Wednesday, 31 December 2014

An unlamented year

It's been a bad year.

It's been a bad year for a lot of reasons. I needed a job; in January I took a job with a company with an office in Glasgow. The people I worked with there were good people, but the company is an evil one, and I felt profoundly tainted by my association with it.

When I took the job I'd hoped I would only need to work there a few months, but running a flat in Glasgow as well as my home turned out to be even more expensive than I expected and I did little more than break even; so I've been away from home a full year. My home is very important to me. I dislike crowded places, I dislike cities. I like having time to think, time to read and to write. I have spent a year on a cycle of eat, sleep, work, repeat; sleeping in my own bed no more three nights a week. This is not a life I want to lead.

I've also been ill, with a respiratory problem which left me very weak and meant that, through the whole of the summer, I was unable to cycle or get out into the hills.

It's been a year, also, in which I tried to build a relationship, and failed. The reasons we failed are complex, but one of them is that my house is too small to share. I realise that I don't want to work hard enough, long enough, to raise the money to build a bigger house; I realise that even if I did build a bigger house, I'm no longer particularly good at sharing one. So this was almost certainly my last live-in relationship.

These in themselves are reasons for it to have been a bad year. Is it shallow of me that my biggest reason is not something in my personal life, but something in the life of my country?

In 2014, Scotland could have voted to rise, and be a nation again.

We came very close; but we didn't.

I'm left wondering how many excess suicides there have been because we lost the Independence Referendum; on a darker thought, I wonder how many there would have been had we won.

I am, myself, now, mostly through grief and depression into anger. I will almost certainly not now live to Scotland independent. Independence is not in any case an end in itself. It is - it was always - the creation of a just and sustainable society which is the end. It would have been easier - it would have been a hell of a sight easier - with independence. But it isn't impossible and we have to try. For me, the next objective is land reform.

But I have never in my life been closer to suicide.

2015 promises to be better. I have a new job with a new company, which I can (and do) take pride in. A Sottish company, doing real engineering here in Scotland and selling it across the world; a company making renewable energy work more efficiently.

There will be a general election, and while the gross outcome of that election across the UK can only be bad, the detail of it could be positive and the change it could represent in Scottish politics could be extremely positive. Whatever the outcome, it will be extremely interesting.

My health is better, and shows every sign of being back to normal - modulo the increasingly apparent fact of becoming old. My income has increased and my outgoings promise to decrease quite sharply. I hope by the summer to be able to work less, and perhaps to have time and energy to write again.

In short, I face the new year with some hope; but this has been an unlamented year.


Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Of Discipline, and Conscience

Craig Murray. Picture: New York Times
Craig Murray is a man whose personal reputation has been so traduced in over a decade of unattributable monstering by the British state and the main stream media that it's hard to form a good assessment of his character. That he is somewhat vain, inclined to depression, prone to hyperbole I can believe; monstering has to be based on exaggerating characteristics that really exist. That he has had problems with drink would not under the circumstances be surprising. I can believe, also, that he could make a difficult and challenging member of a team.

The SNP have chosen not to make him a member of their team. That is their prerogative - and I say 'their' advisedly as I am no longer a member. However, the SNP is still the party of which I am not a member, and consequently I'm interested in and concerned for their future; and especially interested as it's very likely they hold in their hands the future of my nation.

In furtherance of that interest, I want to argue here why I believe that the SNP are wrong. Why this is one in a sequence of strategic missteps which, for me, underline the belief that I was right to leave; which, for them, undermine their hopes of building a better Scotland.

So let me start by saying the other half of the things we know about Craig Murray, the things we know beyond a doubt. He's a man chosen to be Britain's Ambassador to a country which was vital to the supply routes of our army fighting a war in Afghanistan. That's not a small brief, not a brief you give to someone lacking in ability. Thus we know - certainly - that he's a very bright, talented man, with a deep knowledge of foreign policy. He's a man who, in that post, blew the whistle on extraordinary rendition and torture: blew the whistle on Britain's complicity. So we know - certainly - that he is a man of conscience and we know also that he is a man of real courage. And, since his resignation from the Foreign Office, we've read his blogs and seen or listened to his interviews. We've seen him express steady, consistent opinions across a wide range of issues. Consequently, we know - certainly - that he is a person of sound and enduring values, with deep sympathy for oppressed people around the world.

'All men have their flaws', as the Black Duke of Coffin Castle so' airily remarked. 'I count myself indifferent honest', as Hamlet put it, 'but yet I could accuse me of such things it were better my mother had not borne me'. We're none of us perfect. Murray is, let us say, vain, depressive, hyperbolic and sometimes over fond of a drink. Well, so he may be. Exactly the same charges could be levelled at Alex Neil, and yet he has been a good a valuable servant both of the National Party and of Scotland.

But to argue thus far is to argue only why it is not clear that the SNP should not welcome Craig Murray. I want to go further, and to argue that they positively should.

The mantra of the SNP over the past decade has been 'play it safe; take no risks'. Have independence, the party said, and it will make no difference: you'll still be subjects of the same Queen, robbed by the same banks in the same currency; your landscape the fiefdom of the same aristocrats, your soldiers fighting in the same wars for the same alliance. By playing it safe, by being disciplined, by being steadily and remarkably - creditably - competent in office, the SNP at the same time brought about the circumstances in which a referendum on independence was possible, and made certain that it was unwinnable.

Independence which changes nothing is worth nothing.

Let me say that again: independence which changes nothing is worth nothing at all. Why should workers put their jobs at even slightest risk, pensioners their pensions, business owners their businesses, for a change which would change nothing? Of course they wouldn't! And yet the SNP could articulate no radical vision for Scotland, because they had no vision. All they promised was technocratic competence: the same old, same old.

And it wasn't good enough. And so they - they and all of us in Scotland - lost.

The view in British politics that rigid party discipline is a good thing in politics is an odd one. We, after all, prosecuted the Nuremberg Trials: we've seen where obsessive discipline and following party orders leads to. Closer to home and more recently, we've seen what happened to the Liberal Party when they chose party discipline over conscience and voted to increase tuition fees. The SNP - Scotland - Britain - needs more than this. We need more people of conscience. More people with the courage to stand up and say 'no, I won't do this, this is wrong.'

This is wrong. But there's more wrong with the SNP's rejection of Murray than simply obsessive discipline. There's also their obsessive need not to rock the boat: clinging to the middle of the road in a compulsive need to touch every single cats-eye. If the SNP is to succeed, it has to be more than safe, more than competent. It has to speak for all Scots, and not all Scots are obsessive-compulsive.

I'm not obsessive-compulsive. I'm a bit vain, a bit depressive, occasionally prone to speculate a bit beyond my data. I need a politician who speaks for me, who I can identify with. I don't need a whole party who speaks for me, but I need someone. The SNP has to speak for all Scots, and so it has to be a broad church: a church not only of disciplined wonk apparatchiks, unable to express a view until the party line has already been defined.

But the SNP does not merely need to speak for all Scots, it needs to speak to all Scots. It needs to communicate a vision. It needs to explain why Scotland - and the world - will be a better place as a consequence of Scotland's independence. Craig Murray is a bright thread to weave into our banner, a thread which bespeaks a nation with an ethical foreign policy, a nation which will no longer turn a blind eye to torture and the systematic abuse of human rights. Craig Murray is an eidolon of a better world beyond independence, of Scotland's potential to make the world far beyond our borders a better place. And so he is a critical part of the vision we need to be able to build and communicate if we are going to drag Scotland up beyond that 45% point and over the top of the hill. He's part of the reason it's worth doing.

But he's more than that. He's Scotland's canary in the Westminster coal mine. He is one person (Lesley Riddoch is another, but she says she won't go and I don't blame her) Scotland could send to London in the sure and certain knowledge that v, if murky compromise deals were being hatched under that opaque cloak of obsessive party discipline, sing out clearly. It's because Craig Murray is a whistle-blower, a man of conscience - precisely because he's not a team player - that the SNP need him, and will be weaker without him.

Saturday, 20 December 2014

Proposed plan for the Birnam workshop

This is a first draft outline plan for the Birnam Land Reform Workshop, to be held in Dunkeld on 24th January 2015.

First off, I'm not a dictator. This is my suggestion for how we organise the day; if other people have better ideas, that's fine, let's discuss them.

Timetable and parameters

We currently have the main hall booked for the whole day (but not evening). I'm told it holds 200 people, but I don't know how flexible a space it is and how it will work if we try to have four or five discussions going on in parallel. If we really look like getting 100 or more people, we'd probably better try to book more space. But to do that I'll need contributions (or at least guarantees) from someone. I can't fund this all myself.

There is a good cafe on the premises. I imagine there's wifi, but we'd better check.

Trains from Edinburgh, Glasgow and Inverness all arrive at 11:33. Therefore it seems to me that we shouldn't properly kick off until 11:45, otherwise firstly those who arrive by train will miss the introduction housekeeping talk and it will have to be done again, and there will be a big interruption when all those people do join in.

What we can hope to achieve

The ideal is that we end the day with one document which everyone present feels they can agree on, and take back to their own organisations (if any) to promote. That would be brilliant, but it may not happen, and what I want to ensure is that if it doesn't happen we still have a positive outcome.

Remember that it's entirely possible that the anti-land-reform groups will send people along to the meeting with a brief to prevent us from reaching consensus; and that even if everyone present has good will we may find that some people have much more radical ideas than others. If we end the day with two or three competing documents, that's still a positive outcome and I think we need to not make too much of a fetish of consensus.

Structure of the day

We need as much time as possible for active discussion, and we need that discussion to happen in small enough groups that people can genuinely join in. It seems to me there are five key areas
  1. Land Use
  2. Possession/Ownership/Tenure
  3. Redistribution
  4. Residence/Crofting/Hutting
  5. Revenue
(Please feel free to challenge/add to this list). What I think we need is (at least) five teams each comprising one facilitator and one rapporteur, who will provide the focus for an ongoing discussion of one of these key issues during the day. So briefly I think the time-table looks like this:

10:45 - 11:45 organisers/hosts arrive and get set up
11:45 formal start of business
11:45 - 12:00 welcome and introduction by someone, outlining the format of the day
12:00 - 14:00 first workshop session - everybody groups around the facilitator for the area they want to discuss, and discusses. Ideally I think people (apart from facilitator and rapporteur) should be free to join and leave discussions whenever
they want.
14:00 - 14:30 first report back: each rapporteur summarises the discussion so far in their group, to everyone.
14:30 - 16:30 second workshop session - like the first, but people encouraged to change groups
16:30 - 17:30 full report back: each rapporteur summarises again, and we attempt to reach consensus.
17:30 - 18:00 farewell and close.

Roles

Facilitators facilitate discussion. They as far as possible do not advance their own viewpoint, but act as servant of the meeting, allowing others to discuss freely and ensuring every participant is heard.

Rapporteurs keep a record of the discussion as it happens, and attempt to summarise into a coherent policy statement. Again, their role is to be servant of the meeting, not to advance their own viewpoint.

In saying that I'd like to make it clear that I'm happy to be a facilitator or rapporteur in either the first or the second workshop session, but definitely not both. I want an opportunity to argue for my opinions!

Afterwards

Some agreed person - chief rapporteur - knocks all the documents which came out of workshop sessions into a single document and gets it posted onto websites as soon as possible - within a week. We make a date to go and lobby parliament.


As I said at the top, this is a proposal not a tablet of stone. Please feel free to disagree, and argue for changes. I'm trying to put together a workshop format which works as well as possible for as many people as possible.

Land Reform: key issues

This is a note prepared in a hurry as a discussion document in advance of the land reform workshop at the Birnham Centre, Dunkeld, on 24th January. It is my view, not a consensus view, of the issues to be tackled. If you think I've missed significant issues, please contribute them to the discussion on the mailing list here.

Use

Scotland is lucky to be a net exporter of food. Land reform which ended up with our lowlands being less productive would not be a good thing. On the other hand, our lowland agriculture is now hugely capital intensive and depends on very high inputs of fossil hydrocarbons both in fuels and in fertilisers. This means that (with the exception of fruit and vegetable growing areas, which have high seasonal labour demands), it now employs few people. It's also probably not sustainable in the medium term, although that partly depends on whether new technologies emerge which provide a new high energy density fuel.

The management of our uplands is much less obviously socially beneficial. Steep slopes are overgrazed leading to accelerated erosion, loss of topsoil, development of open scree, landslips, flooding in the valleys. Low-vallue, marginally economic monoculture forestry covers large areas but employ few people most of whom are itinerant with no enduring relationship with a locality.

Further up the slope, moorlands are another monoculture, often managed for grouse to the exclusion of virtually everything else; and where it isn't, overgrazed by sheep and deer to the extent that no trees can regrow. It's worth remembering that Scotland has no natural large areas of moorland; Norway, which is north of us, has productive forest higher than the peak of Ben Nevis. Wide sweeping moorlands are yet another man-made landscape.

Possession

In Western Europe we have a long tradition of ownership and heritability of land. Inheritance enormously privileges the children of the lucky or successful over the unlucky or unsuccessful, giving them in turn a much better chance of being lucky and successful. That's inheritance of capital in a lot of forms: social capital (good networks of firends), cultural capital (knowledge, and a positive attitude to learning and creativity), and wealth capital: money, goods, buildings and land. It's natural, I think, for people to want their own children to have a good start in life. But in the long run this is desperately damaging to the social fabric, and it's essentially how we got into this mess.

I believe that we need to limit possession of land. There are a number of ways we can limit possession:
  • We can limit the maximum size of holdings
  • We can limit the rights people have over owned land (and to a large extent we already do)
  • We can limit the duration for which ownership can persist

Maximum size of holdings

The Land Reform Review Group suggested, among their more interesting suggestions, that there might be a limit on the maximum size of a land holding. I've done a wee bit of research on this. Key large private landholdings in Scotland from which there is substantial public benefit include grangemouth refinery,about  700 hectares, although I think that legally it is two separate holdings owned by two separate companies; and various airports, the largest being Edinburgh at about 400 hectares. Therefore there doesn't seem to be any public policy reason to allow holdings exceeding 1000Ha, and probably 500Ha would be sufficient. The sum total of Network Rail-owned land in Scotland probably exceeds this, as does the sum total of roads and motorways, but it doesn't seem unreasonable that public transport infrastructure should be exceeded by any limit.

So a land-holding limit of 1000Ha seems to be definitely achievable, and 500 probably achievable. However, it would break up only the very big estates; four square miles is still a huge area of land, and estates of that size would be unaffected.

Limitations of rights

We already limit the rights people have over land they own. They cannot, for example, build what they like where they like; nor can they now prevent people from walking, riding, cycling, picnicing, camping and generally enjoying the land, except for some limited exceptions. They are restricted from damaging ancient monuments and sites of special scientific interest, although these restrictions are not currently always well enforced. It doesn't seem to me that there's much public benefit from further limiting peoples rights on their own land, except perhaps for the matter of grazing on steep slopes.

Duration of rights

When you buy a piece of land in Scotland now, you buy it in perpetuity; it is heritable, you can pass it on to your children. I am increasingly of the opinion that you should not be able to, because it entrenches privilege. I am increasingly of the opinion that people should have a life interest in land, only. I know that will be controversial.

Of course, corporations don't have a limited lifetime - and it wouldn't be a good thing if a business in which a lot of folk work was closed down just because someone had died. It seems to me reasonable that corporations should be allowed to hold land for longer than a natural lifespan, provided that

  1. they pay a premium for doing so, and
  2. their occupation of the land continues to be in the public interest.

As I've said above I know this will be controversial, but it seems to me it's worth discussing.

Redstribution

Where we start with land reform is this: Scotland has 7.8 million hectares and 5.3 million people. Evenly divided, that's about 1.5 hectares per person, or about 4 hectares per household. Yet currently a few hundred people own most of it - figures quoted are that 430 people own half the privately owned land, and 600 own half of all the land. Five million of those five point three million own no more than at most a house and garden, and most own none. There is no possible way that that is either just or socially beneficial. I don't think there's any doubt that the big estates must be broken up; the question is how.

On the other hand you can't just divide Scotland up into 5.3 million equal portions, firstly because the land is by no means all equal, secondly because 1.5 hectares is too small an area to farm economically, and thirdly because not everyone will want to actually work their share. But somewhere between no redistribution and equal distribution there has to be a better division of the land than we have now.

Residence

Many of the problems of rural Scotland - loneliness, isolation, poor public transport, poor access to services, even poor broadband - are at least partly to do with low population density. If you could get a lot more people into remote rural areas, these problems would all be ameliorated. By contrast, many of the problems of urban Scotland - poor diet, lack of exercise, stress, and consequent poor health - are related to lack of access to the land. This is the core of what my quarter of a million crofts proposal is about.

Of course I'm not proposing to empty the cities into the countryside; and of course crofts alone won't enable people to live in remote rural Scotland, since the whole point of a croft is that it's too small to provide a household's main income. We would need in parallel to encourage the development of a range of rural enterprises which would provide employment.

But it seems to me that anything which could increase the population of remote rural areas and at the same time give more people access to land has got to be a good thing.

Revenue

Tax has a number of purposes, including but not limited to:
  1. To raise money for public services
  2. To redistribute wealth
  3. To encourage people to do socially beneficial things, and refrain from damaging ones
  4. To compensate the community for loss of public goods
  5. To compensate the community for the costs of clearing up abandoned mess.
All of these are important. Obviously, land tax doesn't have to address every one of these, since there are other taxes; but it can address many of them, and ignoring any of the purposes of tax is a mistake. It's not simply about revenue.

To raise money for public services

Obviously, we all need public services, and they must be paid for. We need roads. We need schools. We need universities. We need health and social services. All these things must be paid for. A just and caring society needs to raise more money for public services, since it must ensure there's resource to provide the poor with services which the rich can afford to buy for themselves.

This is the heading under which Land Value Tax sits. It's a sensible, efficient way to raise money for public services, but it doesn't in anyway penalise large holdings, so (in my opinion) contributes virtually nothing to land reform.


To redistribute wealth

Whatever sort of society you have, some people suffer through no fault of their own - whether from health or poor upbringing or accident. Poverty is not merited any more than wealth is. A good society redistributes wealth from those who have surplus to those who have want.

This is the heading under which a progressive land tax sits. It penalises large holdings and advantages small ones, thus motivating people to break up larger holdings.

To encourage people to do socially beneficial things, and refrain from damaging ones

For example, we use taxes on tobacco to help dissuade people from smoking, and subsidies to encourage people to plant trees.

To compensate the community for loss of public goods

If land is enclosed for any purpose, the community lose some degree of access to it. If a factory is built, or wind turbines are erected; if a stream is dammed or diverted, people's views are affected. If a new road is built, formally safe places to walk are no longer safe - and so on. A reasonably unspoilt landscape is a public good; 


To compensate the community for the costs of clearing up abandoned mess

Scotland is littered with wrecks of abandoned factories and mines. Not as littered as it was thirty years ago, but that's because we've already spent masses of public money cleaning them up. But it's the nature of capitalism that it seeks to externalise its costs. When a business is no longer profitable, capitalism will tie it up in its own little limited company that has no other assets, so when it finally goes bust the parent company doesn't have to pick up the tab for cleaning up the mess. Since we know capitalist businesses will do this, it seems sensible to tax them enough to cover the costs in advance.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

I want the whole of the moon

The current state of the land reform debate infuriates me. People who should know a damn sight better are doffing their caps and tugging their forelocks at 'radical' proposals on land reform from the Scottish Government which are no more than pissing in the ocean - so feeble and timid that they will in practice make not a ha'pennys worth of difference to the landscape of rural Scotland.

Michael Gray, on Common Space, writes:
'Peter Peacock, policy director of Community Land Scotland (CLS), whose members manage 500,000 acres of land, told Common Space that the Holyrood's movements on the subject are "encouraging".'
Well, with all respect to Peter, that's not encouraging in the least. Scotland has nineteen million acres, so the proportion that is community 'managed' - and note, that's 'managed', not owned - is 2.6%. OK, that's the situation as it is now - before this vaunted bill. But as Peter very accurately says, 'a huge amount of effort will be put into [the reform bill] by vested interests.'

Ian Bell, in the Herald, writes of 'a bold new chapter in the history of our land', and goes on to gush
'If things happen as they could and should, Scotland will be altered permanently.'
Aye, Ian.

If.

But the consequence of all this fawning, uncritical overselling of the Government's very lacklustre proposals is that a lot of people who ought to be as angry as I am are sitting back, thinking land reform is going just swimmingly, thinking there's nothing they need do.

So what do these 'encouraging' proposals that will 'alter Scotland permanently' actually amount to? What is actually promised, at this stage?

You'll find the full answer in paragraph 29 of 'A Consultation on the Future of Land Reform in Scotland', but I'll briefly paraphrase.

Community right to buy

The Government are committed to 'improving and extending existing community rights to buy and introducing a new community right to buy for neglected or abandoned land, within the existing Community Empowerment (Scotland) Bill.' So what does 'neglected or abandoned land' mean, pray? The answer is that at this stage it means nothing.

It could mean something very radical - it could mean every last hectare of sporting estates in Scotland. I suspect, however, that it will not. I believe that it will probably end up meaning land that no-one is prepared to defend ownership of; land so polluted with industrial wastes, for example, that no-one wants it. And in any case, why should the community have a 'right to buy' something that was always and is inalienably ours?

Community land

The Government say they are 'developing a strategy to achieve a target for 1 million acres in community ownership by 2020'. That's one million out of, as I said earlier, over nineteen; an increase from 2.6% to 5.1% of the land. If their strategy is delivered; if it works. Colour me unstartled.

Succession

The Government are going to 'review' changing the succession laws - and if their 'review' has the outcome they want, they'll allow all children, not just the eldest male, to inherit land equally.

Sounds good, doesn't it? Sounds fair?

The Duke of Buccleuch has 109,000 hectares. The average number of children for a Scottish couple is 1.8; an equal share of the land of Scotland is 1.47 hectares. Suppose His Grace has two children who survive to inherit, and that each of his descendants in turn has two children - and assume that none of his descendants inherit anything from any other forebear - it will be sixteen generations before each of his descendants owns an average share of Scotland. Sixteen generations. Four hundred years. Are you prepared to wait that long for land reform?

But wait. It's worse than that.

The families who now own the four hundred largest estates form a small and cohesive social group. Suppose each owner has two children, each of whom marries someone else in the same social group - and let's face it, people mostly do marry into their own social group - and it goes on like that down the generations. If that happens, no land at all will be redistributed out of that tight social group, and in four hundred years time the same four hundred (or fewer) families will still own half of Scotland.

In practice it will be somewhere in between. Some landed aristocrats will marry other landed aristocrats, some won't. In four hundred years time, some of that half of Scotland will be in somewhat more numerous, somewhat smaller estates. And some won't. So: are you prepared to wait four hundred years for a tiny bit of not very thorough land reform?

So far, so underwhelming. What else - what else concrete - is promised?

...tumbleweed rolls gently through the glen; the wind sussurates among the empty hillsides...

What do you think?

What did you expect?

Nothing! Nothing else is promised. Not a tarnished bawbee. Not a mouldy potato. Not a rancid slice of square sausage. This is all us forelock tugging, cap-doffing peasants are deemed worth; all the supposedly-left-leaning SNP are prepared to offer us. They offer the crescent; I want the whole of the moon.

Land reform acts - inevitably, necessarily - do not come around often. The last - which at least let us walk over the land we can't own - was in 2003. Politicians are driven by the tides of influence and opinion. Remember, the ten percent of Scots who own most of the land are, not coincidentally, the same ten percent who own more than half of the wealth. The ten percent who can afford to hire the expensive lawyers, publicists and lobbyists. The ten percent who can give large donations to political parties. They will make their voices heard.

They have the land. They have the wealth. They have the lawyers. They have the media. They even have the guns. All we have is numbers, and the only numbers we have are those of us who are prepared to get off our arses to come together, to formulate a policy, and to campaign to get the politicians to listen to us. So unless we work our little cotton socks off, some meaningless fluff will be passed by Parliament, and nothing will change.

Oh, and we have until the 10th February - eight weeks, and with Christmas and the New Year in the middle of it.

What can we do?

Meet

The more united a voice we speak with, the more the politicians will listen to us. So I believe that it is important that we get a meeting of activists together, and it cannot really be later than the weekend of 24th January, since after we've met and thrashed out an agreement we then have to persuade as many people as possible to unite behind it - before the 10th February (yes, I know it's an arbitrary date, but it's the date the Government has set).

Agree

Obviously, I can't tell you what to agree. Obviously, I have my own proposals, which I'll argue for. But obviously, we will not get all we ask for because the forces of reaction arrayed against us are powerful and well organised; and therefore I believe it is important to be maximalist in our position.

Lobby

Once we're agreed we need to lobby. Firstly our own organisations: Radical Independence. Common Weal. The Scottish Left Project. The Scottish Tenant Farmers Association. The Crofting Federation. The SSP. The Greens. If we could get all - or even most - of those organisations to express support for a radical proposal, the politicians would have to listen to us.

But we also need, all of us, to lobby our politicians directly. To meet with them, to give them our agreed statement, to argue its merits with them.

Campaign

The consultation closes on the 10th February, but the job isn't over then. It's hardly begun. After the consultation closes, the legislation has to be drafted, and then it will be put before Parliament - some time in 2015, we don't yet know when. We need to keep the issue alive and in the public eye until it is. We need the public informed and on our side. Which means we have to communicate.

The Yes Campaign taught us how to do that, and has built for us the tools with which to do it.

Occupy

But there's one thing we can do with land that we couldn't do so vividly with Scotland: we can occupy it. The Land Reform Act 2003 - a poor thing, but our own - gives us the right to 'be' on the land, and to camp on it. The occupation of a significant sporting estate in the run up to the discussions in Parliament would be a significant statement.

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Me and you and the Duke of Buccleuch

Ten billion pounds, kerching!
I've written before about an exponential land tax. Rather often in fact... Here I want to give a clear account of how it would work, with a computer program (in Clojure) so that you can fiddle with it yourself. I'll try to get an interactive web page up this week, but it won't happen tonight.

So, the core of the idea is that you pay a small amount on your first hectare of land, a little bit more on your next hectare, a little bit more on your next, and so on. There are two key numbers in this idea: the constant, which is the amount of money you pay on the first hectare, and the exponent, which is the power the number of hectares we've counted so far is raised to to calculate the little bit more. So what you pay in tax is Σ1..n(cn)e, where n is the number of hectares you own.

Expressed as a clojure function, that's:

(defn summed-exponential-series 
  "Sum an exponential series from 1 to limit.
   
   `constant`: the constant by which integers in the range are multiplied;
   `exponent`: the exponent to which they are raised;
   `limit`: the limit of the range to be summed."
  [constant exponent limit]
  (reduce + (map #(math/expt (* constant %) exponent) (range limit))))

We now need to create a table of sizes of interesting land-holdings as Clojure code (areas in hectares):

(def holding-sizes
  [["Average croft" 5]
   ["Average farm" 101]
   ["Glasgow Airport" 300]
   ["Edinburgh Airport" 400]
   ["Grangemouth Refinery" 700]
   ["Countess of Sutherland" 33000]
   ["Earl of Seafield" 40000]
   ["Captain Alwynn Farquharson" 51800]
   ["Duke of Westminster" 54000]
   ["Duke of Atholl" 58700]
   ["Duke of Buccleuch" 109000]])

and finally a little function to map the first function over the table:

(defn sample-taxes
  "Prints sample taxable amounts for a table of holdings."
  [constant exponent holdings]
  (map #(print (format "\n%s: £ %,.2f" 
                (first %) 
                (summed-exponential-series constant exponent (second %))))
       holdings))

We can now ask, given a constant and an exponent, how much tax each of these holdings would pay.

For example, if we start with a modest £1 of tax on the first hectare, and set an exponent of only 1.05, we get this pattern:

Average croft:£ 10.53
Average farm:£ 6,204.08
Glasgow Airport:£ 58,191.38
Edinburgh Airport:£ 105,040.07
Grangemouth Refinery:£ 331,177.47
Countess of Sutherland:£ 893,688,616.49
Earl of Seafield:£ 1,325,738,877.59
Captain Alwynn Farquharson:£ 2,252,234,219.56
Duke of Westminster:£ 2,452,703,794.50
Duke of Atholl:£ 2,910,359,665.77
Duke of Buccleuch:£ 10,350,620,262.71

So ordinary people would pay trivial amounts; farmers would pay a bit more than I really want them to; the airports and the refinery, amounts which are perfectly affordable to them... and the aristocracy would have either to abandon most of their lands or be bankrupted utterly (yes, that is ten billion pounds the Duke of Buccleuch would owe, each year).

The point of offering you this as code that you can fiddle with is that by changing the constant and the exponent you can change the pattern of charges. The curve isn't quite right here; I feel that the levy on farmers is relatively speaking too high, on the refinery perhaps a little low. Tweaking the constant down and the exponent up changes the picture.

Obviously, an exponential land tax would not generate very much revenue, since most people wouldn't pay very much at all and most of the few who would be assessed for large amounts would have to abandon their land immediately. But the point is not to generate revenue, the point is to redistribute land; and it would do that exceedingly effectively.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Quarter of a million crofts

Imagine a Scotland where the rural areas are not desolate but vibrant, where the glens are not empty but populous as they were 250 years ago. Where the landscape is littered, not with desolate ruins of abandoned homes, but the cheerful life of new-built ones. Where the village schools are not empty and closing, but packed with children. That isn't a dream: that's achievable now, and all it takes is land reform.

The average agricultural holding in Scotland is 101 hectares: just over one square kilometre, or, to make it easier for you, the size of one of the National Grid squares on an Ordnance Survey map. That's enough, on reasonable land with reasonable husbandry, to provide an income for a family - and in many cases, more: enough to employ someone in addition. A countryside with one farm per square kilometer, with one or at most two working households per square kilometer, is a sparsely populated landscape, a landscape which finds it hard to support village schools, village pubs, village shops, village post offices.

Of course, a lot of Scotland doesn't even have one working family per square kilometre; a lot of Scotland is big estates, where a small gang of men, or contractors, travel from somewhere off the land - probably somewhere urban - to work its various jobs. Many of the big estates do, it's true, also rent out farms - family sized farms, around that 101 hectare size we came in with - and I'll come back to that later.

By contrast, the average croft in Scotland is five hectares. That's a slightly misleading figure; for crofting to work, crofters need access to common, and the area of the common they have access to should ideally be at least as much as the sum of the area of the crofts that have access to it. So you cannot realistically replace one farm with twenty crofts, except on the best land. Nor, perhaps, should you, in general, replace farms with crofts, I believe, because Scotland needs to produce food, and while the most efficient crofters may produce more food per hectare than the most efficient farmers on the same land, I don't believe the average crofter will.

A landscape of ten crofts per square kilometre, however, is a peopled landscape. People have neighbours close by. With between five and ten times the population, there's more support for local schools, pubs, post-offices, shops, health facilities. Here's the rub, however: it's extremely hard - not impossible, but hard - to make a family living off five hectares even of good land. That's the reason we have a Common Agriculture Policy, after all - not to pay enormous fortunes of public money to the already very rich, but to help support small peasant farmers. But even if we did succeed in reforming the CAP, for crofting to work, there needs to be alternative employment in rural areas - as there is in South Germany, an area with a very successful economy with very small farms and largely part-time farmers.

However, that's not the point I'm trying to make. 432 people, we're told, own half the private land in Scotland. Scotland is 7,838,700 hectares. The Forestry Commission manages almost 1.19 million hectrares, and at a guess other public lands (road network, ministry of defence, et cetera) may make up another 300,000 hectares (I'm being generous here). So the private land in Scotland is about 6,330,000 hectares. Half of that is 3,174,350 hectares. The Land Reform Review Group recommended a limit on the size of holdings [p166]. Let's suppose that limit were set at one thousand hectares (I'll argue why that should be so later). Those 432 people who own half of Scotland do not all individually own estates; some estates have more than one owner. So I'm assuming, more or less, that those 432 people together own 400 estates; if in fact they actually own fewer, then my calculations become more, not less, favourable.

Four hundred maximum size holdings would then make up 400,000 hectares. Subtract that from 3,174,350 and you're left with 2,774,350 hectares - that's the land that would be released by reducing each of those estates to 1000 hectares. That's enugh land for 277,435 crofts, allowing that each croft has 5 hectares of 'own' land, and that the area of common available to the crofts is equal to the area of the crofts.

But wait: some of that land is steep hillsides that we really should not be grazing (although at present we mostly are), and some of that land is high mountain land or deep peat land which is either impractical for any kind of agriculture or which shouldn't be worked for landscape, ecological, and wildlife reasons. So you can't really create quarter of a million new crofts...

Well no, you can't. Not out of the biggest 400 estates alone. But there are a lot more than 400 estates in Scotland which are each bigger than 1000 hectares; and there's no particular reason why those 1,190,000 hectares the forestry commission manage should be immune from this revolution. After all, the purpose for which the Forestry Commission was set up was to provide rural employment in remote upland areas, and to keep people on the land; it's signally failing to do that, and should cheerfully step aside to allow a different strategy to be tried.

And in any case a lot less of Scotland is 'naturally' unproductive than you probably think. The highlands were not cleared because the people who lived there could not make an adequate living, on the contrary. The highlands (like the lowlands before them) were cleared because they did not produce enough cash revenue for the land 'owners' - generally speaking, the ancestors of those people who still 'own' the lands now.

In practice I'm reasonably certain that the limit on the number of new crofts would not be the available land, but the people willing to settle it. Quarter of a million crofts need something like half a million people - equal to the whole population of Edinburgh. A revolution like that does not happen overnight.

But think, for a moment, of what it would mean: a populous, vibrant rural Scotland. Much more of our land much better cared for and more productive than it is now. Far more people in touch with, engaged with, invested in our landscape. More people with a much more active life - fewer health problems arising from sedentary lifestyles and lack of exercise. More people eating healthier, locally produced food. The revival of a Scottish food culture.

The availability of land is a necessary condition for such a revolution, but it isn't a sufficient condition. Crofts, by themselves, don't provide enough income. A crofter needs other sources of income, sources local enough to be accessed. The Internet helps, of course, but it isn't enough. Tourism can be developed, but it isn't enough. A crofting revolution won't happen if the planning authorities retain their current objections to small industrial development in remote rural areas. Part-time farmers - which is what crofters essentially are - must have something to do with the other part of their time.

A thousand hectares

You'll notice, above, that I suggest limiting the maximum holding size to one thousand hectares. Why that number, rather than any other? The answer is that it is not entirely arbitrary but may be a little over-generous. The largest industrial site in Scotland is the Grangemouth refinery, said to be seven hundred hectares. Edinburgh Airport is around four hundred hectares, and Glasgow Airport around three hundred. These are, as far as I can see, the largest individual private land holdings in Scotland which are necessarily single entities, and whose existence provides a public benefit. But, they're each special cases, and they are each very substantially profitable - sufficiently profitable to pay a very substantial amount of tax to the community, a point to which I'll return.

One could very reasonably argue that - apart from these few special cases - there's no public interest in allowing any private land holding to exceed twice the area of an average farm. However, if one sets the limit at the more generous one thousnd hectares, there's no need for any special cases.

Transition

Maximum holding size

The Land Reform Review Group report, as I said above, suggest a maximum size of holding. While I broadly support the idea, I think simply imposing a limit and confiscating any land beyond the limit would risk complex and long-winded challenge in the courts and might well ultimately fail. Imposing a limit and allowing existing owners to sell off excess land gives them a windfall profit they in no way merit, and doesn't redistribute land in a sensible way; we'd end up with a Scotland largely made up of 999 hectare holdings, many of the absentee owned, and managed (poorly) by gangs of contractors operating from urban centres.

Taxation

My preferred method for achieving a transition of half of Scotland from 401 larges estates (the extra one being the Forestry Commission) to quarter of a million crofts is tax. Andy Wightman and other land reformers have argued persuasively for Land Value Taxation. While Land Value Tax has a lot of merits, it won't achieve the breakup of large estates because the same hectare of land attracts the same tax whether in a large holding or a small one.

Instead, I prefer the idea of an exponential tax - where the tax scales very sharply with the size of the holding. Small holdings would pay almost nothing. Family farms, an easily affordable amount - a few hundreds of pounds a year. Large, profitable sites like the airports and Grangemouth, a few hundreds of thousands, which, given their profitability, they could well afford. But very large sporting estates? They'd be assessed for billions or trillions of pounds a year, on the same eminently reasonable scheme. Of course, even gulf sheiks couldn't pay that, but that's not the point. The point is not to collect revenue but to destroy large land holdings. So the scheme should make it as easy as possible for the current owner to define an area of their estate - perhaps his house and its surrounding buildings, perhaps a home farm - on which they could afford to pay tax - and to surrender the rest of their estate as common.

Heritability

We've got into this mess because we've treated ownership of land as persistent and heritable. There's no reason it should be. There's a public policy interest in giving management of an area of land to a particular individual who has the skills to care for it and live off its profits. But the children of that person may not have the skills or the motivation; is there any public interest in the children of a land holder being able automatically to continue the holding after the death of their parent?

Honestly, there isn't. Honestly, you cannot have a just society in which any significant wealth is heritable, since it locks wealth into the families which are already wealthy and prevents social mobility. Honestly, the right solution is to declare that land is not heritable, that interest in land ceases with the death of the holder. But in the modern world with our legacy of legal mess, that raises two very significant practical problems. The first is that we - perversely - treat corporations as legal 'people', and corporations don't naturally age and die. So if we declared land non-heritable, land holders would simply set up limited companies to 'own' their land. The second is buildings.

Most people in Britain, even fairly modest people, have most of their wealth tied up in property, but which they think they mean buildings. Buildings in Scotland have not traditionally been built to be movable. Making land non-heritable would make the houses even of the comparatively poor non-heritable, and while I believe this would be the right thing to do it would be very hard to build a democratic concensus for it.

Disposition of lands

However, if land is released from the big estates as I recommend, I'm not suggesting that it should be passed as heritable property to new owners. On the contrary, I think it should be held by local communities, and that the new crofters should be granted only a life interest in their crofts. Heritability may have suited the needs of weak, turbulent medieval kingdoms but it does not suit the modern egalitarian state and we should not thoughtlessly repeat the mistakes of the past.

Tenanted farms

As I said earlier, many of the big estates let tenanted farms, and tenant farmers are by and large the most marginal and most exploited people in rural Scotland today. If we do break up the big estates, should they, too, be forced off their holdings, or made to downsize to crofts? I don't believe that's either fair or necessary. I believe that the communities to which the land should pass should grant them a non-heritable life interest in the holding. How the community divides the land after the death of the current tenant, though, should be a matter for the community.

Is this fair?

Whether we do it by imposing a maximum holding size, by confiscation, or by deliberately unaffordable taxation, what I'm proposing will deprive four hundred and thirty two people - powerful people - of what they view as their property.

Let's put that question another way: to what extent is this legitimate property in the first place? No-one can argue that inherited wealth is merited wealth. No-one has earned the property that their parents passed down to them. But more than that, as I wrote in the Levellers' Rant:
let's be clear about this: the soil of Scotland was not created with title deeds attached. No single square inch of Scotland has passed peaceably from parent to child over the twelve thousand years since first it was settled. Rather, every grain of Scotland's soil has been seized, stolen, conquered, embezzled, fought over - not once but dozens of times. No land in Scotland - not even my own ten acres - is held with any moral right. Not even estates granted by kings, for wherein lies the source of their moral right? If there's any right in this, the Levellers were right. It is not right to take the livelihood of the many to provide a surplus for the few.
Yes, if we reform land in Scotland, a few hundred people will lose what they had thought of as theirs, and they will inevitably experience that as hurtful. While I may at times express anger or impatience at them, I am genuinely regretful that hurt must be caused. But, let's be clear about this, Scotland has more than five million people and fewer than eight million hectares. A fair share of Scotland, if we're talking about what is fair - a fair share of Scotland is less than two hectares per person. It may be hurtful to disposess a few hundred people of some - but not all - of what they thought was theirs, to benefit hundreds of thousands of others. But it's by no means unfair.

Another Scotland is possible

So, in conclusion, if we are prepared to think boldly of land reform, another Scotland - a revived, rejuvenated, vibrant, healthy rural Scotland - is possible. But it won't happen without many of us - very many of us - actively work, agitating, campaigning for it to happen. We've talked for years about a thousand huts. How much harder are you prepared to work for quarter of a million crofts?

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Think of the children

I wrote this essay a year ago, when Scotland was going through one of its periodic throes of toxic Calvinism. But I didn't publish it then, because I argue too many unpopular causes in public and this is yet another of them. Frankly, I didn't feel, a year ago, that I wanted to cope with the amount of controversy it would cause.

However, the infection is spreading to England too, and this needs to be said.

Alessandro Allori's
particularly troubling image
of Susanna and The Elders
Today has been a day to remember Martin Niemöller. He first cropped up for me this morning, when I saw a news article about the Greek authorities rounding up and interning transexual people as 'undesirables'. But it bit into something I have been thinking for a while about Scotland's (and soon England's, too) repressive and ill thought out legislation on extreme pornography, and especially images of (simulated) rape.

I don't make images of simulated rape. I'm not aware of having ever seen images of 'simulated rape' - and I don't believe I'd know one if I saw one. This law is not against me.

But I do write stories about the ambiguities of sexual morality, and some of my stories touch on ambiguities about consent. In my novel, Harem, there is a rape scene, although I'd claim it's intentionally not eroticised. But what can be done to the visual image can be done even more to the written narrative, because while a static image literally cannot portray consent or the absence of consent, a narrative can (and, if it's taking the matter seriously, must). So this law may not be against me, but it is on a slippery slope, and if the moral Taleban are allowed to get away with this one, the next law may well be about me.

And yet, so far, I've written one fairly feeble blog post. In it, I make the point that consent isn't visible: that it is completely unclear what images of sex are outlawed.

Let's examine that in detail: the law says
'An image is pornographic if it is of such a nature that it must reasonably be assumed to have been made solely or principally for the purpose of sexual arousal.'
The image is extreme pornography if
'... it depicts, in an explicit and realistic way any of the following—
(a)an act which takes or threatens a person’s life,
(b)an act which results, or is likely to result, in a person’s severe injury,
(c)rape or other non-consensual penetrative sexual activity,
(d)sexual activity involving (directly or indirectly) a human corpse,
(e)an act which involves sexual activity between a person and an animal (or the carcase of an animal).'
Let's examine this section with reference to four image in the National Gallery in London (I'm sure the National Gallery of Scotland has similar images, but I have not yet found them)

  • Rubens' The Rape of the Sabine Women;
  • Reni's The Rape of Europa;
  • Two images of Leda and the Swan, one after Michelangelo and one in the style of Pier Francesco Mola
  • At least two images of Susannah and the Elders, one by Guido Reni and one by Ludovici Carracci.

Rape of the Sabine Women, Rubens.
In Ruben's image, the (many) women are seen to be fighting and struggling as they are seized and carried off by their violators; there is no ambiguity about consent in this image. The women do not consent. Although there's no explicit penetrative sex in the image, the image is in the context of a narrative which will have been well known to its target audience: the early Romans, being mainly male and not having enough women to go around, invited their neighbours the Sabines to a festival in order to seize and abduct their women. So this is strictly rape in the modern sense, and the target audience certianly knew that.

Reni, Rape of Europa
The second image, although peaceful to the eye, also carries a well known narrative. The god Zeus, desiring the human maiden Europa, transformed himself into a bull and carried her off to Crete. In the narrative there's no hint of seduction. She did not know he was a God, she did not know he had sexual intention, she was lured and entrapped. Again this image does not depict sexual activity, but the sexual activity it clearly implies is, this time, with an animal - a bull.

Zeus, of course, was a serial rapist. Leda and the Swan refers to a similar tale, in which Zeus transformed himself into a swan. The 'after Michelangelo' treatment of this subject is explicit - it clearly shows the swan copulating with the woman. She doesn't seem to be resisting - consent is implicit in the image - but it's clearly 'extreme' under
Leda and the Swan (after Michelangelo)
paragraph (e) above. The other Leda and the Swan image is to my eye less explicit - the swan is between the woman's legs in a pose which suggests penetration, but it is nothing like as vigorous.

Susannah, in the narrative in the book of Daniel, is a virtuous young woman who two senior members of the community try to blackmail into having sex with her. If she refuses, they will accuse her of adultery, a crime which will carry the sentence of death by stoning.

Suzannah and the Elders, Reni
Guido Reni's image of Susannah and the Elders is interesting, because it shows that Susannah, as the elders attempt to blackmail her, looks troubled and concerned - she is neither consenting nor complacent. But there are other images of this theme - such as the one I show at the head of this article, not in the National Gallery - which are even more troubling, a matter I'll return to later.

But are these images pornography? Clearly, on the contrary, are they not art?

Well, no.

Look at the wording of the act.

An image is pornography if '...it is of such a nature that it must reasonably be assumed to have been made solely or principally for the purpose of sexual arousal...' We know as a matter of historical fact that these late renaissance and post renaissance images of illicit sexuality were made - and sought after - specifically as erotic images. That's why these three subjects - the Sabine Women, the rapes of Europa and Leda, and also Susanna and the Elders - were such popular themes, painted and repainted over a period of over a hundred years by many artists. These images were the most erotic which artists of the time believed they could get away with, and were bought for precisely that reason - and their eroticism rested significantly in the illicitness of the sexuality depicted. These pictures were by far more popular, and consequently have survived in larger number, than depictions of more sedate sexuality.

And yet in these images - chosen, it must be assumed, for their illustration of well-known narratives of non-consensual sex - the women are often shown apparently relaxed, apparently complacent. It's hard to avoid the conclusion that part of the meta-narrative behind these images is that 'women really enjoy being raped'. However, that's an aside from my present topic.

These images are, as I've argued, pornography. They portray rape, and some of them also portray bestiality. If this law on 'extreme pornography' is to be enforced, then the first to be prosecuted must be the trustees of National Gallery.

But these are still images, whose narrative context must be supplied by the viewer: it's in the mind of the viewer that these images are to be interpreted as images of rape, although the Leda and the Swan images are indeed explicitly images of bestiality. What of moving images, where the image supplies its own narrative?

Still from Last Tango in Paris
Before writing this essay I rewatched the infamous 'butter' scene in Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris. It's unambiguous that the female protagonist does not consent to anal sex. So this is clearly rape. Her distress and resistance are very clearly shown. Is the narrative context one that '...must reasonably be assumed to have been made solely or principally for the purpose of sexual arousal'? H'mmmm. That is, of course, a matter of interpretation. Bertolucci claims (as I'm sure that Michelangelo and Rubens would have done before him) it's art. It is undoubtedly a psychological study. But if it was not intended to arouse, why was Maria Schneider cast? Why does the camera pay so much attention to her naked body? Why are the sex scenes so frequent, so prominent, so extended, and so intense?

But, do we want to say that this and other mainstream movies which portray rape - Clint Eastwood's High Plains Drifter, for example, or John Boorman's Deliverance - should be illegal in Scotland? All these films clearly portray rape. Do we want to say that artists may not discuss, through the medium of film, the moral and psychological issues of sexual assault and rape?

And that raises a bigger question. How are young people to learn what sexual behaviours are legitimate, and what illegitimate, if frank discussion of deviant sexuality is excluded from art and from popular media?

'Think of the children', the new puritan Taleban wail. I am thinking of the children. That's precisely who I'm thinking of. For their sake, for their hopes of growing up to become adults able to have healthy sexual relationships, to know the difference between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour, we must not stifle or distort discussion of the full range of human sexuality.

Saturday, 29 November 2014

The breakfast any self-respecting dog would reject

Smiffy
The Smith Commission report has 28 pages, but in fact the meat of it is precisely half that: fourteen pages cover the 'three pillars' of its recommendations. That's four pillars, by my arithmetic, short of wisdom.

The pillars are, in brief
  1. a 'durable' constitutional framework;
  2. prosperity, jobs, and social justice;
  3. financial responsibility for Holyrood.
If the report lived up to its billing and delivered these things, then, indeed, we would have a durable constitutional framework, and the pressure for independence would recede; unfortunately, it does not.

Taxation

Let's start with the last first, because it is flaws in the last pillar that destabilise the whole platform. In my personal submission to the Smith Commission I wrote:
The only solutions which will work on taxation are
  1. Devolve no tax-raising powers, and continue with an enhanced Barnett Formula. It will be very hard to get a political consensus on this, and it is against Scotland's interests since the long-term drift of Union policy is towards ever more austerity and ever deeper cuts to social and health provision, leading to lower Barnett Formula payments to Scotland; or
  2. Devolve all tax raising powers completely, and have Scotland pay a subvention to the Union. Again, this will not be easy to build a political consensus around, and the formula for the subvention will be particularly contentious; but it is clearly the only solution which will work in the medium term.
It's hardly surprising that the Smith Commission did not bow down before my ineffable sagacity, but nevertheless I contend that was - and remains, if a United Kingdom is to be salvaged - good advice.

So what did they agree? The first clause of the third pillar is the one David Cameron is attempting to tear up immediately:
Income Tax will remain a shared tax and both the UK and Scottish Parliaments will share control of Income Tax. MPs representing constituencies across the whole of the UK will continue to decide the UK’s Budget, including Income Tax.[¶ 75]
Scotland can set rates and bands of income tax; it can raise or lower thresholds. However,
All other aspects of Income Tax will remain reserved to the UK Parliament, including the imposition of the annual charge to Income Tax, the personal allowance, the taxation of savings and dividend income, the ability to introduce and amend tax reliefs and the definition of income.[¶ 77]
So all Scotland actually gets to set rates on is tax on earned income - what ordinary working people pay. Tax on unearned income - which is predominantly what the rich pay - we cannae touch. For the same reason - to protect the rich - we cannae touch inheritance taxes or capital gains taxes[¶ 81]. We cannae touch taxes on business. We cannae tax the oil coming out of the North Sea, or the gas coming from (if we permit it) fracking.

So what else can we do? We can set the rate of Air Passenger Duty, but if we abolish it we must compensate the UK government for doing so![¶ 87] We can tax aggregates, but again, if we do, we must 'reimburse' the UK government[¶ 90]. And that's all, folks. That's your whack.

The Barnett Formula remains and is - if the UK parties do indeed implement the document as written - protected into the future. We get the benefits and costs of any changes we make to our taxes as permitted in the recommendations, on top of Barnett[¶95]. And we'll need it, because we're only getting 29% of the tax revenue generated in Scotland.

There are many other reasons why these proposals on tax powers are the worst of all possible worlds; they've been stated very clearly by Richard Murphy. But the point which I want to repeat, which I want you to remember, is this: we are permitted to raise revenue, for example for improved services, by taxing the labour of ordinary working folk, the relatively poor; we're not permitted to touch the wealth or unearned income of the rich.

Social Justice

You'll have noticed already, then, that the 'social justice' pillar is necessarily hollow. We are to have powers over 'social justice' only in so far as they do not hurt the rich.

So, we're to have the power to abolish the spare bedroom tax[¶45], but we'll have to pay for it by taxing ordinary working folk. We can't do ANYTHING about 'Universal Credit' sanctions [¶46]. We do get power over a small range of minor benefits amounting to 14% of total benefits by value, but again if we choose to be more generous with them we'll have to pay for it by taxing ordinary working folk[¶49].

We cannae mess with the minimum wage, so we cannot lift people out of poverty that way[¶59]

However, there is one gleam of daylight. Under ¶54, we can create new benefits. So I think it would be possible to set up Citizens' Income, although it would in effect only redistribute wealth from ordinary folk to the very poor, because, again, we are not trusted to effectively tax the rich.

Economy

We get to renationalise the railways[¶65]. Except, of course, that that contract has already been let to the Netherlands national railways, so it's the tax payers of the Netherlands who get the benefit of this for the next ten years. We get to license (or not license) onshore oil and gas exploitation - so we could ban fracking[¶69]. Or, alternatively, we could raise revenue from it. We get to 'prevent the proliferation' of loan sharks and gambling machines[¶73,74].

So, in fact, tinkering not at the margins but at the margins of the margins. We cannot do anything effective (except perhaps licensing fracking, which would be environmentally destructive and wildly unpopular) to improve our economy.

A 'durable' framework?

Which takes us back to the first pillar. With the third broken and the second hollow, does the first have the capacity to take the full load on its shoulders? It starts well, recognising
the sovereign right of the people of Scotland to determine the form 
of government best suited to their needs [¶20]
Hold onto that phrase. We may need to come back to it in future. Under [¶21], the UK parliament will not - under the terms of these recommendations, which, of course, the UK parliament is at liberty to ignore - abolish the Scottish Parliament. The UK parliament will not interfere in devolved matters[¶22].

We can regulate our own elections, including the number of MSPs and of Scottish Parliament constituencies (provided we have a 'super majority', [¶27]), and the voting age; but we cannae regulate political parties, or political donations. Furthermore, the boundary commission, although not reserved, 'will continue to operate as a UK public body'.

We do get to administer, and receive the revenue from, the crown estates, but we must devolve these to those local authorities who request them (I think that's probably a good thing, but we are not trusted to decide for ourselves).

We don't get our own voice in Europe, and we don't get to represent the UK in Europe, not even on fishing, unless no UK minister is available; but we will be 'consulted'[¶31]. We don't get any control over broadcasting, but again we'll be consulted.

Smiffy messes up

I wrote at the beginning of this process, in my submission to the commission, that theirs was a task
which I know will prove thankless, suspect will prove fruitless, and believe will prove pointless

It was, of course, an immensely difficult brief. All the commissioners are to be congratulated that a document has emerged at all by the deadline. Robert Smith himself is to be congratulated for facilitating their work. Of course we now know that the document was sabotaged by Westminster before it could see the light of day. But none of the three pillars are stable; none will bear the weight the unionists seek to put on them. It's no surprise that the overwhelming public verdict in Scotland has been 'underwhelming'.

In short, if this is the fruit of their labour, it is strange and bitter fruit indeed; more like to poison the union than to nourish it.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Proposal for a Rural Policy meeting/workshop this winter

The Scottish Rural Parliament was an interesting event, but it - necessarily and desirably - was a meeting of people from all strands of Scottish rural life, so it wasn't an ideal situation for wild-eyed radicals to get together and plot. The Radical Independence Conference was invigorating and inspiring, but it was too big, effectively, for any real discussion of detailed policy.

We have, coming up in parliament now, three very important issues. The first is Community Empowerment, which is before parliament now and unless we get our act together quickly we'll effectively miss. The second is Land Reform, which will be before parliament soon. The third is Local Government Reorganisation, for which there are no clear proposals yet, but which everyone knows has to be addressed.

Policy making is a conversation. The law is, at best, a lagging indicator of the popular consensus of what is just, and that consensus can be moved (as we saw during the referendum campaign). If we want the law to move even a little in a radical direction, we need to have concrete proposals from a very radical position to balance the very reactionary proposals which will undoubtedly come from Scottish Land and Estates and their allies.

To make this happen, I think we need a meeting of activists to put together a set of proposals. We can't really meet regularly: Scotland is too big, we're mostly all too poor, in money, in time, and in energy. If a single one day meeting is to achieve anything, we need to do most of the work on the Internet in advance.

How are we to do that? I had originally thought of a wiki, and I've set up a little toy wiki to see if the idea works. This allows us to communally edit the same documents, and preserves all the different versions of the documents. But the alternative is for people to write individual position papers, share them either on blogs or by email, and for us to collaboratively edit them into one set of policies on the day.

There are a lot of areas we could cover, and if this works we can meet again to cover other policy areas; but for the present I think we should concentrate on those things which are coming up in parliament now, because they're most urgent.

We could meet under a Radical Independence Banner or under a Common Weal banner if people think either of those would be useful, or we could just meet as ourselves. I'd prefer we didn't associate ourselves with any particular political party, as doing so would prejudice members of other political parties against our ideas - but I'm only one voice and can be overridden on this.

As to when and where, I think it has to be January, and the weekend of 23-25th has been suggested. I thought somewhere near Perth as reasonably central, but the alternative would be to have two or three locations linked by video link (possibly safer given issues of weather, but I do think some of the potential benefit is to develop better informal social links between activists).

If you're interested in taking part, email me (simon at journeyman.cc). I'll give you a login on the wiki and also set up an email group. But for this to work it needs people to put some energy in. Not everyone has to write a policy paper. Not everyone has to read every policy paper. But you need to have read some of them, and to have a clear view on what policy will be.

Monday, 24 November 2014

A worm, and a firmament of stars

Cat Boyd rocks the Armadillo
David Torrance is a journalist who irritates me more than he ought. Not that that's his problem; it's mine entirely, I ought not to allow myself to become so annoyed. But he is, for me, the exemplar of Scotland's tall poppy syndrome: see anyone talented, competent, able beyond what Torrance believes to be their deserts, and he will attack. His attacks are subtle: he uses innuendo, faint praise, dismissive reference, imputation of ill motives; never, as far as I'm aware, outright verifiable falsehood. I suspect he checks his facts carefully - indeed he must do so, since if he did not he would surely find himself before the courts on a regular basis. He's also - viciously - tribal. His detestation of the Scottish National Party bleeds through every piece he writes; his praise for the Labour right is lavish and unstinting. At least it could never be said of him that he pretends to balance.

Instead, he pretends to erudition. In today's scrawling in the Herald, he casts himself somewhat incongruously as a bible-thumper, making heavy reference to Deuteronomy; and, in case his audience is so unlairit as not fully to appreciate his facile cleverness, when he quotes from the Gospel according to Luke, he very helpfully cites chapter and verse.

Oh, yes, actually, this sort of stuff is quite fun to write - not constructive or illuminating, perhaps, but quite fun. I think I could manage a fair parody of a Torrance piece, if I set my mind to it.

But today I owe him a debt of gratitude, since he's irked me sufficiently to drive me to write this essay. And so I'll deal with his drivel in two short paragraphs, and move on to the meat of the matter.

Yes, David, Alex Salmond has had a number of 'pops at the BBC'. In which, let's agree, he's entirely justified, since even neutral academic studies have established beyond any doubt that the BBC's coverage of the referendum campaign was anything but fair, unbiased, or impartial. No, David, it doesn't matter whether or not you 'rather doubt it was the official figure of 12,000' attendees at Nicola Sturgeon's rally, since it's a matter of record that there were twelve thousand tickets, and every one of them was sold. No, David, of course neither Nicola Sturgeon nor Alex Salmond - nor anyone else on the stage in the Hydro - mentioned what was going on a scant 250 metres away in the Armadillo. As the government held it's - justifiable - celebration in the Hydro, the opposition were meeting across the way. The left was meeting across the way. The trades unionists were meeting across the way. The political voice of the working poor of Scotland was being heard across the way.

And very few - very few - of the people's party were there. Labour isn't in government in Scotland, David; it isn't even in opposition. It is tearing itself apart on the sidelines faintly pursuing the Liberal Democrats into the wilderness, while the new battle lines of Scottish politics take shape: the SNP in the centre ground, the tattered remnants of the unionist parties on the right, and something new and not yet fully choate on the left.

And that's what I came to talk about. I can't tell you what the SNP got up to in their mass rally, because I wasn't there. I was in the Armadillo, and the Science Centre, and the implausibly named Crowne Plaza (seriously? In Glasgow?), discussing the strategy and objectives of the new Scotland.

Three Days in Oban


But I'm getting ahead of myself. This piece doesn't start with Saturday, but with a Thursday two and a half weeks ago in Oban: with the Scottish Rural Parliament. The Scottish Rural Parliament has emerged out of a civil society project organised by a group of people who are undoubtedly well motivated, but who I feared might be naive. The attendees were largely self selecting and not in any meaningful sense representative. Consequently I'd gone there expecting to be a lone voice crying in the wilderness; I'd expected the event to be top-heavy with lairds and their lackeys. I'd gone there very grateful for the company of a friend who's a Green party activist. I was, not to put too fine a point on it, feart.

I should not have worried. The left was well represented: by the Tenant Farmers Association, by crofters' groups, and by a motley band of academics, housing association people, Green Party people, and the wilder fringe including myself. Two of the most significant people on the rural Left, Andy Wightman and Lesley Riddoch, were leading sessions.

The reason I haven't written about the event before this is that I'm pretty dissatisfied with myself with the use I made of it. I managed, through being disorganised, to book a session which clashed with the one - on local government reorganisation, an important matter and near to my heart - that they led together. And I managed also to miss most of the evening socialising where useful conversations might have been had - but probably not by me, since I've never been good with crowds.

In saying that I managed to miss Lesley and Andy's session, I went instead to a session on land reform run by some public affairs consultancy on behalf of the Scottish Government. That was the one part of the whole thing that really bothered me: I had a strong feeling that the session was being consciously structured to exclude the possibility of hearing radical suggestions.

However, the event as a whole was a good one, well organised, with a broad cross section of rural Scotland, the poor as well as the rich, the left as well as the right. And government ministers were there, palpably listening.

What most impressed me? Well, Lesley and Andy, of course. I frequently cross swords with Andy, but I hope he knows that I think him one of the most important thinkers, researchers and activists we have. But also, to my surprise, Councillor David O’Neill, an old Labour man, chair of COSLA's commission on Local Democracy, who gave a witty, modest, practical and very human outline of the problems and challenges of local government in Scotland; and the organisation (by a Danish facilitator whose name I didn't note) of Friday afternoon's highly interactive discussion sessions, in which we worked in small flexible groups across a wide range of key policy issues. Oh, and, I think I live in a beautiful part of Scotland (well, I do), but the landscape around Oban is stunning.

The bowels of the Armadillo


And so from the magnificence of Argyle to the stark grandeur of the Finnieston Crane. I met many of the people I had worked with at the Rural Parliament next on Saturday in Glasgow, at the Radical Independence Conference. RIC is effectively bridging the rural/urban divide, bringing together the left from across Scotland, and I honestly believe we will achieve a policy platform which will build broad support across the nation.

So, thoughts on RIC: I'd hoped for a working conference which would make policy, but it has essentially grown too big for that. To have a useful discussion with three thousand people is impossible; even the smaller breakout sessions, at two hundred or more people each, were too big for real interaction. And so it was mainly speakers from platforms, delivering speeches. The plenaries I'll come back to; patience.

I attended (of course) the land reform session - entitled 'Ending feudalism now: why we need radical land reform' - which was led (of course) by Andy Wightman, but with someone I hadn't heard before, Jen Stout from Fair Isle. That session was interesting not merely for the 'platform' (it was a table) addresses, but because we actually managed some real discussion - not, under those circumstances, very free flowing, but some.

I attended a session which advertised itself as 'new media', but which led off with a long (interesting) address by Paul Holleran, Scottish Organiser of the NUJ, mainly about the BBC and about the new daily newspaper, the Nation. There was also an interesting section by Angela Haggerty of Common Weal on their new collaborative news platform (which hasn't really launched yet, but sounds as though it may be promising).

And finally I attended a session on the Common Weal, led by Robin McAlpine; the first time I'd seen the whites of his eyes. The session as a whole was interesting, but it reprised a lot of what I'd already heard from Angela Haggerty, so for me I used it most to form an opinion of Robin. I'll admit I've been wary of him. The last thing the left in Scotland needs is yet another charismatic egotist. Citizen Tommy and Gorgeous George have between them done incalculable damage. So it was a relief for me to see that Robin was too much an intellectual, too self aware and introspective, to fall into that trap.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time


Which brings me to the Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time; to Jonathon Shafi, the other person to emerge strongly on the left in Scotland over the course of the referendum campaign, the other person who might conceivably have tried to follow in Tommy's and George's footsteps.

Shafi didn't bark.

To be honest I didn't expect him to, I've already seen enough of Jonathon Shafi to know he isn't an egotist; but the extent to which he didn't bark surprised me. He didn't speak in the plenaries except, in the opening plenary, to introduce speakers. He did apparently lead one (well received, I hear) workshop, but I didn't attend that.

Those who did speak in the plenaries, though, revealed the strength in depth that we have. Aamer Anwar spoke: mostly a tirade against Labour, which won rapturous applause but was I think tactically a mistake. Patrick Harvie for the Greens spoke well, of course, it goes without saying; Colin Fox of the SSP, too. Tariq Ali, beside whom I last stood at a meeting in Birmingham in 1973 as we tried together to prevent what was supposed to be a broad front campaign in support of the left in Chile being taken over by one of the more doctrinaire Marxist-Somethingist factions, inspiringly, as, from long experience, he can.

A Firmament of Stars


But all these seasoned politicians were eclipsed. It would be wrong to ignore Myshelle Haywood, one of many from across the Atlantic who have come to Scotland for our culture and stayed because of our politics, and who spoke well and fluently. It would be wrong to ignore Alan Bissett, who gave us our vow. It would be wrong to ignore Sarah Beattie Smith, who chaired the closing plenary with grace and confidence. But abune them aa, there were two real standout stars.

In the opening plenary, Saffron Dickson shone. She spoke too last years' conference; I think if I recall correctly she said then that it was her first time speaking to a large audience. Well, this year wasn't. Her performance was confident, assured, witty, fluent, passionate, eloquent: extraordinarily assured for one so young. Yet in the closing plenary even that was eclipsed.

We know Cat Boyd can speak: we've seen her do it before. But, she did it. She earned her standing ovation. Alex Salmond apparently said, that day, in another place, that Nicola Sturgeon is the most talented young woman in Scottish Politics. I have the greatest of respect for Alex, but he was wrong. The left now has at least two - these two - who outclass her. And they're both younger, with much more ahead of them.

When shall we three (thousand) meet again?


There have been a number of good think pieces on RIC written in its aftermath; I particularly commend to you Peter ArnottJonathon ShafiAdam Ramsay, Sarah Mumford and Libby Brooks. There was another that I meant to link to written by a female Green activist on the train home, but I can't now find it - if anyone recognises it from that description please tweet me and I'll add it! There's even a surprisingly good straight piece from the BBC.

What do I take away from it? Well, as Jonathon Shafi has said, it proves that we can have competent organisation and a great deal of common purpose on the left; factionalism is neither inevitable nor useful. we need to get serious talking done about policy, and a massive event like this doesn't do that. So we're going to need working groups, and we're going to need working groups well before next years conference. Which, from my point of view, really means I need to get a rural policy working group together and actually happening. I'm inclined to do that under a RIC banner rather than under a Common Weal banner, but frankly it's more important to get the right people talking than what banner we meet under.

Conclusion


RIC is, as I said at the beginning of this piece, yet inchoate. In it are the seeds of Scotland's future: in it is the hope for Scotland's future. Will it emerge as a political party? I don't think so. Six months ago I hoped it would, now I hope it will not. I hope the future of politics in Scotland is not a future of party, tribalism, faction, but a future of a loose and changing tapestry of individuals and groups with bonds of understanding and mutual respect, which know they don't always agree on everything but know too when and how to come together in common cause: and if that is the future, then RIC is the embryo of that future.

We must nurture it. But it will grow.

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