Wednesday, 23 January 2019

Mad software

I was listening to Eric Normand's podcast this morning, as I was making breakfast and tidying my room; he was talking about semantics and data. It started a train of thought which I shall try to unroll.

I have blogged a lot in the past about madness and about software, but I don't think I've ever blogged about madness and software in the same essay. But the reasons I'm mad and the reasons I'm (sometimes) very good at software are related; both have their roots in autism and dyslexia, or, to put it differently, how my brain is wired.

I first wrote about post scarcity software thirteen years ago. It was a thought about how software environments should be designed if were weren't held back by the cruft of the past, by tradition and by a lack, frankly, of anything much in the way of new creative thought. And seeing that the core of the system I described is a Lisp, which is to say it builds on a software architecture which is almost as old as I am, perhaps it is infected by my own take on tradition and my own lack of creativity, but let's, for the purposes of this essay, assume not.

I started actually writing the post scarcity software environment on the second of January 2017, which is to say two years ago. It's been an extremely low priority task, because I don't have enough faith in either my vision or my skill to think that it will ever be of use to anyone. Nevertheless, it does now actually work, in as much as you can write software in it. It's not at all easy yet, and I wouldn't recommend anyone try, but you can check out the master branch from Github, compile it, and it works.

As my mental health has deteriorated, I have been working on it more over the past couple of months, partly because I have lost faith in my ability to deliver the more practical projects I've been working on, and partly because doing something which is genuinely intellectually hard helps subdue the chaos in my mind.

Having said that, it is hard and I am not sharp, and so progress is slow. I started work on big number arithmetic a three weeks ago, and where I'm up to at this point is:
  • addition seems to work up to at least the second bignum boundary;
  • multiplication doesn't work beyond the first bignum boundary;
  • subraction doesn't work, and turns out not to be as easy as just inverting addition;
  • division sort of trivially works, but only in the sense that we can create a rational number out of arbitrary bignums;
  • reading works beyond the first bignum boundary, but not up to the second (because multiplication doesn't work);
  • printing doesn't work beyond the first bignum boundary.
I knew bignums were going to be a challenge, and I could have studied other people's bignum code and have consciously chosen not to do so; but this is not fast progress.

(I should point out that in those three weeks I've also done four days of customer work, which is .Net and boring but it's done, spent two days seeing my sister, spent several days so depressed I didn't actually do anything at all, and done a bit or practical work around the croft. But still!)

In a sense, it wasn't expected to be. Writing the underpinnings of a software environment which is conceptually without limits has challenge after challenge after challenge.

But there are ideas in post scarcity which may have wider utility than this mad idea in itself. Layering homogeneities and regularities onto Clojure maps might - perhaps would - make a useful library, might would make a very useful component for exactly the sort of data wrangling Eric Normand was talking about. Yes, you can use a map - raw data soup - to represent a company. But if this map is a member of a homogeneity, 'Companies', then we know every member of it has employees, and that every employee has a salary and an email address. Regularities and homogeneities form the building blocks of APIs; to use the example Eric discussed in his podcast, the salary is the property of the employee, but the payroll is a property of the company. So in the notation I'm using for post scarcity, you'd get the payroll figure for a company by using a method on the 'Companies' homogeneity. How it computes that value is part of the general doctrine of 'Don't Know, Don't Care': the principal that people writing software at any layer in the system do not need to know, and should not need to care, about how things are implemented in the layers below them.

So, the user needing to find the payroll value for a company would enter something like this:

    (with ((companies . ::shared:pool:companies)
           (acme . companies:acme-widgets-plc))
        (companies:methods:payroll acme))

In practice, in post scarcity notation, the payroll method probably looks something like this:

    (λ (company)
        (reduce + 
            (map ::shared:pool:employees:methods:salary 
                (:employees company))))

There are issues that I haven't resolved yet about the mutability of regularities and homogeneities; obviously, in order to provide multi-user visibility of current values of shared data, some regularities must be mutable. But mutability has potentially very serious perfomance issues for the hypercube architecture, so I think that in general they should not be.

However, that's detail, and not what I'm trying to talk about here.

What I'm trying to talk about here is the fact that if I were confident that these ideas were any good, and that I had the ability to persuade others that they were any good, it would make far more sense to implement them in Clojure and promote them as a library.

But the problem with depression is that you cannot evaluate whether your ideas are any good. The black dog tells me that I'm shit, and that my ideas are shit, and that I don't really know enough to be worth listening to, and that I'm an old tramp who lives in a hut in the woods, and probably smells, and that in any case interaction with other people quickly makes me shaky and confused, and that I can never get my act together, and that I never finish anything.

And all that is objectively true, and I know that it is true. But I also know that I can (or at least have in the past been able to) build really good software, and that I can (or have been able, in the past, to) present ideas really well.

These two collections of statements about me are both true at the same time. But the difference is that I believe the first and I don't believe the second.

And behind all this is the fact that bignum arithmetic is a solved problem. I could dig out the SBCL source code and crib from that. I could read Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi, who wrote down the algorithms (the word is a europeanisation of his name) for the general problems of long addition, multiplication and division in around 820AD. I could reread section 4.3 in Knuth.

I am bashing my head against bignum arithmetic and trying to solve it myself, not because it's the most efficient way to produce good code quickly, but because what I'm really trying to do is just distract myself and waste time while I can get on with dying.

And the reason beyond that that I'm working on a software system I know I'll never finish, which is designed to run on computers which don't even exist yet - and although I'm very confident that enormously parallel hardware will be used in future, I'm not at all sure it will look anything like what I'm envisaging - the reason I'm building this mad software is that, because it will never be finished, no-one will ever use it except me, and no-one will say how crap it is and how easily it could have been done better.

Because the other thing that I'm doing in writing this stuff, apart from distracting from the swirling chaos and rage in my head, apart from waiting to die, the other thing I'm doing is trying to give myself a feeling of mastery, of competence, of ability to face problems and solve them. And, to an extent, it works. But I have so little confidence that I actually have that mastery, that competence, that I don't want to expose it to criticism. I don't want my few fragile rags of self worth stripped away.

And so I work, and work, and work at something which is so arcane, so obscure, so damned pointless that no-one will ever use it.

Not because I'm even enjoying it, but just to burn the time.

This is mad.

I am mad.

I hate, hate, hate being mad.

Postscript: just writing this essay has made me tearful, headachey, sick, shaky. It's very hard to face up to the irrationalities and self-deceptions in one's own behaviour.

Wednesday, 2 January 2019

Flodden Field, revisited

Nicola Sturgeon
Scotland has history of meddling in English affairs in the interests of continental friends. It doesn't end well.

In 1513, James IV, quite possibly the best governor Scotland has ever had, tried by diplomacy to persuade England's Henry VIII to make peace with France; and failed. So he sent his navy to France in support of the French, and invaded the north of Northumberland, taking three castles but not much land.

On 4th September, at a council of war with the much larger English army closing and a field of battle agreed, the Earl of Angus - yet another Archibald Douglas - argued that Scotland had done enough for France, it wasn't our fight, and the army should come home. James, annoyed, sent Archie home, with quite a portion of the army. But he then, sensibly, moved the remainder of his army to a very strong position on Flodden Edge, from where the powerful and modern Scottish artillery would have devastating fire over the battlefield.

On the 7th of September the English general, Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey, wrote to James saying this wisnae fair - in the words of his letter, the Scots position was a fortress. His message was 'come down and fight on the flat, like decent chaps', while carefully preventing the Scots from getting sight of the size of his own army.

So what did James do? He moved his whole army, including those precious guns, to a much weaker position on Branxton Hill; and on Friday the 9th, the English closed. As they did so they brought their own artillery and much of their army in over the Twizell Bridge, within range of the Scottish guns. The Scots did not open fire; chroniclers say that this was because James ordered them not to.

Twizell Bridge, photo By Kirsty Smith, CC BY-SA 2.0
And if you look at the site and it just screams at you. The bridge is still there. It's a single span bridge, extremely vulnerable to heavy artillery, which the Scots army had in position. If the bridge had been destroyed with the English army half across, it would have made a huge difference to the outcome. The Scots would probably have won.

They did not open fire.

Instead, James marched his army down from their position on the hill to meet the English in a marsh; and in that marsh the Scots were butchered.

There were so few Scots survivors from that battle that we do not have good accounts from the Scottish side. James himself, of course, was killed. But we know from the instructions sent to the Scots ambassador in Denmark that the surviving government in Edinburgh saw James' inexperience and folly, rather than any great generalship on the part of the English, as the cause of the disaster, and from what records we have, it's hard to disagree.

But that's not what I came to talk about. I came to talk about the People's Vote.

In March 2017, Nicola Sturgeon, certainly the best governor Scotland has had in modern times, tried by diplomacy to persuade England's Theresa May not to drag Scotland out of the EU against Scotland's will. Like James Stewart before her, she was rebuffed. She had a strong position; Scotland had voted overwhelmingly to remain, she held 56 of the 59 Scottish Westminster seats, she had a clear mandate for an independence referendum.

But Theresa May, like Thomas Howard before her, said it wisnae fair. "Now," she said, "is not the time." And instead she held a general election. The SNP's powerful and modern electoral machine was in a strong position; by standing on an 'Independence Now' manifesto it would have won a majority of Scottish seats and achieved independence while Scotland was still entirely within the EU Aquis Communautaire, making our accession to full membership a formailty.

She did not write that manifesto.

Instead, Nicola marched down off the heights and engaged the Conservatives on their own ground, seeking to keep the entire United Kingdom within the Single Market. As Archibald Douglas said, Scotland had already done our part, by voting remain. England's position in the Single Market or out of it is not our fight.

All Under One Banner, Edinburgh, 6th October.
Of course, she still won a majority of Scottish Westminster seats, but from the position of strength she started from she was bound to; the subsequent eighteen months have shown us how little that majority is worth, without decisive leadership from the top.

Nevertheless, there was still time for an independence referendum before Brexit. Of coourse we couldn't expect a Section 30 letter from Westminster, but that is a technicallity which we could have dealt with in the campaign. The Yes movement was all pepped up and ready to go, the SNP membership was at an all time high.

But no. No, you may not open fire on that exposed bridge, while the English are engaged in complex manouvres. No, we shall meet the English on their own chosen ground, by campaigning on a people's vote.

What is this nonsense? It isn't Scotland's fight! Scotland has voted. It has voted to remain in the EU, and it has voted three solid times in three years to give Nicola Sturgeon the mandate to call a referendum on independence.

Say there's a people's vote. Say Remain wins. How does that help us win independence? It does the opposite. It gives the No campaign the chance to argue once again that the quickest way to lose European citizenship is to vote Yes. So winning this 'people's vote' does not help us.

But that if, as is virtually certain to happen, Scotland again votes Remain, and England again votes Leave? Why, then, we get a reinvigorated right wing government in London ready to repeat the mantra "now is not the time" ad nauseam, and we are at their mercy as they do trade deals with America which will devastate our agriculture, our food and drink industry, our environmental standards and our health service.

Those who will not learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them. Just as James Stewart marched down off the hill to the total destruction of his army, his hopes, his nation, over a fight that was never Scotland's to fight, so Nicola Sturgeon is doing once again. The first time is tragedy, agreed, but the second time is too dark to truly be considered farce.

Scotland needs to be better than this. Scotland needs to grow up. Scotland needs to acknowledge that England is different from us, has different needs and priorities to us. Scotland has to learn that we cannot - and should not try to - impose our ways on our bigger neighbour. We have to fight our own battles for our own national interests. And that means, being independent in Europe.

Monday, 3 December 2018

Roads to independence

All Under One Banner - Edinburgh
With the Brexit process nearing its decisive point, I've been reading good analyses of the potential future paths by Chris Grey and Jon Worth - for the UK as a whole. I haven't seen an analysis of the future paths for Scotland which seem as good to me, although the Politics Scotland blog has had a go. I'm not saying my analysis is better or is better informed, but for what it's worth here it is.

No-deal Brexit is probable

Under the European Union (Withdrawal) Act, the UK leaves the EU at 23:00 UTC on 29th March 2019, whether we have agreed deal or not. That is less than four months away now, but it's four months which includes the Christmas and New Year holidays, so in practice it is more like three.

There is no majority in Westminster for the negotiated deal. There is a theory that, having failed in the vote on Wednesday 12th December, May could return to Brussels, negotiate some trivial face-saving tweeks, bring essentially the same document back to parliament and have it pass; I don't believe that is likely.

I think it much more likely that the vote on the 12th will fail, probably heavily; and that in the wrangling and chaos which results, the clock will run out. To me, just now, a no-deal Brexit looks virtually inevitable.

A 'snap election' won't happen

Under the Fixed Term Parliament Act, an early election requires two thirds of MPs to vote for it. Almost half of all MPs are Tories, who know they would be very heavily defeated in an election held now. Turkeys don't vote for Christmas.

A second EU referendum is irrelevant

There's a lot of folk arguing for a second EU referendum. I don't think that will  happen, but it could. For it to happen, all of the following would be required:

Theresa May would have to be replaced as Prime Minister. I don't believe she'll resign. She is under a very great deal of strain, and might have a health breakdown; more probably, there could be a vote of no confidence in her or her government.

A Vote of no confidence in May by Conservatives would require that 48 letters of no confidence from Tory MPs are sent to the Chair of the 1922 committee. The European Research Group have been trying hard to achieve this total, and have clearly failed; however, losing the vote on the 12th could change that.

But if the total were achieved, a Tory leadership election would take time, and, given that the membership of the Tory party are much more extreme Brexiters than the population as a whole, such an election is very unlikely to produce a leader who would support a second EU referendum.

A vote of no confidence in the government by parliament would require all of the opposition parties (including the DUP) to vote together. It's unlikely that all Labour members would vote against the government, but a few Conservatives might, so it's possible that this would pass. What happens next is tricky. Corbyn would have an opportunity to form a government, which would require all the parties other than the Tories to form a coalition.

Tories would need to cross the floor. Corbyn himself doesn't want a referendum; the DUP definitely don't; so such a government would be unlikely to support a referendum. The only possibility there is if some Tory MPs (possibly Sarah Wollaston, although it's hard to think of many others) crossed the floor to join 'a government of national unity', which would not include the DUP.

The EU would have to agree to an extension of Article 50, even if a government prepared to hold a referendum could be formed. The new government could not be in place before January at earliest; a referendum campaign takes considerable time; if an extension is not agreed, then the clock will run out.

The second referendum probably wouldn't change things. Polling on a second referendum indicates that the UK as a whole is still split about 50/50 within the margin of error. There has not been a decisive swing from leave to remain. Furthermore, we have not effectively addressed the problem of dark money; hostile actors, including foreign actors, would continue to successfully funnel money into the leave campaign. I think we would again see Scotland, Northern Ireland and London voting to remain, England and Wales voting to leave.

A second independence referendum has grave problems

I have been working since September 2014 for a second independence referendum. I now think
  1. It's unlikely to happen;
  2. It's unlikely to be seen as legitimate;
  3. We're unlikely to win it.
It's unlikely to happen because the SNP are too timid to even call it unless independence is well ahead in the polls, but, without a focussed campaign, we won't get there. No one but the Scottish government can effectively call one, and it will take decades to build up a new pro-independence party to the point that it can force the SNP to move out of the way.

Even if it happens, it's unlikely to be seen as legitimate. Although Keith Brown argues (and I agree) that Holyrood alone has the authority and the mandate to hold an independence referendum, a section 30 order is almost certain to be refused. The unionist parties - the Tories, Labour, and the Liberal Democrats - will use this to claim that the referendum is illegitimate, and will very probably campaign for a boycott. If the No campaign effectively boycott a referendum, the result would only be seen as legitimate if substantially more than 50% of the entire electorate voted Yes - because, in the media, all those who didn't vote would be assumed to support 'No'.

An independence referendum only succeeds if the rest of the world sees it as legitimate. If other governments - especially those in the EU - don't recognise the government of Scotland as sovereign, we've failed.

But in any case we'd be unlikely to win it. We are no longer holding the referendum from within the EU. From within the EU, while the whole aquis of European law held in Scotland, the negotiation would have been relatively easy (except fishing); and it would be preserving a large proportion of the status quo, which would give cautious voters confidence. By contrast, a second independence referendum could now happen only in the chaos of disentangling the UK from the EU, or after the Brexit dust has largely settled.

After the Brexit dust has settled, in a much poorer nation with a very recent memory of years of painful disruption, I think it would be hard to motivate any electorate to vote for major constitutional change again. Certainly it would be very easy to run a No campaign on the slogan 'no more chaos'. Also, after the dust has settled, new trade deals with the US will rapidly lead to a selloff of key state assets to American companies, and I do not see how we could protect the Scottish NHS from that. I don't believe we can afford to wait for the dust to settle.

But while Brexit is in progress, the unionists will still be able to paint a picture of the coming 'global Britain', and the 'sunny uplands' of new trade deals which will at that stage still be in fantasy land and thus capable of being painted in glowing colours. That will of necessity push the Yes campaign into a 'project fear' position, where we will have to be continually pointing out the risks - of losing the NHS, of losing our GM-free status, of losing our health, employment and environmental protections, of competing on labour rates against developing economies. Negative campaigns can win, of course, but I don't think that's a style of campaigning we'd be comfortable with.

'Business as usual' may not contine 

Human beings are programmed to believe that tomorrow will be very much like today, next year very much like this year (damn, I hope not!). We assume business as usual will continue. But if we have a no deal Brexit - which, I reiterate, I think almost inevitable - it won't. Our supply chain is very fragile. Supermarkets keep stocks of only a few days' food and groceries. Much of our food comes from Europe. Chaos at the ports will very rapidly lead to shortages, which would lead to panic buying, which would lead to empty shelves.

The British are not used to going hungry. Social order would rapidly break down. There are already plans to deploy the army on the streets.

If a State of Emergency was declared, elections would almost certainly be suspended. It's quite likely that Holyrood would also be suspended, especially if there was a significant push for independence. As senior MSPs are unlikely to consent to Holyrood being suspended, it's likely that many would be interned; it's likely that influential Yes movement figures would also be interned.

In this scenario, independence would be literally impossible without civil war, and that is not a road I want to go down. So let's assume (for now) (and devoutly pray) that this dark fantasy of mine does not happen, and go onto more optimistic options.

An 'Independence Now' manifesto would work

As Margaret Thatcher repeatedly pointed out, and as the Irish precedent shows, all that is required under the British constitution to achieve Scottish independence is for pro-independence parties to win the majority of Scottish seats at Westminster - as, actually, the SNP did at each of the last two Westminster elections and almost certainly will at the next.

Of course, at the last two election, the SNP did not stand on an 'Independence Now' manifesto. If they did, they could make every Westminster election until independence a de facto independence referendum. Of course, it's likely that the unionist parties would join forces to put up just one candidate against the SNP, but that actually plays in the Yes movement's favour - because such candidates would inevitably either be Tories or be in explicit alliance with Tories.

There are three possible outcomes:
  1. We don't win a majority of seats, in which case nothing is lost and we can try again next time;
  2. We win a majority of seats and a majority of votes, in which case we have a clear mandate to immediately negotiate independence;
  3. We win a majority of seats but not a majority of votes, in which case we'd be well advised to negotiate for maximal devolution but could still try again next time.
Consequently, I think the 'Independence Now' manifesto is now the best strategy for the movement. Obviously it would be best if the SNP were to stand on this Manifesto. But if they won't, I think that the Yes movement should think very seriously about putting 'Independence Now' candidates up against the SNP in all Scotland's constituencies.

Monday, 19 November 2018

The inflections in the path


Zoe, aged one, with her mother
I was Zoe’s wicked uncle; and I want to frame the arc of Zoe's life that lead us here, to this place; to try to share with you my understanding of it, to explain to you why I cannot mourn this death, but only the life that lead up to it.

It was a life marked by four deaths: four inflections in the path.

Zoe was a child of Auchencairn, the field of stones, between the blue line of the granite and the grey line of the sea. The primary school she went to had thirty pupils. Even in that small place, Zoe was a solitary child, often solemn, with few close friends.

She was brought up by her mother, my sister, who was bright and sociable and full of changing enthusiasms, but also ill; and by her grandmother, my mother, who was academic and intellectual and who mostly sat in her chair and read books, or wrote; and to a much lesser extent by me, with whom she had adventures and all too often ended up in deep water.

Her mother was ill, and in pain, and that was just how it was. She was brave, and rarely complained, and so when she had a persistent cough, she still didn't complain. After a year she went to hospital for it to be checked out. Thirteen days later she was dead, of cancer. Zoe was sixteen.

My mother; Zoe's grandmother
A year later, her grandmother died; and with that death, all the things which had carried Zoe through her childhood - her childhood home and the women who had raised her - were gone.

Two deaths. She was eighteen. But she did well enough in her course in her theatre course in Edinburgh to earn a place at Dartington.

At Dartington she met Rachael, who was the love of her life. But they met because Rachael, learning that she had terminal cancer, went to the other person on her course whose life, she knew, had been touched by cancer: to Zoe. In that meeting, in that falling in love, in that romance and relationship and marriage, the ending was known from the first day.

The knowledge of that ending cost Zoe. At times she denied it, but it always hung over them. They went and had adventures together - and got into deep water together - and lived life as fully as they could, knowing that their time was limited. It was not as limited, in fact, as they expected: the doctors had told Rachael she might live four years; she lived twelve.

But death came, and that death was brutal.
Rachael (centre) and Zoe (right)

Again, Zoe lost the most important person in her life, and with her, her home. Her family was reduced to two dogs, Winston, Zoe's own dog, and Lola, who had been Rachael's.

Three deaths. She was thirty four.

Zoe moved with the dogs to a new flat; not a bad flat, in itself. I came down to help her move, and to help her decorate it. She was in grief, as anyone would expect her to be; but it seemed at least she had a safe base.

Winston was a very big, powerful dog. He was not, in my opinion, a vicious or aggressive dog. But he and Zoe were close, and when Zoe was upset, he wanted to protect her; and she was upset. And so there were a series of incidents in which Winston displayed aggression towards people who, he may have thought, threatened Zoe. She became very afraid he would attack someone, and that she would not be able to control him.

Zoe with Winston
Consequently, earlier this year, she made the decision that he should be put down.

Four deaths. She was thirty five.

And yes, of course he was 'only a dog'. But he was her dog, and pretty much the only committed relationship she had left. She had let him down; she had, in a sense, betrayed him to his death. He was only a dog, but that understates the freight of guilt and grief that death carried.

Zoe died of grief. She had cause to die of grief. Most of all for Rachael, her wife; but also for those other three deaths: her grandmother, her mother, her dog.

And I cannot grieve her death. Her suffering is over. My grief is that, if her mother Jenny had not died, if her dog Winston had not died, most of all if her wife Rachael had not died, Zoe would not now be dead. Zoe would not now be struggling with mental illness. Zoe would be well, creative, inspiring, quirky, eccentric, exasperating, happy.

Do not grieve this death, for in this death there is grace. Grieve, if you must, with me, the inflections in the path.

Saturday, 27 October 2018

The Standingstone Model

The old feed store, with Alice's parrots.
All photographs in this post are from
 Standingstone.
It's no secret that I live at Standingstone. In fact, if you check at Companies House, you'll see that I am the chair of Standingstone Farm Limited. So what is Standingstone?

Standingstone is a conspiracy.

It wasn't set set up to be a model of how you solve the problem of rural depopulation, and, indeed, it doesn't, in itself, serve as a model to solve the problem of rural depopulation. But it serves as a seed from which the shape of a model can be discerned.

Standingstone is a conspiracy of homeless people to house themselves; to house themselves by buying a farm. It isn't - it couldn't be - a conspiracy of just any homeless people. To join the conspiracy, you had to be
  • Local to Auchencairn village;
  • Unable to afford to buy a house locally;
  • Unable to access social housing locally;
  • Able to afford the minimum buy-in to the project, which was £30,000, so not trivial;
  • Willing to agree the principles of sharing with the rest of the group;
  • Unconcerned by the fact that we would not have and were unlikely to get planning permission for the homes we needed.
In other words, you needed to be to some degree a scofflaw, and to have access to at least some capital.

There were some people who were otherwise qualified to join the conspiracy who couldn't reach agreement with the rest of us over sharing; there were some people who we'd really have liked to have here who couldn't raise the buy in price. Those people are not here. That may sound ruthless, but it is what we could pragmatically achieve.

It's consequently a very select group. We were also lucky that left-wing local farmers were prepared not only to offer us the farm, but to wait almost a year while we built and negotiated a group that was able to raise the price (in the end we bought only eighty-eight acres of the one hundred and twenty we were originally offered, because that's all we could afford).

But the number of people normally resident on the farm is about twenty-five, in eight households; and there's a much larger penumbra of people who are associated with the farm, who are often in practice resident. That's an increase of more than 1000% on the two people who lived here before we bought it. It wasn't set up to reverse rural depopulation, but it has the effect of holding people in the area who would otherwise have been forced to leave. And, the farm is home to more than 10% of the children in the local school. In that sense, we're actively reversing depopulation.

We operate as a sort of hybrid between a co-op and a conventional company. Each household that bought in bought a croft (originally eight crofts, now seven). The crofts vary in size between five and twelve acres, depending on how much money was put in. But each croft, regardless of size, regadless of money invested and regardless of how many people live on it, has two votes.

We own most of the woodlands, some of the pasture, and all of the agricultural buildings which were on site at the time we bought the farm, in common.

None of these crofts provides a full household income, although two provide substantially all of the household's food with a surplus to sell. But we none of use depend on our crofts for the whole of our income; we are variously software engineers, artists, musicians, tree surgeons, joiners, nurses, blacksmiths, electricians.

One household occupy the farmhouse; they had enough income to be able to raise a mortgage. The rest of us occupy old caravans, old horseboxes, a yurt and a hut. That's changing. One household has built a magnificent barn, while another household is currently building a real house with real planning permission. Both of these buildings have been built largely with sweat rather than money - the timber for both arrived on site as logs and has been sawn here. But they're both valuable.

This represents something that needs to be learned; a weakness in our model which should not be reproduced. When we negotiated the original settlement, the deal was that the company (that's all of us) had first option to buy any croft that was sold, at a price which more or less represented the purchase price of the croft. If either of these crofts were to be sold, it would be unjust for the company to say 'we can buy this croft for the original purchase price'; but it would be simply impossible for the company to buy the croft at a price which recognised the value of the buildings. If the crofts with these buildings are sold on the open market, it will be impossible for households in housing stress to buy them - they'll be by far too valuable, and consequently they'll sell to people from outside the local economy who have wealth unavailable to people in the local economy. So while we've largely solved the problem of housing stress for us in our generation, ultimately we may just be creating buildings which will become part of the problem.

 

The problem

View over the commons
Many remote rural areas of Scotland, especially in areas of good scenery, are now characterised by house prices which are significantly higher than the local economy will support. This means that people who have jobs in the local economy can't afford housing, and that the housing that is available sucks in people whose wealth and/or income derives from outside the local economy.

While there was at one stage a lot of optimistic prediction that the internet would bring high value work to rural areas, this hasn't really materialised. There are a number of reasons for this; one is that it is and will for the foreseeable future be cheaper to deliver high bandwidth connections in urban areas; and another is that knowledge work generally is teamwork, and teamwork does not really work as well without the constant informal interactions of proximity. This isn't to say that improved digital communications can never bring higher value jobs to rural areas, but they haven't yet.

At the same time the population of rural areas has declined steeply over the past century to the point where population densities are in many places too low to support local services. In my lifetime, Auchencairn had a soutar (cobbler), a bakery, a post office, a pub, three shops, a garage, a school, a church, a police station. Even that was a sharp decline from fifty years previously. Now, one shop, incorporating the post office, remains but its future is uncertain; the garage remains, but its future is also uncertain; the school and church remain. The rest are gone. Part of the problem is the steady increase in holding size and the steady decrease in the number of people actually engaged with the land.

There are also strong factors militating against adding value to produce in the rural economy. The creamery at Kirkcudbright has gone; milk from the Stewartry is now trucked either to Lockerbie or to creameries in the central belt. A few small producers are successfully maintaining local production: Loch Arthur's cheese production, and Cream of Galloway's ice-cream and now cheese, are leveraging good produce to provide additional jobs on the farm.

Other businesses in small towns such as Castle MacLellan Foods and West Coast Sea Products add value to produce locally and retain jobs in the local economy, but these are neither strictly rural jobs nor are they high value.

Furthermore, a bureaucratic food standards regime makes life extremely hard for small food processing businesses, as the current problems at Errington's Cheese illustrate. It seems both that Food Standards Scotland are prejudiced against unpasteurised products, and that they greatly prefer large industrial production units which are easier for them to inspect. Following the Errington's debacle, it's going to be extremely hard to raise capital for new small rural food businesses.

Agriculture does generate some high value work, of course. Agriculture uses increasing amounts of capital equipment, which must be developed, designed and manufactured somewhere. In Castle Douglas, Auchencairn's local market town, the milking machine was invented; the first milking machines in the world were designed and developed here. The company which made those first milking machines still exists; I buy plumbing parts, baler twine and tractor accessories there. But it no longer makes anything. The design and manufacture has long since gone to distant factories in distant cities, and none of the wealth generated comes back.

With the lack of high value employment locally, it's inevitable that many of the people buying the housing are past employment age: people retiring from much higher paying urban economies, selling a perhaps modest house or flat in the city to buy a retirement home in a pretty village; or perhaps people in their middle years, using wealth inherited from their parents to buy a good, solid house which will stand empty for ten months of the year.

The holiday home owners are utterly parasitic on the rural economy. Typically they buy their groceries in urban supermarkets; they have their vehicles maintained in urban garages. The only local services they buy are building and garden maintenance, and those sporadically. They contribute nothing to local civic society.

Retired folk are somewhat better. They arrive at about sixty-five; for ten years they energetically involve themselves in local activities, and during that period learn something about the locality. They buy their groceries locally, service their car locally, get their hair cut locally, use health-care services locally. For ten years, they contribute. Then, at around seventy-five they become infirm. Even then they're not entirely parasitic: they're increasingly providing employment for health and care workers - but their care is being paid for out of a local budget to which they did not contribute during their earning years. At around eighty-five they die, and are replaced by a fresh wave of energetic sixty-five year olds arriving from the cities.

But there is one significant problem with retired folk. They want the landscape of their idyll unchanged the way it's always been - by which they mean how it was ten years ago when they first saw it. They're extremely resistant to changes that could bring jobs and wealth into the community, and they're completely unaware of what the local landscape looked like just twenty years before.

You cannot build or maintain a community on the basis of a rolling population of elderly strangers, no matter how talented, well meaning and energetic. Furthermore, a population of elderly incomers provides no children to keep local schools open. Finally, of course, in a community where all the decent housing has been bought up at high prices, there is nowhere locally for the care and health workers needed to service this elderly population to live.

 

The shape of the solution

A family with four children under twelve live here
To achieve a population density to maintain local services, we need to be able to provide desirable homes for people of working age, with children, at a price that work available in the local economy can fund.

Why can't we?

In a capitalist market, the price of a good (in this case shelter) is the price which some person is prepared to pay for it. It doesn't have to be the person who needs the good; thus throughout the Irish potato famine, when a million people in Ireland starved to death, Ireland was exporting record amounts of food. Similarly in the Ethiopian famine of 1984, Ethiopia was generating foreign exchange by exporting water melons to Europe. It wasn't that food wasn't available; it was that the food which was available wasn't affordable to local people, because wages in the local economy didn't generate enough money. So it is with housing in rural Scotland.

The factors which drive prices up are high demand, limited supply. Supply of rural housing in Scotland is largely limited by planning restrictions, imposed by relatively distant bureaucracies. In some places it's also limited by monopolist landowners, who refuse to release land for housing. High demand is generated by the steady supply of pensioners retiring from successful careers in the cities.

We need to produce housing - good housing, housing which people will aspire to - which is protected from the capitalist market, and reserved for people who work and raise children in the local economy. At the same time it is essential to ensure those people can have a good life. To lead a good life on the restricted income which is available in a remote rural economy, you have to be able to get the best out of living in a rural place. You need to have access to your own ground, where you can grow food to supplement your diet and even your income; you need access to your own woodlot, from which you can extract carbon-neutral fuel from domestic heating.

And you need access to neighbours - to community. To people with whom your can share your joys and celebrations, but also your major work projects; so that raising a house, or gathering in a harvest, can become a communal event, a shared event, a celebration in itself.

 

Adapting the model

As I've implied above, there are mistakes that I believe we've made in setting up Standingstone, mistakes which will militate against it being a sustainable place for people who earn their incomes in the local economy to live beyond our own generation. Our members will, gradually over time, build legal houses with planning permission, and those houses will represent sufficient wealth that, should they or their heirs choose to sell, the rest of us will be unable to afford to buy the croft in, and anyone buying on the open market will not be the sort of people we wanted this place to be.

So to take us uncritically as a model of how to build new rural communities does not work. But relatively little change would be needed to make the model sustainable.

Rural Housing Burden

I see two ways forward. The first would be to make all houses we build subject to the Rural Housing Burden. The Rural Housing Burden is a truly estimable scheme introduced by the Scottish Government, the terms of which are as follows
"The purpose of the Rural Housing Burden title is to maintain affordability on a property in the event of future sales. The plot the title is placed on has usually been acquired at well below the market value and the title ensures that the discount is included in the future sale price. The community have 42 days in which to accept the offer. 
"If the burden is not exercised, it will lie dormant until the next sale, so it remains in the title in perpetuity."
We could have made all houses we built subject to the Rural Housing Burden. We discussed it, but we didn't agree to it. I think this was a mistake. However, a future community could make this part of their ground rules.

Liferent

The alternative is that instead of selling crofts to its members, a future community would let liferents on crofts. A liferent is a traditional Scottish form of land tenure in which someone is given the usufruct of a piece of land for their lifetime. When the tenant died, the land would return to the landowner, which in this case would be the community. To adapt the liferent model to our needs now, the liferent would probably need to be given to a cohabiting household on an 'either or survivor' basis, so that if a member died, their surviving partner would still have security of tenure to the end of their life.

Of course, in modern conditions, cohabiting households do not necessarily cohabit for life. When cohabiting relationships break down, there would need to be some form of negotiation over who would continue the tenancy, but that is outside the scope of this essay.

The liferent model means, of course, that households can't build homes on their land as heritable property, and consequently probably can't get a mortgage to build a home. But the community, to which the land will return at the end of the liferent, could borrow long term against the security of the property, to finance building.

I'm promoting the liferent model rather than an ownership model because inheritance is the primary engine which drives social inequity. If we create heritable crofts, they too will ultimately become valuable and will confer unearned privilege on the children of crofters.

The liferent model doesn't, of course, mean that the former tenants children can't take over the tenancy after the death of their parents; it only means that the community as a whole gets to choose who the next tenant will be. Of course the children of the previous tenants could, if they wanted, be candidates. It's probable that many communities might have a presumption that children would take over their parents' croft. The only principle I'm trying to defend here is that it should not be automatic, should not be a right. I'd emphasise the liferent model especially if any degree of public money has gone into the intitial acquisition of land; crofters really shouldn't be able to profiteer on the back of public subsidy.

A liferent might entail a one off payment to the community at the start of the tenancy, or might entail an annual payment; that is I think a matter for the individual community.

Residency condition

Living in a rural economy is precarious. A croft does not, and will not, in itself provide a family income. Crofters and small farmers from across Scotland have had to work away from their land throughout history, to earn cash income; as mercenaries, as herring fishers, as whalers, as oil workers. I often have to work away as a software engineer. It isn't reasonable to place a condition on a crofting tenancy that the tenant must be permanently resident. At the same time it's clearly an abuse if you hold a tenancy but in practice use the croft as a holiday home, sublet it to someone else, or leave it vacant.

I think that after some period of non-residency - I would suggest five years - the community should be able to terminate the tenancy. That doesn't mean that the tenancy would automatically terminate, just that there would be a right for the community to terminate it, which would be a means of forcing the tenant to start a dialogue with the rest of the community about what they intended.

Obviously, it should also be possible for a tenant to voluntarily give up a tenancy.

The importance of commons

My cattle in Commons Meadow
When we set up Standingstone, our original view was that all the existing agricultural buildings, all the woods and part of the pasture should be common. It didn't work out like that; two crofts (including mine) ended up with small parcels of woodland. But the buildings, the largest wood, the access roads and one field have ended up as common and I think that has positive value. Common assets and common responsibilities provide something concrete to bind the community together; having common pasture means that there is a buffer of reserve grazing for when individual crofters have more beasts than their own grazing can carry, without dedicating that grazing to a particular croft permanently. We also, of course, have to discuss who will have use of it when.

One thing we don't currently have, and would undoubtedly benefit from, is the equivalent of a village hall - a communal meeting and events space, although to some extent The Void, our former high-slat cattle shed which we use as communal industrial space and store, could fulfill this function. The Void is a very significant communal asset; all the buildings we've built so far have been partially prefabricated in it, our tractors and vans are maintained in it, and each croft has a substantial area of storage in it.

Roughly 25% of all our land is common; I think that's a minimum. Three of our crofts are five acre, one (the most productive) seven acre, two ten acre and one twelve acre. I think that a five acre croft is pretty much a minimum; it will with work largely feed a family but it won't create a great deal of surplus.

 

Financing this

Land is cheaper when bought in larger parcels. A five hundred acre farm of good grazing/reasonable arable land is currently for sale locally for offers over a million pounds, which is to say about £2000 per acre. Such a farm would support about fifty households on five acre crofts with two hundred and fifty acres of common (or rather larger crofts with rather less common, for example seven and a half acre crofts with one hundred and twenty five acres of common). A single community of fifty households may be too big to work smoothly and it might be better to split a five hundred acre block into two communities each of twenty five households, but that's a detail.

The point is, the buy in price of a community on land at this price is twenty thousand pounds per croft. Twenty thousand pounds is less than the average annual wage in Galloway, and is thus not an impossible amount for many households to raise. So it's possible - with appropriate changes to planning law - to set up communities without public money.

However, that would buy just the land. At Standingstone, the planning authorities have in effect turned a blind eye to the fact that at present almost all of us are living ilegally, in structures which do not have and would not get planning permission. Most of us aspire to build legal housing, but speaking for myself it's unlikely that I will be able to afford to do so in my lifetime.

It's reasonable that the planning authorities should turn a blind eye, since they know that more than 5% of the adults normally resident in this parish live in illegal structures anyway, and we represent an attempt in the to long term address that problem. We also provide 10% of the children in the school. There's also a probable benefit to the authorities in that Standingstone concentrates most of the hippies and scofflaws of the parish into one place. But the most important factor in our favour is that, as long term local people, we have the support of the village and of our community council.

For privately financed communities to work, there needs to be some derrogation from planning law, either by formalising the 'blind eye' or by allowing a time window for legal structures to be built; there also, obviously, needs to be a presumption that planning consent will be given for a dwelling on a croft. However I think that such planning permission should be conditional on the Rural Housing Burden applying to any dwelling constructed.

The public interest in repopulating remote rural areas

We live in an economy which is governed primarily by and for urban areas. In this economy, remote rural areas are increasingly stressed. It actually does not serve the urban economy if remote rural areas become extensive ranches producing low-value commodity foods, interspersed by picturesque villages inhabited entirely by geriatrics. The rural areas then become a complex cost for the urban economy to bear. It's to the public good to have a self-sustaining population in remote rural areas.

What changes to public policy would be needed to support the creation of 'Standingstone model' crofting communities?

Changes to planning law

Two key changes are needed to planning law. The first is needed anyway, the second is desirable anyway but needed if no public money is to be made available to support the model.

Presumed consent to construct dwellings

Interior of one of the buildings we've built
The first change is that there should be a presumption that consent will be given for a dwelling adequate to house a family to be constructed on each croft, and that that dwelling should be subject to the Rural Housing Burden. That's vital. If people can't legally construct dwellings in which they can then legally live, then the scheme is one which only scofflaws like ourselves will be able to take up.

Planning departments must also not put too onerous conditions on houses to be built. My neighbours James and Vicky, the first of us to get planning permission to construct a legal dwelling, had to spend ten thousand pounds on architects and engineers fees to satisfy the planning and building control authorities. That's more than a third of the total I estimate I could raise to build myself a more permanent dwelling, and is the primary reason I'm deterred from even attempting it.

Partially this problem could be addressed with an 'open source' library of pre-approved house plans, which I'll discuss in more detail later.

Derrogation for temporary dwellings

My (entirely illegal) house.
If poor people spend all the money they can raise to buy land, they are unlikely to have money available to build dwellings immediately afterwards. If they were to be able to raise money to build in the mainstream mortgage market, then neither liferent nor Rural Housing Burden would be viable. Therefore, unless there is public money available, legal dwellings cannot be built quickly. Even with access to public money available, it's going to take some time for legal dwellings to be built. And in the meantime, the crofters need somewhere to live while they develop their crofts and build their legal dwellings.

In brief, the law of the land is that you can't live in temporary structures except temporarily, but you can live in a temporary structure while you're building yourself a dwelling for which you already have planning permission. Given that there must be a presumed consent to construct one dwelling on each croft, it doesn't seem unreasonable that there should be toleration for one household to live in temporary structures on each croft until that dwelling is built. There might be a time limit on this - perhaps ten years - but there needs to be some flexibility.

Changes to community right to buy

The community right to buy is a scheme which provides some public money for communities to buy land or fixed assets subject to some conditions. One of the conditions is that the 'community' is a pre-existing community of place: the people who already live in an existing settlement. This is more or less meaningless when the 'communities' are composed primarily of the non-native elderly. The non-native elderly don't have a long-term investment in an area, and won't be around to see longer term schemes coming to fruition. And, of course, in the most devastated areas of remote rural Scotland, there are no existing communities of place; the landscape is largely or wholly unpeopled.

Also, for new communities to work, they need to be communities of people who can agree ground rules by which they will live and work together. Such people will not necessarily all come from the same settlement or even from the same area. They will be new, intentional communities. New intentional communities do not currently qualify to access public money under the community right to buy.

I'm not suggesting that new intentional communities should be able to exercise the pre-emptive parts of current or future community right to buy legislation; they should be able to apply for public money only to buy land which is already on the market. The public money would not necessarily have to be a grant; it could be in whole or in part a long term low interest loan, because it is not unreasonable to require some financial contribution from crofters proportional to their earning power in the remote rural economy.

Such public money would have to be on the condition that all houses built on the land acquired should be subject to the Rural Housing Burden - otherwise this just becomes a new way for people to profiteer from speculative building.

I'd also like to see a scheme under which 'Standingstone model' communities, once they'd acquired their land, could borrow for finance to construct dwellings, and could do so on the basis that the labour would be provided by the community itself. This would not need to be public money, it's entirely possible that the financial services industry could lend given appropriate guarantees; but there would have to be some degree of legislative support for such a scheme, and some degree of public guarantee would also be welcome, since if private lenders could repossess crofts and sell them on the open market we'd be back to having a backdoor mechanism for building speculative retirement homes.

Monday, 8 October 2018

Sex, the Iron Maiden, and NPC repertoire


Jutta and Geralt
I've written before, several times in fact, about the immersion-breaking poverty of repertoire of non-player characters (NPCs) in role playing games; but I've just tripped over a particularly egregious example in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, which I think of as the best software role playing game yet written.

On the Skellige Islands - on the Island of Faroe - just east of the village of Harviken, there's a hilltop fencing arena, and in it you'll find Jutta an Dimun, a sword-mistress who has vowed to her goddess, Freya, to lie with only a man who can beat her in single combat. Thus far, no man has. She won't fight you unless you've proved to her that you're a worthy opponent, and there are a number of ways you can do this; once you have, you can fight her. If you get to her early in your path through the game she's a very tough opponent, but her level does not scale adaptively to the player's, so if you encounter her late in your game you're likely to find her rather easy.

If you do beat her, she'll invite you to her home in the evening; if you go, it's not so much a matter of her being easy to seduce as her actively anticipating sex. She's rueful that she's been beaten by a (sterile) witcher, but she's most certainly willing.

You can choose not to have sex with her; you can advise her to go to the other islands where she may find non-sterile opponents who might beat her. But realistically, I think, few players are going to choose that option.

The alternative is to allow the evening to take its course, and if you do this there is a very sensuous and erotic sex cut-scene; the most sensuous, I think, with any NPC who is not a major character. It looks like stonking good sex (although weirdly, unlike in sex scenes with Triss, both parties keep their underwear on, which you'd think would be a trifle awkward - but that's nitpicking). After the sex scene, you wake up, still in your underwear, beside Jutta.

And if you try to talk to her, she has literally nothing to say. Not a single word.

In my experience, good sex isn't like that. In my experience, good sex results in some degree of warmth, of affection, of companionship between the participants. You'd expect at least an offer of breakfast, a warm farewell, perhaps a discussion of future plans, almost certainly a hint as to whether another encounter would be welcomed.

Even very bad sex is rarely like that. After bad sex, you may have strained politeness, you may have anger and bitterness. But nothing? Just nothing?

You can go away, do other things, and come back; and still she has nothing to say. Nothing at all. If it's a sulk, it's an extremely persistent sulk.

CD Projekt Red were rightly (in my opinion) criticised for making seduction effectively a mini-game within the original Witcher game; many female NPCs were seducible, and you were rewarded with a little card for each one you 'scored', leading to a degree of motivation to seduce them all. But only two such encounters led to any meaningful engagement with the character; the rest were 'one night stands' in the strictest possible sense, making your interaction with these characters in effect pretty exploitative. In subsequent games this aspect has been dialled back sharply; opportunities for seduction are much less common, and are mostly with women with whom Geralt has established relationships, or who are significant in the plot.

I don't think it's OK that sex is just an opportunity to 'score' with no consequences. There should be some plot consequence to whether or not you choose to have sex with Jutta; and whether you do or not - but especially if you do - there really should be some repertoire that expresses her attitude to you after this encounter.

It just is horribly wrenching - utterly immersion-breaking - that there is just nothing.

Saturday, 21 July 2018

The minimum viable village

Hay Harvest
This blog post is occasioned by the National Council of Rural Advisers' consultation on Rural Economic Strategy. It isn't directly a response to that consultation, but I'm writing it to help formulate my thoughts in order to respond. A lot of the figures in this piece come out of my Minimum Viable Village Model.

In this essay as in other essays I treat it as axiomatic that the economy should serve the people, not the people the economy. I also treat it as axiomatic that a settled landscape is a good thing in itself. I'm not going to argue those propositions; if you disagree with either of them, then you will disagree with my argument and my conclusions, and that's just how it is.

There are a number of key problems with Scotland's rural economy. The first is population density. It takes about 270 adults of working age to produce enough children to maintain a viable primary school. Currently, average agricultural holding size in Scotland is 101 Ha and rising; increasingly, those holdings are each providing only one income. That means, given coast, forestry, and unfarmable land, there are about 40 holdings and consequently about 40 farm incomes in a 5Km travel-to-school radius.

Consequently, to sustain a viable village school you need about 200 non-agricultural incomes per village, and those incomes must be within a viable travel to work radius.

You also need affordable housing for 270 adults per village. Typically, in rural Scotland, wage rates are depressed, while housing costs are inflated by people from outwith the rural economy buying retirement and holiday homes.

This is just another example of the fact that capitalism simply doesn't work for people, and that we spend an awful lot of time and effort working around the manifest failings of capitalism to produce an economy which supports the many. What the Scottish rural economy needs is full communism now, but we aren't going to get that, so we need to keep on tinkering with the margins of a broken economy.

But one thing we can tinker with is planning law. If people are going to live in the landscape, on the depressed wages which are probably inevitable in rural areas, then they need to leverage the advantages of rurality to make their lives viable and fulfilling, and that means they need land - to grow food for themselves, reducing their costs, and to increase their amenity.

They also need housing that they can afford, and which is not subject to 'market forces'. Which means, essentially, they need housing which cannot be traded on the open market. And they need non-farm economic opportunities, which means we need more rural workplaces.

Planning policy over my lifetime has been hostile to 'sporadic development', and very hostile to village industry. Houses have been huddled together in ever expending villages of urban density, while industry has been pushed to the outskirts of far-away towns. That won't do. The Internet does allow far more folk to work from home, but rural areas typically have the worst Internet connections.

In any case, people go to work (among other things) for social contact; and Scotland needs engineering production at least as much as it needs jobs that can be done in front of a screen. But for both these things - if we are to support a peopled landscape - we need the work where the people are, and if we want the people distributed across the landscape, then so must the work be.

So: we need smaller holding sizes, not larger ones, to put more folk on the land. We need sporadic development in the countryside, because people need to live on the land they manage We need more workplaces, because smaller holdings won't necessarily provide full incomes, and in any case agriculture will only employ 20% of the population we need to sustain. And we need the workplaces where we want the people to be, which means sporadically, in the landscape.

But we don't need those sporadic homes bought up by the rich retired, or the even richer second home buyer. We need them lived in by the people of the place; people who will at some stage in their lives, have children for the school. People embedded in the landscape, who are intimate with it, who know it and care for it, and are committed to it in the long term.

For all those reasons I think these houses we need should not be privately owned. They should be community owned, and let to members of the community on a life rental - a tenancy which is secure for the whole of the tenants' lifetime, but which is not transferrable or heritable. People need security; but inherited wealth is the key driver of social inequality, and, in any case, that which can be inherited can very often also be sold.

As I said at the beginning of this piece, what the Scottish rural economy needs is full communism now.

Thursday, 19 July 2018

Response to the consultation on the Register of Persons Holding a Controlled Interest in Land

My croft
Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee

Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2016 (Register of Persons Holding a Controlled Interest in Land) (Scotland) Regulations 2021 - Call for Views

SUBMISSION FROM Simon Brooke


Preamble

Much land in Scotland is held by extremely wealthy individuals who chose to use opaque ownership structures to avoid taxes or other civil duties. There is no reasonable justification for an honest person to use opaque ownership structures or secrecy jurisdictions. Such people have the ability to hire extremely ingeniuous lawyers to work around the intention of legislation, as we saw with Agricultural Holdings (Scotland) Act 2003.

Consequently, legislation aimed at cutting through this veil of secrecy must be simple, clear, and free of weasel-words like ‘reasonably’. Further, because of the degree of wealth (and the penchant for secrecy) of some of these individuals, fines are unlikely to be effective deterrents.

Failure of undisclosed controllers of land to register

Consequently, there’s not a lot of purpose in being able to fine persons with a controlling interest in land where the ownership structure is opaque and held offshore in a jurisdiction in which the writ of the Scottish Government does not run, and the persons choose not to disclose their interest.

Instead, the Government should establish a Public Factor, who should take over the management of lands where the the controlling interest cannot satisfactorily be established, and manage that land in the public interest, retaining any and all profits, until the natural persons with a controlling interest choose to identify themselves and register their interest to the satisfaction of the registrar.

Non-natural persons

Non-natural persons should not be deemed ‘controlling interests’ for the purpose of this legislation. Behind every non-natural person are natural persons who control them. We need to disintermediate this, radically. Non-natural persons, having a controlling interest in land, should be required to register those natural persons which ultimately have controlling interests in themselves; otherwise, the value of the register is negligible.

Redactions and elisions

While I understand the force of the points made in para 71 of the Draft Explanatory Document, the power of the registrar to make redactions or elisions from the public register should be sharply circumscribed, and should in my view be limited to those cases where the personal safety of natural persons can be shown to be at risk.

Monday, 9 July 2018

The Growth Corruption

Andrew Wilson with Nicola Sturgeon, 


Andrew Wilson is managing partner of a lobbying firm, Charlotte Street Partners. There's no secret about that. The business of Charlotte Street Partners is to lobby the Scottish government in the interests of commercial companies. There's no secret about that. When Nicola Sturgeon appointed Andrew Wilson as chair of the growth commission, she knew this; there's no question about that.

What is secret is who the clients of Charlotte Street Partners are: who actually pays this piper. We don't know. We don't know whether Nicola Sturgeon knows.

Among the members of the Growth Commission were a number of business people; there's no secret about that. Nor is there anything inherently corrupt about that - any commission looking into the economy needs to take cognisance of the interests of business. For the record, they were:
  1. Dan McDonald, businessman and founder of N56 group
  2. Marie Macklin CBE, Founder and Chief Executive of the Klin Group and Macklin Enterprise Partnership
  3. Mark Shaw, Chief Executive, Hazeldene Group
  4. Petra Wetzel, founder and Managing Director WEST Brewery
Again: there is nothing inherently wrong with businesspeople taking part in this commission, and their taking part does not say anything against them. But we don't know whether any of these people is a client of Charlotte Street Partners.

The commission met with 22 trade bodies, and, again, there's nothing wrong with that; you'd expect them to. Full disclosure, the Chief Executive of ScotlandIS, one of those 22 trade bodies, is my sister.

At each meeting with a trade body, some members of that trade body participated; the minimum number was three, the maximum was twenty. It's entirely proper that when the commission met with a trade body, some members of that body should be present, and should put their views.

The commission report notes in section 1.15 that these meetings were held 'under Chatham House Rules'. What does this mean? It means this:
"When a meeting, or part thereof, is held under the Chatham House Rule, participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed."
Again, there's nothing inherently wrong about this. Chatham House rules are used to allow people to speak frankly, and frank speaking is what a commission such as this needs.

But something stinks, and it is this: we don't know which companies spoke with the commission at these twenty-two meetings, we don't know what was said, and we don't know which of them were clients of Andrew Wilson's firm. What we do know is that the growth commission came up with a set of recommendations which were extraordinarily favourable to the interests of the rich.

I think there are questions for two people to answer here. One is Nicola Sturgeon. She needs to explain why she chose a corporate lobbyist to lead this very important commission. Yes, I acknowledge that Andrew Wilson is a member of the SNP, I acknowledge he is a member of the Scottish Great and Good, and I acknowledge he is an economist. But, actually, the SNP is not short of members who are well regarded, economists, and not corporate shills. So why Andrew Wilson?

For Andrew Wilson there are more questions. Has any member of the commission ever been a client of Charlotte Street Partners, and if so, whom? Has anyone the commission had meetings with been a client of Charlotte Street Partners, and if so, whom? Did any client of Charlotte Street Partners have early sight of the Growth Commission report, and if so, whom? Did any comment on it, and if so did any such comment result in changes to the text? If so, whom, and what changes?

In a small nation there is a short step from cronyism to outright corruption. Andrew Wilson's business - the representation, for money, of undisclosed interests in undisclosed meetings with undisclosed senior members of government - is also a very short step away from from outright corruption. So, I say again: we need, very clearly, to know which of Andrew Wilson's clients were given the opportunity to influence the growth commission report.

Thursday, 28 June 2018

Another letter on the Copyright Directive

The European Parliament
Dear Nosheena Mobarik, Alyn Smith, David Martin, David Coburn, Catherine Stihler and Ian Hudghton,

I wrote to you all in early April regarding the proposed Copyright Directive. Unfortunately, I had constructive engagement only from David Martin. The matter is now urgent, since you will be voting next week; so I shall try again to state my case.

The proposed copyright directive:

1. Undermines the modern economy
2. Undermines internet security
3. Reduces the rights of citizens
4. Undermines civil society

I'll expand briefly on each of those points in turn.

The modern economy is built largely on the Internet, which in turn is built largely on open source software. Without open source, none of email, the World Wide Web, Facebook, Twitter, or thousands of other services the modern economy depends on would not be possible at all. Open source is software created and given away at no cost: a gift to the public commons. It is created by academics and corporations, but primarily by individuals. There's no profit made from this; consequently, it is extremely vulnerable to costs. Open source software is shared on sites like Github and Sourceforge, which in turn make little profit. Content upload filters will literally kill the golden goose.

Internet security is both based largely on open source software and requires the sharing of highly techincal information about software vulnerabilities. Many people - both individuals and in academia and businesses, across many countries, co-operate to identify and find fixes for vulnerabilities. Consequently, the information shared almost inevitably includes exerpts of proprietary material. Again, content upload filters would stop this activity stone dead.

Citizens have a right to freedom of expression and freedom of creativity. Art has always involved building on other art. No tune, no picture, no movie is completely unlike any other, and knowing reference to other creative productions, either as homage or as satire, is a trope in every sphere of human expression. Snow White, Cinderella and Pinochio were folk tales in the information commons of Europe long before the Victorians gathered them into books and Walt Disney monetised them into movies. The whole principle of long term copyright is an abuse against freedom of expression.

Civil society involves debate, much of which, today, happens online. To comment on and either expand or rebut the arguments of other voices in the debate requires both quoting and referencing, both of which fall foul of the proposed directive. The citizens right of civic engagement will be gravely damaged.

You'll note that in the above argument I've made no comment on the feasibility of building foolproof content filters as envisaged in article 13. As a software engineer, I know that filters of the quality and subtlety required cannot be built, but that is beside the point. Even it they could be built, the social and economic costs of deploying them would be vastly damaging, not simply to Europe but to the world.

I urge you in the strongest possible terms to reject the proposed Copyright Directive in its entirety.

Yours sincerely,

Simon Brooke

Tuesday, 29 May 2018

Limits to Growth

Wealth.

A lot of folk have commented excellently on the Scottish Growth Commission report. A lot of folk on the left have been critical. George Kerevan, in particular, has lambasted the SNP for promoting a regressive, over-cautious, Morningside-friendly version of Independence Lite, writing:
"Working-class folk, especially those who are unemployed, unskilled and dependent on benefits, are the most likely to vote SNP. They provided the bedrock of support in 2014 that nearly won us independence. The Rowntree report argues forcibly that unless the SNP directly address the needs and aspirations of this core demographic, they will lose support to Labour and the Tories."
George is right, of course. I agree with him, of course. But actually, although I have many criticisms myself, I'm not too worried by this. From the point of view of an independence referendum, it doesn't matter. The SNP can wave their Growth Commission report in the faces of the 'soft no' voters in Morningside and Bearsden, Cramond and Newton Mearns. They may swing a few voters, and if they do, that's excellent.

But in the meantime, the left - Radical Independence, the SSP, RISE, even the Greens - can be presenting a far more radical, adventurous, egalitarian, internationalist vision of independence to working (and not-working) Scotland, and that's where the referendum will be won.

But that's also where the Growth Commission threatens to lose it for us. A report written to tempt the comfortable middle class does not go down well everywhere. Darren "Loki" McGarvie writes:
"the party I once voted into power, believing they could deliver an imaginative, “trouble-making” form of independence, have produced an economic prospectus so demoralisingly timid... if the big idea is simply to rebrand the fundamentals of the UK economy, so that independence becomes more attractive to those whose entrenched advantages are threatened by a radical alternative, well, that’s a very different proposition, isn’t it?"
Loki usually irritates me, but he represents a large section of 'soft yes' opinion; and in this piece he's only saying what I have said myself many times: independence which changes nothing is worth nothing. The very document which may win us a few 'soft no' voters threatens to lose us a lot more 'soft yes'.

My analysis of the Labour party has been for years that while its core vote was working class, its parliamentarians - and particularly its front bench - are drawn largely from an Oxbridge-educated elite. Their parliamentarians don't socialise with their electorate; they don't understand them. Consequently they have to send out ethnographers to do focus groups to discover (often imperfectly) what their electorate thinks.

The Growth Commission report emphasises that the SNP have fallen into the same trap. Their electors, too, are largely working class - and largely urban working class. Yet their parliamentarians are bankers, lawyers, journalists; suit-wearers. The Growth Commission report speaks to Morningsiders because SNP politicians are themselves Morningsiders. It doesn't speak to Easterhouse or Castlemilk because SNP politicians don't socialise with Easterhouse or Castlemilk.

This is the root of SNP timidity. They think the time is not right for a referendum because, in the circles in which they move, the time is not right for a referendum. They think caution, fiscal prudence, independence-lite will swing the vote because for the people with whom they socialise that is what would swing the vote.

Of course, if the SNP do dawdle, dally, and delay the referendum until after the next Holyrood election, George is right and I am wrong. The SNP have over the past decade run Scotland considerably better than any of their predecessors, but they have also made mistakes, and there are several policy areas on which they are now looking a little tired.

If they delay until 2021, if they don't radically change direction to appeal to working Scotland, then there really will be no independence referendum for a generation, because there aren't enough 'soft no' voters in Morningside to balance a 'soft yes' that sees no benefit in an independence which changes nothing.

But to get down to detail of Growth Commission report, and to my own criticisms.

The report says:
"3.88 Maximising frictionless trade and market access with the rest of the UK and with Europe is of critical importance to the performance of the Scottish economy in the short and long term."
This is almost certainly not possible, and absolutely certainly not in our gift. England and Wales (hereinafter EW - and note that I'm rather assuming we'll see a united Ireland before an independent Scotland) seem destined for a very hard crash out of the EU. Given that that is so, there will be a hard border between EW and any country which is in either the EU or EFTA. Scotland will have to choose which side of that border to be on. Do we choose the UK side, which makes independence virtually meaningless, or the EU side, which puts us into a community of 27 other nations many of a similar size to our own?

This decision is made harder by the fact that England sits squarely across our main trade route. Trade war with EW is precisely what undermined the Scottish economy before the 1706 union; it is a major risk. Scotland urgently needs its own Brexit Buster, like Ireland's. That means not just ships, but new port infrastructure (and transport links to it) at Grangemouth, Rosyth, possibly Aberdeen.

The Growth Commission report covers port facilities only in paragraphs A183 and A190; it doesn't mention the risk of trade friction in using EW as our main trade conduit - friction which could arise out of hostility but is equally likely to be simply a consequence of incompetence and dislocation of an economy collapsing under the weight of Brexit. For the commission not to have acknowledged this and allowed for it seems to me pretty remiss.

Related is the matter of currency. The report urges the idea of continuing to use Sterling for what seems to me a remarkably long period (10 years).

As Kirsty Hughes persuasively argues, using Sterling prevents us rejoining the EU during that period. If she's right (and I believe she is), shouldn't the Growth Commission have considered this? But even if she were wrong about EU membership, for a country which wishes to remain part of the European family to hitch itself to a currency set to diverge rapidly from it doesn't seem like a good plan.

I'm also bothered by the 'Annual Solidarity Payment'. It looks a lot like tribute; or like paying off a blackmailer. We shouldn't do this.

Article 38 of the Vienna Convention on Succession of States in respect of
State Property, Archives and Debts reads:
"1.When the successor State is a newly independent State, no State debt of the predecessor State shall pass to the newly independent State, unless an agreement between them provides otherwise..." 
So Scotland is not obliged to, and cannot be obliged to, pay a share of the UK debt. This doesn't mean we should not, but it does mean we cannot be forced to. The risk that concerns me is that EW will assume it is entitled to payments from Scotland, and will behave badly - for example, by holding up Scottish exports - in order to try to screw more money out of us.

The Growth Commission report compounds this problem by suggesting that we should continue to 'buy services' from EW as part of the 'Solidarity Payment', specifically including military services. For me, making a break from the UK's military traditions of bombast, adventurism, gunboat diplomacy is one of the most important reasons for independence. I don't think I'm alone. Again, UK foreign aid is increasingly being used to pursue the UK's geopolitical and commercial ambitions. Scotland should not be supporting UK foreign aid programmes (para B2.3).

But there's a more fundamental issue about the Growth Commission report: growth. Sustainable growth is physically possible only if you assign artificial financial values to intangible things. We currently do do this, but we shouldn't assume it's beneficial.

Does the Scottish economy need to grow at all? I'd argue it doesn't. According to 'Wealth and Assets in Scotland, 2006-2014', the total household wealth of Scotland is £865.6 BILLION - almost a trillion pounds.

I own ten acres of land, a car with 130k miles on it, a 55 year old tractor, five cattle, a little sailing boat, several computers, a lot of books, several bicycles, a home-built house you would call a hut, and some tools; total value £70,000 if I'm lucky. Yet, apart from mental health, I have an extraordinarily good life. I work about ten days a month. I eat well. I'm secure. There's nothing I need I don't have. Of course, I don't have a partner or children, but if I did have, it would not take three times my current wealth to provide all of us with a very comfortable life.

The average household wealth in Scotland - the arithmetic mean - is £360,666.67. You don't have that much? I'm not surprised. The problem isn't that Scotland is poor, the problem is that Scotland is unequal. Worse, Scotland is still steadily getting more unequal.
Chart of household wealth per decile over time, showing increasing inequality.
Yet more than half of all households have no or negligible net financial wealth.

 

40% of all households have no or negligible property wealth (and you can bet those are mostly the same folk as have no net financial wealth).



In fact, overall, this is how badly wealth in Scotland is distributed. Iif we shared Scotland's household wealth equally, 88% of households would benefit. Only 12% of households would lose. And that is before you count wealth held in tax havens and secrecy regimes.


So, going back to that average figure, £360,666.67. Suppose your household had that much wealth. Would you be able to live an extremely comfortable life?

I would think so.

If you couldn't, what is wrong with you?

Inequality is the elephant in the room of independence. A plan for independence which does not radically address inequality will not attract a majority of Scotland's voters. Any major constitutional change is a risk - as we are seeing with Brexit. People - perhaps Scots especially - are wary of risk. People take risks only when the potential benefit is considerable, and independence which changes nothing offers no benefits. We have to have an independence plan which offers the prospect of a radically fairer Scotland.

We can do that. It really isn't hard.

And if the overwhelming majority of us could live very comfortably indeed on a fair share of Scotland's wealth, why does Scotland's economy need to grow? Why is it seen as a political desideratum?

We cannot grow by resource consumption without destroying the future of the planet for our children. We cannot extract all the oil from under the North Sea without far exceeding the planet's ability to cope. We need to use the resources we do extract more thoughtfully. We need to waste less. We need use less. All this can be done without hurting anyone's standard of living.

In summary, if we made our political objective to make people's quality of life better, rather than to grow the economy, we have adequate wealth and would have, with independence, adequate tools to do that.

The question is, have we the will?

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