Time to reassert land reform’s radical edge
In ‘Land Reform for the Common Good’, a new discussion paper for The Jimmy Reid Foundation, Dr Calum MacLeod calls for a more radical approach to land reform policy in Scotland. This is an edited version of the paper’s introduction. The full paper can be accessed HERE.
Jimmy Reid’s famously coruscating critique of capitalism that formed the theme of his inaugural Rectorial Address in the University of Glasgow in 1972 began by defining what he meant by the term ‘alienation’:
“It is the cry of men who feel themselves the victims of blind economic forces beyond their control. It is the frustration of ordinary people excluded from the processes of decision making. The feeling of despair and hopelessness that pervades people who feel with justification that they have no real say in shaping or determining their own destinies.”
The remainder of Reid’s speech mapped the contours of a political philosophy and practical action to eradicate what he saw as the establishment’s use of profit as the sole criterion to evaluate economic activity, leading to “the centralisation and concentration of power in fewer and fewer hands”. Restructuring the institutions of government and adding new structures where necessary to involve the people in the decision-making processes of society was a central component of the vision Reid laid out from his vantage point at the lectern in the University’s Bute Hall. So too was his call to:
“Make our wealth-producing resources and potential subject to public control and to social accountability. Let us gear our society to social need, not personal greed.”
A great deal of what Jimmy Reid had to say about power, economic and social injustice, and the need to reassert the common good, both in his 1972 Rectorial Address and throughout his life, resonates with the long history of Scotland’s Land Question. In the 1880s the Highland Land League campaigned for land justice in the wake of the Highland Clearances of the 18th and 19th centuries, leading to the passing of the Crofters Holdings (Scotland) Act 1886 that guaranteed crofters’ security of tenure of their crofts. Three decades later, the Land Settlement (Scotland) Act of 1919 enabled the Board of Agriculture to repeople places such as North Talisker in the Isle of Skye by means of negotiated sales of land from existing private landowners or, if necessary, by powers of compulsory purchase.
These transformative examples of land reform legislation appear almost unimaginably radical when viewed from the 21st century. Yet they are a reminder that land reform is an essentially political endeavour, involving changes to the arrangements governing the possession and use of land in Scotland in the public interest. They are a reminder, too, of what can be achieved in practical policy terms to place land at the service of the common good if the political will exists to legitimately intervene in private property rights to do so.
Much of land reform’s contemporary policy focus from the mid 1990s onwards has been on diversifying Scotland’s unusually concentrated pattern of large-scale private rural land ownership; 67% of which has been calculated as being owned by 0.025% of the population. The scale and concentration of landholdings matters because how land is owned and used and, crucially, who benefits from these arrangements, is central to shaping what kind of nation Scotland aspires to be. Now, as in the 1880s, the Land Question concerns the locus and exercise of landed power, whose interests that power serves, and to what purposes. In that sense, it is as much a question for urban Scotland as it is for rural Scotland.
Almost a decade ago the Scottish Government-appointed Land Reform Review Group highlighted the scope for concentrated rural land ownership to subvert shared societal objectives associated with the common good, stating:
“Ownership is the key determinant of how land is used, and the concentration of private ownership in rural Scotland can often stifle entrepreneurial ambition, local aspirations and the ability to address identified community need. The concentrated ownership of private land in rural communities places considerable power in the hands of relatively few individuals, which can have a huge impact on the lives of local people and jars with the idea of Scotland being a modern democracy.”
Land reform, then, is fundamentally about challenging and modifying deeply entrenched monopolistic power structures that privilege landed elites by balancing private property rights with the wider public interest and the common good. As Andy Wightman puts it:
“Land reform is not simply about tactical interventions in the status quo. It involves reform in the way power is derived, distributed, transferred and exercised. It involves meaningful reform of the tenure system, the ownership of land, the market in land, the division of land, the use of land, the fiscal status of land and the occupation of land. And it involves eliminating those characteristics of the current system which serve to perpetuate the status quo, which frustrate the public interest and which are antithetical to a just, fair and open society in a new Scotland. It is thus a highly political venture because in order to promote social, economic and environmental advancement, it needs to challenge and reorganise existing power structures.”
The need to speak truth to landed power by asserting land reform’s role as a progressive force for the common good has never been greater. The climate and nature emergencies demand significant changes to land use to help decarbonise Scotland’s economy and restore depleted biodiversity in ways that ensure a just transition to meeting these goals. The depopulation crisis facing many of our rural and islands communities, much of which is rooted in a shortage of affordable housing, inadequate infrastructure, and gaps in services provision, is an existential threat to their long-term futures. In our towns and cities land lies vacant and derelict or is banked as a speculative asset for private gain rather than being put to the service of communities’ wellbeing.
A pervading theme cutting across all of these profound 21st century policy challenges is the growing recognition that Scotland’s people in our rural and urban places are being increasingly locked out of their fair share of what should be land’s common wealth.
That contemporary sense of communities’ alienation from land’s wealth as it is extracted by unfettered market forces and distant decision-making processes far removed from people’s everyday lives is something that Jimmy Reid would well recognise. With a new Land Reform Bill looming, the central political question, over which Reid’s legacy as a lifelong campaigner for social justice casts a long shadow, is what Scotland’s Government and Parliament propose to do about it.