The Earl of Hopetoun, Prince Michael of Kent, The Countess of Hopetoun and Princess Michael of Kent
Last night in our ScottishSix show, the topic of Lesley Riddoch’s talk was “Harpies & Quines – is this still Macho Caledonia.” It was a thought provoking analysis of Scotland’s failure to promote the equality of the sexes. I went first and set up Lesley’s part of the show with a link between landownership and gender. For centuries, women have been discriminated against when it comes to inheritance and still today do not enjoy the same privileges as men.
More generally, Scotland stands almost alone of all European countries in not providing legal rights for children to inherit land and property (see Chapter 28 of my book, The Poor Had No Lawyers for a fuller background to the topic including the thoughts of Adam Smith) and so I related the tale of the Earl of Hopetoun and his stated ambitions for his children. The Earl owns the 25,600 acre Hopetoun Estate and is a Director of Scottish Land and Estates (where 8 out of 10 members are men). He has four children – Olivia, Georgina, Charles and Victor.
One of my followers on twitter is a retired lawyer, Neil King (@NeilKing11). He tweeted his concern over what I had said we would be discussing (he lives in the Azores and so cannot make it to any of our shows).
For the record, here is the relevant part of a feature published in the Scotsman entitled “Country Heir” on Thursday 19 July 2012. In the show I read this out to the audience.
Together with his wife, Skye Bovill, whom he married in 1993, the daughter of an army general, he has four children Olivia, 15, Georgina, 13, and twins Charles and Victor, ten.
Despite his two oldest children being daughters, it is his oldest son who will inherit. When asked whether that posed potential difficulties in choosing his successor, as they are twins, he says: “One is older and one is younger.” He does not want to dwell on the subject but reveals he has had conversations with his own younger brother about who was the lucky one.”
I then handed over to Lesley to discuss the the lot of Scotland’s women folk.
I’ll tell you what I think, Andy. This is all about how patriarchal hierarchical power has protected itself and held its cohesion ever since the Norman conquest and David I here in Scotland. These people don’t want us to talk about their inheritance affairs, because their affairs are our affairs when they control our resource base, and they do not want us to become empowered by rising, and uprising, in consciousness.
The discomfort was not about discussing inheritance laws in general but about your appearing to personalise the issue around a pair of 13 & 15yo girls. You also tweeted about “the disinheritance of” the Hopetoun girls but we don’t know what alternative testamentary provision has been made for them.
I could discuss inheritance laws with you until the cows come home but as usual, Andy, I think people would like to hear how you would like to see inheritance law reformed. The Law Commission has already recommended extending rights of inheritance to heritage and it’s difficult to imagine Parliament rejecting that. But do you want to go further than that and, if so, how far? You once said you aspired to a Napoleonic Code type of system. Do you maybe want to say a sentence or two about what you mean by that and how it would differ from the LC recommendations?
I think Parliament will reject the SLC recommendations because the SNP Government has already said it has sympathy with the concerns of farmers and landowners. I want to see equal inheritance rights for all children though I would advocate going further to restrict the extent of what can be passed on by way of heritable property.
1. By “equal inheritance rights for all children” do you mean a system under which it is not possible for a parent to favour one child over others in his/her will?
2. By “restrict the extent of what can be passed on by way of heritable property”, do you mean that some (or all?) of a person’s heritage should be taken by the state on his/her death?
1. Yes. 2. Yes.
With increasing population rises, is the natural conclusion not smaller and smaller, and therefor less and less viable land parcels as is happening in Norway and Finland? There’s a happy medium somewhere.
The optimum size of landholding is something I’d be particularly keen to hear Andy’s views on. I was interested to note that the Crofting Commission’s recent draft plan speaks of curbing division of crofts into unsustainable units.
The comments are risible. Until the Earl is pushing up the daisies and his final will disclosed nobody will know anything about what happens to the estate. Under the present system he can leave it to anyone. The only thing that is certain is that as the law currently stands the children have no entitlement to the estate. Simply asserting this hardly equates to discussing their affairs. To be uncomfortable in “using” the girls in this context would indicate that you came from another planet or had just stepped out of your time machine.
After death, I think *everything* – not just land – should be put in a common pool for redistribution amongst the citizenry. Suppose at the age of 21 everyone gets an equal share of whatever happens to be in the pool at that time. Might solve a lot of problems, not just gender inequality. Rich elites would still exist but vastly reduced in scope. They could not entrench themselves in positions of power, building up their influence from one generation to the next. Everyone would start off with an equal chance in life. A successful society is one with a big, fat healthy middle and this kind of system could go a long way to delivering that.
Returning to Andy’s more modest aspirations for equal inheritance by children, how would you deal with the situation where the children’s needs are not equal? One could imagine a situation in which a parent has two children – one is rich and well set up, richer than the parent in fact, while the other child is handicapped with assets or ability to earn. In a scenario like that, is it not reasonable to allow the parent to leave their whole estate (heritable and/or moveable) for the care of the handicapped child? (Hope that’s not too risible a comment for Stewart!)
Guess provision could be made for application to courts to vary where obvious need arises.
That remark demonstrates you’re not really interested in inheritance law at all. What you’re interested in is the redistribution of land. No doubt inheritance law is partly responsible for getting us to where we are now but you don’t use it to undo the problems of where we are now.
Surely you would have to agree that dividing a landholding into an arbitrary number of parts corresponding to the number of children its last owner happened to have is about as absurd as a head of state being chosen according to who his parents were!
The same with attempting to use taxation. If the owner has to sell up to pay a tax bill, then you end up with a new owner of the same large unit or else the unit being divided up into lots calculated by Savills or Strutt & Parker to make the most money rather than what is socially useful. (There have been instances in the past of taxation producing a redistribution of landownership but the result today is still one you deplore – is there any reason to believe tax would get it right the next time round?)
So instead of tinkering around the margins talking about inheritance, tax (and golf courses), can you not face the issue of redistribution of land head on?
This is your blog so you can write about whatever you choose but why don’t you say more about why land redistribution is a good idea and how it might be achieved by more targetted means than succession law or taxation? About some of the issues – the lessons of previous attempts (1911, 2003). How did they do it in other countries (Ireland, Finland)? Optimum permissible size of holding. Inheritance and tax *after* redistribution has been achieved (in light of rules restricting subdivision of crofts for e.g., withdrawal of reliefs for farmland). Etc. Etc.
I can hear you drawing breath to say you wish you had the time, list of blog topics already long as your arm etc. but – to be blunt – what is the point of Andy Wightman if not to focus clearly on and advocate your central belief – reducing the concentrated pattern of landownership and how that can be achieved most effectively?
Thanks. You present an interesting challenge. All my adult life I have believed in redistribution of land to promote greater equality, opportunity, economic prosperity etc. However, I have to calculate where to stand in relation to others. There is no political appetite for land reform and there are precious few of us individuals campaigning on the topic with no resources to support us. Railed against us are huge Government funded research institutes and elite formations such as Property Federation, Landowners etc. etc. Meanwhile, subversive and incremental progress may be all that is achievable. It is dispiriting and ultimately self-defeating to be way out in front shouting to be heard. Which is why, this Autumn, I will be beginning a programme of direct action to force some of these issues and to rally support. We’ll see if that makes any difference.
It’s perfectly possible to legislate for human greed by redistributing on death all lifetime accumulated wealth via the state, with the funds used to ensure the population is well looked after with the proceeds regarding health and welfare. But that would simply increase the current sucking of wealth out of nations and into private tax havens. Doing the first while preventing the second would require an unlikely world-wide initiative.
I’m puzzled though, by this patriarchal inheritance pattern. It’s my understanding that women always had equal property and title inheritance rights in Scots law, and that no child can be disinherited as parents have a ‘duty to provide’ equally among their children – this from legal advice on making a will as being what would happen if I died without one. Have I been misinformed, or are there additional inheritance laws to prevent large estates from being broken up?
While wealth is often theft from underpaying the labour of those who create it, and that should be corrected, it’s also true that glorious historic homes and gardens wouldn’t exist without personal wealth, and failing private fortunes have turned many into public amenities and assets which we’d be poorer, culturally, without.
Scots law distinguishes between moveable and heritable property. Children have certain prior and legal rights over moveable but none over heritable (there are rights however for the marital home to avoid destitution). Put simply if I own a 30,000 acre estate, I can leave it to the Edinburgh Cat & Dog home and my children have no rights to challenge or overturn that. They get nothing. That’s what distinguishes Scotland from most of the rest of Europe where children have legal rights irrespective of what the deceased’s wishes were (which is quite correct because the dead should not have any say in the distribution of wealth of the living. They are dead.
Hard and harsh Andy. Where the respect for the wishes of others? It’s a hugely controversial issue affecting the rights of organ donors and ultimately of course, potential recipients.
You are right – it is controversial although largely only among those who stand to lose. It’s not controversial at all for millions who will inherit no land or property. 450 people read my blog. 40 people heard me talk = 490. Earl of Hopetoun announced everything that I said to 35,000 readers of the Scotsman.
2,381 Twitter followers, though!
My Mum, widowed at 40, worked hard all her life to grow my sister and I into what is now fashionably called independent contributors to society. Both of us fulfilled her wishes. That was her legacy. However, she herself, worked hard, paid off her mortgage and it was a mark of pride for her that she could leave her house to us along with a final instruction that if either contested her will they would forfeit their share! There was no question anyway that we wouldn’t fulfil her last wishes, but we did have a wry laugh.