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What does a land-owning democracy mean?

Robin McAlpine

Some of my earliest memories are of smell – I can distinctly recall the scent of my parent’s coffee percolator from when I was three. But it was when we moved to a rural area aged five that I was introduced to the founding odours of my life. 

Suddenly I was surrounded by a wholly new palette of smell – the strange, musty scent of the earth around a little pool of water, the myriad competing perfumes in a bluebell wood, the overpowering stench of slurry which everyone in my family hates except for me (because, in my head, the smell of slurry always means ‘winter is nearly over – time to explore again’).

Which is all to say that I probably don’t proper understand how important and entwined land is to and with my life. When I talk about my desire to create a land-owning democracy in Scotland, it isn’t out of animosity to landowners (I grew up in a community of small, family-owned farms). It’s because I can’t imagine life without a link to the land.

I moved from Uddingston to Wiston and a different world opened up to me. Trees became vantage points, burns became a space to gather around, to play in, hills were adventures, woodlands were worlds you could build for yourself – even the local cowp was a place of wonder where components for our latest contraption could be found (but never good go-cart wheels, for some reason). 

We did a project at school on Robin Hood and me and my friends created an entire encampment in the woods around the old, abandoned mill. We saw the snow and ran for our sledges. Much investigation was needed to get the right balance between a boringly slow descent, a thrill-ride and badly broken bones.

In the summer holidays we finished the morning children’s TV (i.e. 10.30 youngsters), got a sandwich, a flask of tea, an apple and a caramel log packed in a rucksack and the choices expanded exponentially. An old quarry that was clearly mars, or another of grey stone offered many adaptable scenes for the movies we were making up in our minds.

The hill was endless, impossible to explore exhaustively. The sitka spruce plantation was ‘king kong’s den’, a waterproof world of eerie silence through which a child under ten could run as if it was built for them. But woe-betide you if you accidentally came across the abandoned ‘woodcutter’s house’ which was genuinely terrifying in its horror movie dilapidation.

I have never been able to leave land behind. Despite a car accident-related arthritic ankle, I can’t stop myself wanting to stray away from the asphalt whenever I can. I never feel like I know a new country until I have learned some of the smells of its land too. I was once made to do a ‘nature day’ in Catalonia, to wander alone and in silence through unspoilt countryside. The word ‘made’ felt odd – this is what I would do from choice.

But I know this is only my experience of land. I had many farmer friends growing up and their connection to land was different, greater than mine. It was a place of work and often struggle. At the weekends, men would arrive with hang-gliders and throw themselves off the hill and float through the sky – if my relationship with land was a like a goat, theirs was like an eagle.

I’ve met people from really urban realms who came and were transformed by land, changed fundamentally. I have a good friend who sees land as a challenge, something you run through which tries to stop you (and generally in the worst possible weather, for some reason). Right now I know a couple who are building a house with space, having lived their life in a city. Land is the place they want to end their days.

I cannot emphasise this enough; where I saw a bend in the river which created a little paradise which was perfect for my toy dinosaurs, my brother saw a place to wade in and hunt for wildlife and our friend imagined some kind of adventure game scenario while another imagined building a gang hut there.

Land is eternal; everything we have comes from our land. Everything that humans have made possible started with a patch of ground. For me, nothing is so filled with possibilities. Not a single use. Not a ‘this is how it must be’. Not even a ‘this is what we always did with it’. Land can offer as much space as your imagination allows.

Apologies for detaining you with a self-indulgent trip through my childhood, but I do this for a reason. Last week Common Weal published Craig’s paper on a land tax. He has explained how it would work, what it would achieve, how it would change Scotland. I write this because I want to explain why we do this work.

Is it revenge on the aforementioned large landowners? Well, they do have a lot to answer for many of them – the land they have taken for themselves is very often not well looked-after, and goodness knows it is neither land you can dream on, ever own or feel any national economic benefit from.

But no, not revenge – though justice demands reform. Which means you have probably read in some piece of Common Weal work somewhere or other that it’s about the many things a modern economy could do with land (from bioplastics to ecotourism, energy generation to construction material production, housing to food growing). So this is a functional, instrumental step to unlock economic development?

Well I can only say ‘not for me’. We put this stuff in reports because at times it’s the only thing politicians listen to and it is certainly where those who oppose land reform attack most (‘what would happen if we didn’t look after this for you?’). Every one of those opportunities is real.

But those are the opportunities filtered for political benefit. If I was filtering for public consumption I might say ‘why not own land as an investment?’. The model I really want is to get the Scottish Government to compulsorily purchase large swathes of unused land (pick your grouse moor…) and use public money to develop them into properly-developed plots (perhaps five-hectares or so).

That would mean putting in access tracks. It would mean planting these sensitively with a balance of shorter-term productive crops (‘coups’ of Sitka Spruce), planted in longer term productive crops (say native broadleaves like oak or ash) with sensitivity to space and wildlife and rewilding where it makes sense.

These would then be sold to the public as investments. It could become normal that, on your 21st birthday, your parents have saved up to buy you a plot as a savings plan. It will increase in value and produce income when the early crops are ready, and then you can sell it to release the value or you can pass it to your children.

But that’s not really why I want this to happen. The real reason I want this to happen is that, when that family first visits their land, they won’t see an investment – and I have no idea what they will see. Seven-year-old me would have seen that space as for toy dinosaurs to run free. Twenty-five year old me would organise weekend camping sessions – probably (if I’m honest) with some mind-altering substance or another.

If I was 30 again I’d see a site for a new business venture, a small, experimental site for advanced organic materials research. When we had the children it would have become the place for a cabin where we would escape for long weekends together. Right now I’m knackered and I’d just want to visit to bring back to me the sense of wild isolation of my childhood. A place to be alone. Perhaps a place to write.

When I’m 60? Who knows. If it’s you and not me looking at the same land, who knows what you’d see? If a Syrian immigrant scrapes together the investment money, what would they see? If a local community was taken to the land, what would they imagine?

I want a land-owning democracy in Scotland because I like to be surprised. I want a land-owning democracy because I trust people to do good. I want a land-owning democracy in Scotland not because I know what it would look like but because I don’t. 

I want a land-owning democracy in Scotland because I know how the land I’ve changed over the years has changed me much more. I want a land-owning democracy because I genuinely love this country, not for patriotic reasons, not for political reasons but because its soil and I have become very close over the years. I love it and I want others to love it the way I love it. To truly feel that love, they too will need a relationship with it.

We have taken away our relationship with our land. More accurately, it has been taken from us. There is no doubt in my mind that the further we have got from it, the smaller we have become. To many children now, the smell of the place that gives us life will remind them of nothing when they grow old. That makes me very sad indeed.

I want a land owning democracy because, because, because, because, because…

3 thoughts on “What does a land-owning democracy mean?”

  1. Not at all sure that many urban people would be in the slightest bit interested in owning 12 acres of moorland. The idea that people who aren’t particularly keen on mowing the backie are going to bulldoze an access track to get heavy plant in to churn up a moor to plant spruce sounds absurd. As far as I know, mass land-ownership usually involves fertile land and people that have a culture of howking tatties etc. at the weekends (ie. not Scots).

  2. I don’t believe that land should be owned by individuals – it should belong to us all, collectively, and individuals/businesses should be able to lease land for economic purposes.

    Of course, this idea would undermine the idea of the state taxing land as a way of raising revenue…

  3. Alasdair Macdonald

    I genuinely enjoyed the romantic excitement of aspects of this essay. I think there is an urge amongst many of us to have our own wee plot, such as the ‘huts’ of many of the Norwegian hutters or even the hutters of Carbeth in our own country.

    I wholly applaud the idea of public authorities taking ownership on our behalf of large tracts of land, such as grouse moors in your example (although the public schoolboys of Private Eye would sneer at this as ‘the politics of envy’), however, I would also look at the urban areas where most of the people of Scotland live.

    In Glasgow, I know of large tracts of land that have lain empty and derelict for much of my life (I am 76), such as along the Clyde in Anderston and Whiteinch and in other areas. I see empty mouldering buildings along Sauchiehall St, all of which are privately owned. And much of this dereliction is unaddressed cynically to create artificial shortages and force up prices of land and hence housing and workspaces.

    So, while it is nice to dream, like the Broons, of having a but and ben, land ownership can lead to markets in land and markets can be manipulated and skewed without stringent legislation about sizes of holdings and how land would be transferred such as when parents die and family homes (and gardens, and plots) and surviving family members feel an entitlement to a share of this.

    I welcome the recent Commonweal paper on land ownership. I need to read it a few more times to grasp it sufficiently.

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