Land reform and inequality: What does the debate tell us about Scotland?

Written by Liam Kirkaldy on 10 July 2015 in Comment

The debate over land reform has become a lightning rod for wider feelings of disenfranchisement 

As a rule, when Scottish politicians start likening each other to Robert Mugabe, you can tell things are getting interesting.

There are generally very few issues that would lead a mature politician to make the comparison – but land reform is one them.

And the debate has been heating up for a while – particularly since Nicola Sturgeon announced it would be one of her priorities after taking over as First Minister last year.


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But while the current debate is new, patterns of land ownership are not. The numbers are well known – 432 people own half of Scotland’s private land. 0.025 per cent of the population owns 67 per cent of Scotland’s rural land. Ten per cent of Scotland is owned by just 16 individuals or groups.

In terms of land-ownership patterns, Scotland is one of the most unequal in the world. And so there is a campaign for reform, which is where the Mugabe references come in.

When the Land Reform (Scotland) Act was passed in 2003, Tory MSP Bill Aitken claimed it would “have a dreadful effect not only on those living in rural areas, but on city-dwellers whose hard-earned tax will be used to pay for this Mugabe-style land grab”.

As it happened, the legislation proved far less radical than campaigners had hoped – largely because of its complexity.

But the Land Reform Bill, published last month, has put the issue back on the agenda, leading to a flurry of claims and counterclaims over its significance.

So how radical is it?

The Bill contains measures to end tax exemptions for sporting estates and create a new Scottish Land Commission – as well as a land register in an attempt to clear up the murky system of who owns what.

Crucially for campaigners, it also gives communities a legal right to buy land – both rural and urban – to further sustainable development. This means even if the owner does not want to sell, they could be forced to in the name of the public interest.

The Tories are still opposed to much of it. This time, it was Murdo Fraser leading the attack. He said: “The SNP is ignoring the evidence and pursuing an ideologically-driven agenda which will jeopardise the rural economy.”

Meanwhile, though, others claimed the Bill wasn’t radical enough.

The Greens pointed to the parts recommended by the Land Reform Review Group that were missing – namely, the introduction of an upper limit on the total amount of land that can be held, and recommendations to consider a land value tax.

So the debate rumbled on, and it is no surprise it is so heated.

After all, beyond the practical questions over how best to manage land, this is a debate encompassing questions over human rights, property ownership, and about the place of redistribution in a capitalist society.

In some ways, the land reform debate has come to be about more than just land. For many, land ownership is a manifestation of power, and the redistribution of power is rarely a consensual process. The debate seems to tell us something about our identity, and it is no coincidence that Sturgeon’s decision to pursue a reform agenda coincided with a wider focus on inequality.

As a nation, few can match Scotland’s tendency towards soaring rhetoric on the importance of fighting injustice. Yet, like every other area of inequality, the facts on land ownership speak for themselves. We talk the talk, but when it comes to action, we stand still.

Scotland is a beautiful country and yet for many Scots, it is one they have little stake in. With that in mind, it is easy to see why land reform could become a lightning rod for a feeling of disenfranchisement.

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