for radical reform were tenant farmers. The whole of the agricultural holdings review – a lengthy, complicated process with so much at stake – has been addressed in one chapter of the draft Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2015. For farmers living under threat of eviction and rent hikes, hoping for the automatic right-to-buy that their European counterparts enjoy, the draft bill was a crushing disappointment.
A stunned silence filled the church hall when tenant farmer Andrew Stoddart addressed the 300-odd attendees of the Our Land meeting. He explained that on 28 November he faces eviction from the land he’d farmed for 22 years, and will receive little compensation despite investing nearly half a million pounds in Colstoun Mains Farm over that period. The previous night Andrew had appeared on Channel 4 News, interviewed by Alex Thomson as part of his excellent report on land reform in Scotland. Asked what his children will say about the situation, he broke down in tears. Andrew’s three kids are at the local primary school. His farm employees, who will also have to leave, have children too. The factor and landlord are immensely wealthy men with great influence in the local area. Feudalism, it seems, survives still in East Lothian.
The current land reform bill will not help Andrew and the countless others in his situation who can’t speak out. It won’t change the fact that Scottish land can be bought and sold on a whim by those who hide behind shell companies in the Bahamas. It won’t make land affordable and accessible. In seeking ‘balance’ and compromise, the SNP have inadvertently sided with those who have the most power – but luckily they’ve got the most incredibly clued-up, strident membership. No one could doubt the strength of feeling on Friday night’s meeting, nor the clear message sent to party leadership. These SNP activists are a hugely potent force, and they demand a radical land reform bill worthy of its name. The coming months will be very interesting indeed.