by George Gunn
Two significant things happened in the same week last month. On Thursday 22nd of May 68.5% of the Scottish electorate did not vote in the EU elections and UKIP secured one of the six available Scottish seats in the European parliament. On 23rd of May the Scottish government’s the Land Reform Review Group, which was established in 2012, published its final report The Land of Scotland and the Common Good and immediately the Scottish Government rejected one of the Review Groups central recommendations which were that business rates be applied to sporting estates from which they are currently exempt, as is other “agricultural” land. From where I sit in the North Highlands these two things are intrinsically and tragically linked.
We like to think of ourselves in Scotland as being, somehow, “different” from the rest of the UK in as much as we are an open, left-leaning socially democratic society, where differences are tolerated and foreigners are welcome. Quite where this dewy eyed vision of who we actually are came from I am not sure other than from those essayists who confuse what we aspire to become with what we have historically been. Fanned by the constant exposure given to them on the BBC and ITV, by the tabloids and by the mainstream political parties comprehensive inability to counter them 10% of those in Scotland who voted in the Europeans elections voted for UKIP.
The BBC, in particular, is addicted to UKIP and the British parties, in general, do what they always do when their political hegemony is threatened: they panic. Out UKIP-ing UKIP has proven to be electorally disastrous for the Tories and fatal for the Lib-Dems. Labour is shaken from without but not stirred from within, so much so that Margaret Curran appeared like a hysterical shade on TV the following Monday morning to actually claim a “victory” and wee Willie Rennie was on Radio Scotland the same day somehow similarly trying to convince himself that a total wipe-out for the Lib-Dems at the polls was proof of his party’s “integrity” and accusing the voters of “blowing with the wind.”
As usual the entire sordid cabal of them has learned nothing. The on-going blame-game following UKIP’s single seat in Scotland is proof of this. There is no “victory”. Racism, intolerance and xenophobia are equally fanned by the flames of poverty, joblessness and fear in Scotland as they are in England, France and Greece. “Integrity” is as easily trampled under the marching boots of racist banality in Caithness as is optimism suppressed in Catalonia. The visionless managers who poll their own prejudices and are encouraged by the results, instead of listening to the people, are manufacturing a dangerous civic apathy towards existing political processes which is as big a threat to democracy as the tiresome right wing rantings of Farage and co. The SNP can “celebrate” Scotland’s “difference” from the rUK but I for one take no comfort whatsoever from the recent EU elections. 7,818 people in the Highlands voted for UKIP. In Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles combined it was 2,081.
As Bertolt Brecht wrote in the dark days of 1941, “In poetry morality lies not in indignation but in truthfulness.” So it is in politics that the necessary morality our society needs also resides in truthfulness. None of the political parties are telling the truth. A 33.5% turnout is proof enough that our democracy is not working because people are obviously not participating. Does it also mean that this non-participatory majority do not believe the politicians, or does it mean they believe in nothing? The constant procession of party-political snake-oil salesmen who slither out of the media never tire of telling us, in their hissing tones, that the European elections do not reflect the British general elections which do not in turn reflect the Scottish elections and so on and so forth, so do not worry, soon it will be back to “business as usual” – this is the sophistry of the doomed. It is the step-dance of democracy’s death.
What Scotland needs to do is to change the steps of the dance. So how do we begin to change? In the Highlands and Islands the main concern is not with immigration but with emigration. Certain areas like the inner Moray Firth basin and Skye have recorded a population increase and this is to be welcomed but the general trend in the North of Scotland is of young local people leaving to be replaced by elderly incomers. This has many negative consequences on housing, education, the NHS and services in general. The issue of land, who owns it and how it is managed and used is vital in the Highlands –and throughout Scotland – if we are alter our political choreography. In the Highlands the land is the people and until that unity is restored emigration will continue.
What the Land Reform Review group recommend in its report is that landowners must prepare to downsize, pay non-domestic rates, democratise inheritance, reveal the extent of their holdings in the Scottish Land Register and expect more state, tenant farmer and community-led buyouts. Likewise development-blocking speculators will face tougher compulsory purchase powers, prompted by alienated urban and depopulating rural communities as well as hard up local authorities. Offshore investors in tax havens face an outright ban. It is also recommended that the Crown Estates Commission hand over the land and coastal assets it controls – this is crucial if renewable energy, for example, is to develop for the common good – to Scottish ministers who themselves must transfer land to communities without needless bureaucracy or at artificially inflated market prices. Wealth has to be created and held within communities not transferred out to asset managers. Other common sense recommendations are for a Land and Property Commission, a Community Land Agency and Housing Land Corporation all of which will combine to deliver a national land policy.
As we have seen the Scottish government has already said it will not implement the Review Groups recommendation on business rates and as Andy Wightman has noted elsewhere that of the 62 recommendations 58 are within the full devolved competence of the Scottish Parliament. Why have none been implemented up to now and how many more of them will be kicked into the long grass in the near future? It will be interesting to see how many recommendations will feature in the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Bill when its second stage comes before Parliament in June? Or will it be the case, on the land issue, as Neil Jordan noted of his screenplay for the film “Michael Collins” “…it changed in all its details, yet remained exactly the same.”? Put simply: we cannot afford the status quo in land issues. Or will the SNP’s past ambivalent attitude to land ownership, be the same in relationship to this new initiative on land reform, as the historian Angus Mackay termed the differences between Caithness and Sutherland; that “they are radically identical”?
In the Highlands and Islands immigration is absolutely necessary if we are to have any kind of economy at all. We must also ensure that our young economically active people can remain and have a future and that those who have left for education or employment can return, have families and prosper. To do this we do not require a reform in land use but a revolution in land ownership. The Highlands needs people and the people do not need the status quo.
I have heard often and from otherwise sensible people that it is not ownership of land which is the issue, but how it is managed. This ideological solipsism, this dialectical kink, is the bane of those who understand that the future has to be radically different from the past. To travel through the empty straths of Sutherland and West Caithness, to see these achingly beautiful but now barren landscapes, emptied of their people and stripped to the bone by sheep and deer, is for me to suffer such deep physical and psychic pain that I cannot fully put it into words. What these districts need is people and the energy their lives will bring back to the land. It is people who named Strathnaver and Kildonan and it is people who will return to these places what Alastair McIntosh would call “soul”.
Without ownership of the land the people are vulnerable. Whoever “the people” are I attach no conditions because I know that over time the place conditions the people whether they come from Thessalonica or Thurso: it fashions their nature as much as the hand of mankind has conditioned the landscape. Without the security ownership of land brings – however that ownership is constituted, whether individually or cooperatively – there can be no progress. What Murray Bookchin has called “the ecology of freedom” means that we must re-examine what such things as “house”, “energy”, “power”, “education” and “economy” mean. In the Highlands of the future they cannot mean electricity pumped in from afar, children who know nothing of their history or environment and the generation of value and wealth locally only for that to be “owned” by someone or some company in Edinburgh or London.
What the recent European elections show is that the cosy paradigm enjoyed by the political establishment of Britain is falling apart due to its own corruption. What UKIP represent is a warning from the past. We must tackle the forces of reaction head on, challenge everything they stand for and come September 2014 move forward to create the new Scotland the people desire.
© George Gunn 2014
George Gunn’s new play “3000 Trees” will be performed at this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Go to www.3000trees.com for more information.
Categories: Land Ownership