The land reform movement seemed to shudder to a halt when devolution arrived after years of slow momentum. What happened? Now there are some signs (see Richard Lochhead, Perth) that this movement – a key to unlocking the system of patronage and elite rule could be re-gaining energy again. Read Balmoral Buyout here.
As Andy Wightman launches his new book, he asks, not Who Own’s Scotland, but Who Stole Scotland?
‘Show the people that our Old Nobility is not noble, that its lands are stolen lands – stolen either by force or fraud; show people that the title-deeds are rapine, murder, massacre, cheating, or court harlotry; dissolve the halo of divinity that surrounds the hereditary title; let the people clearly understand that our present House of Lords is composed largely of descendants of successful pirates and rogues; do these things and you shatter the Romance that keeps the nation numb and spellbound while privilege picks its pocket.’
That was how Tom Johnston, the historian and former Secretary of State for Scotland, described Scotland’s noble landowners in 1909 in his book, Our Scots Noble Families. Back then land and its ownership was a hot topic both in the towns and the countryside. Lloyd George’s famous People’s Budget of 1909 had proposed a land tax and radical opinion was still heavily influenced by the ideas of the American social reformer Henry George. Winston Churchill delivered a rousing speech in favour of land reform in the King’s Theatre in Edinburgh in July of the same year and crofters in the Highlands were engaged in land raids.
One hundred years later, land reform is again a hot topic. Or is it? Following some important new laws in the first session of the Scottish Parliament, the subject has slipped off the agenda and the current SNP Government has done next to nothing to advance it. But the reforms of 1999-2003 were only a small step on the way to meaningful land reform and deep-seated problems remain. Perhaps one reason for the waning of interest is the perception that land issues are matters concerning the remoter parts of the Highlands and Islands and downtrodden crofting communities. There are issues there aplenty but the land question is about much more than that.
It is about why common land in the heart of Edinburgh has been let for a penny a year to a commercial property company which will gain outright ownership if the proposed leasehold reform bill proposed by the SNP Government goes through. It is about why Scottish Ministers have paid £2.3 million to buy land in Perthshire that is common land and should never have been sold in the first place. It is about why, in this day and age, children still have no legal rights to inherit land. It is about why, at a time of austerity and proposed caps on public benefits of £26,000 per family, it seems to be quite alright to hand out millions in agricultural subsidies to some of the richest families in the country. It’s about a housing bubble built on cheap credit that has denied young people a place to live even as Gordon Brown told us in his first Budget in 1997 that “I will not allow house prices to get out of control”. It is about how property speculators can pocket millions of pounds in rising land values on the back of publicly funded infrastructure.
Above all, it is about how the whole edifice of Scots land law has been constructed to legitimise what is in many cases little more than theft – just what Tom Johnston was complaining of more than a century ago. In the past I’ve been cautious about making such a case but my discoveries over the past few years have convinced me that he had a point.