The SNP and Landed Elites

I have been on a quest for some time to fathom why on earth the SNP Government is not doing more (doing anything in fact) on land reform. It has announced a new Scottish Land Fund but that is simply resurrecting something that formerly existed (and now that the cash is to come from the Scottish Government rather than the Big Lottery, there are new potential pitfalls). It has also committed itself to reviewing the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 but that of course merely restates a policy that both the 2003-2007 Lab-Lib coalition and the 2007-2011 SNP administration had adopted.

In 2007, shortly after the SNP’s electoral success, I sent their new MSPs (all MSPs in fact) a paper entitled Land Reform: an agenda for the 2007-2011 Scottish Parliament. After a brief flurry of emails with one Minister, contact was lost and nothing happened (the opposition parties took no interest either).

In 2011, I prepared another paper, “Land Reform – The Way Ahead” which recommended the adoption of a “coherent policy on land ownership, occupation and governance” (Section 9 of paper) for the 2011-2016 Scottish Parliament and still there is no sign of life. One SNP staffer recently told me privately that “we’re very much constrained in Government at the moment”.

Constrained in Government……!

I heard the same excuse in 2007-2011 as a result of being a minority administration but the SNP has secured an unprecedented absolute majority this time around and have over four years left to govern. They can, within reason, do anything they like.

I can only conclude that the SNP government does not want land reform. That’s OK – it was not in their manifesto but that in itself does not explain the reluctance to move beyond what (in the case of all parties) were quite timid political programmes. Quite why this should be the case is down to one of two explanations.

The first is that they do not want to rock the boat in advance of an independence referendum and that powerful landowning and business elites need to be pacified (ten years ago, SNP MSPs were not so shy as I revealed in a previous post). I don’t see the logic in this since there are many more votes to be won by a populist land reform agenda. Imagine if an SNP Minister stood up and said that it was “unacceptable that any young family in rural Scotland should have to pay more than £10,000 for a house plot”? That, in fact, is as much as politicians often need to do – provide some leadership on otherwise intractable problems. What would the landowning interests do – issue a press release saying that no, they should pay much more? I don’t find this political triangulation very convincing.

The second explanation is that they is that they have become so close to landed elite interests that they have created (intentionally or otherwise) little room for manoeuvre. One SNP Councillor said as much to me recently.

“I can only surmise that those same Ministers are now so close to the interested landowning lobby groups that they fear that following the ideology that made them ministers will jeopardise this new confidence and “friendship”.

There certainly seems to be a very intimate relationship between the SNP and the landowning lobby. On 13 May 2011, I spoke at a meeting of Scottish Land and Estates (the successor to the Scottish Landowners’ Federation) and challenged them about what kind of future they wanted – one where they can still be counted in the low thousands or one where (as in much of continental Europe) they are a force of hundreds of thousands. In short, were they an elite seeking to perpetuate their own privileges or a group who wanted to see the benefits of landowning spread far and wide to individuals and communities?

Following the meeting, I received a rather long letter from a prominent titled Scottish landowner in which he opined that he

“was interested in (my) vision for the future of rural Scotland, though very dismayed by elements of your talk on land reform. I recall feeling the same distinct sense of unease that accompanied the passage of the land reform legislation ten years ago.

An unintended consequence of the land reform debate was the negative impact it had on rural estates, and by extension much of the rural economy, for several years. As would have happened with any business sector the uncertainty paralysed decision making, impaired investment and led to entrenchment.

Over the last few years, however, landowner sentiment in Scotland has improved markedly and rural estates have been reinvigorated with a new sense of optimism of an intensity not seen for decades.”

The letter continues for three pages and was copied to Richard Lochhead MSP, Angus Robertson MP and Fergus Ewing MSP.

Oh how the mood music has changed. Ten years ago, in March 2002, Richard Lochhead argued in Parliament that,

“We must tackle the fact that 1,500 landowners own the majority of Scotland’s land area. Indeed, 10 per cent of Scotland is owned by 18 individuals. (7421)

I hope that we do not have to wait for another 100 years – as Labour members keep reminding us – for really radical proposals, because the proposals that are before us will not make much of an impact on land ownership in Scotland.”

Fergus Ewing was lambasting the eviction notices served by landowners on tenant farmers as “utterly disgraceful” (see my previous two posts for the contemporary relevance of this statement).

Fast forward ten years and Scottish Land and Estates certainly appear very content with the enthusiasm shown by SNP members at the SNP conference in Inverness last year. “An impressive 75% of the 116 conference delegates polled in a short questionnaire on rural issues said their overall impression of estates in Scotland was positive”, claimed their press release.

Rather more convincing evidence of this relationship is the support offered to the SNP by prominent agricultural and landowning interests. For example, – Daye Tucker – a Stirlingshire farmer and a Director of Scottish Land and Estates provided supportive quotes in an SNP press release during the 2011 election.

“With this Government’s current record and the exceptional representation for farmers by Richard Lochhead it is of no surprise that so many farmers are coming out to support the SNP for a second term.

Everyone in rural Scotland knows that we have a popular SNP Government and Agriculture Minister who have not only listened to farmers’ concerns but acted and delivered.”

On a website targeted at the agricultural community not one, not two but three former NFUS Presidents (John Cameron, Jim Walker and John Kinnaird) came out in support of the SNP.

Now this is all fine and dandy. Indeed it might be argued that all of this is unremarkable and represents a refreshing contrast to the umbilical cord that conjoined landowning and farming interests to the Tory Party for so long where prominent landowners and farmers such as the Earl of Mansfield and Sir Hector Monro were actually Ministers in the Government. With the Tories in terminal decline, have landowning interests now merely swung behind the SNP as a competent governing coalition which does not threaten elite interests?

I ask these questions in the spirit of genuine political inquiry as well as out of a sense of deep frustration that the land reforms that I and many others have been advocating for many years look now to be a very distant prospect indeed.

But, hey, that’s democracy.

UPDATE 1016hrs 17 April 2012

I am told by a reliable source within the Scottish Government that “the reason the SNP Government is so reluctant to pursue land reform is that the lawyers (true to form) have told them that it would founder on European Human Rights legislation.” This is where some effort needs to be directed.