Friday 30 October 2015

Of cabbages, and kings

King Alexander I: reverse of seal.
I don't know if you recall King Alexander the First. Personally I don't; he lived a long time ago. I certainly don't know what signal service Walterus Brown, a French mercenary, performed for King Alexander. He may have been his right hand man, his most trusted general; he may have been his enforcer, his personal thug; he may have been his bum boy. I don't know.

What I do know is that, by the time Alexander died, eight hundred and ninety one years ago, Walterus Broun had possession of the rich lands of Colstoun in East Lothian. I know this also: his descendants live there still, as their reward for that far-off, unremembered service. They have lived there, and grown fat on the backs of other mens' labour, for almost nine hundred years.

And over that time they've turned off a lot of tenants. They turned off a Mr Walker in 1817; a Mr Brodie in 1838; William Hay in 1872; David Smith in 1880; William Gibson in 1896; and so on. As their present tenant says, 'no one has ever left Colstoun Mains voluntarily, most have been bankrupted or very close to it.' Their present tenant is, of course, Andrew Stoddart, whom you'll all recall as a doughty campaigner for the rights of tenant farmers, and for land reform.

Andrew is to be evicted in three weeks' time, from land he's farmed and improved for twenty years, into which he's poured quarter of a million pounds of his own money, and the obvious suspicion must be that Andrew, like Brodie before him, is being forced out of his home and livelihood because he holds the wrong political opinions and has the courage to express them.

William Hay in 1872 was driven to suicide. I've corresponded with Andrew a great deal over the past few weeks, and I'm extremely anxious about his mental state.

And the question I have to ask is this: in what sense is it just, equitable, efficient or rational to allocate the management and benefits of a scarce resource, Scotland's land, on the basis of heredity? How can we build a better nation while the undeserving rich still fatten off the backs of ordinary working folk? And how are we to have open debate in the polity of Scotland if folk can be thrown out of their homes for having the wrong opinion?

King Alexander lived a long time ago, I'm not sure that any of us can remember him. How long are we going to allow him to rule over us?

Wednesday 21 October 2015

Are we going to allow Andrew Stoddart to be thrown out of his home for activism?

Andrew Stoddart - whom many of my friends will remember from the Birnham workshop - is being evicted from his farm at Coulston Mains just outside Haddington. I think there's no doubt that he's being evicted because of his land reform activism, and because of his activism within the Scottish Tenant Farmers' Association.

It cannot be tolerable that a man can be turned out of his livelihood and his home because of his political views: that has to be an affront against any idea of democracy and freedom of speech, whatever you think of the legitimacy of land ownership.

This is urgent. Andrew is being evicted on the 28th of November. Not only will he and his family lose their home and income, his tractorman's family will be losing theirs too. I'm trying to assess how many people are prepared to how much effort into defending him.

Obviously, we can only do things which Andrew and his family are comfortable with. At present I think that means, from the brief exchange I've had with him, that we can lobby parliament and politicians generally, and that we can picket his landlord's lawyers, who are Turcan Connel.

Alex Thomson's excellent piece on land reform covers Andrew's case: watch it here; the segment on Andrew starts at 6 minute 36 seconds in. The Scottish Tenant Farmers' Association have a press release on Andy Wightman's site here.

Quite apart from the immediately urgent matter of Andrew's eviction, there's an even more worrying aspect to the business. Andrew's eviction is made possible by the UK Supreme Court overturning protections written into the Agricultural Holdings (Scotland) Act 2003. The section in question is as follows:
72 Rights of certain persons where tenant is a limited partnership
(6) Where this subsection applies, notwithstanding the purported termination of the tenancy—
(a) the tenancy continues to have effect; and
(b) any general partner becomes the tenant (or a joint tenant) under the tenancy in the partner’s own right,if the general partner gives notice to the landlord within 28 days of the purported termination of the tenancy or within 28 days of the coming into force of this section (whichever is the later) stating that the partner intends to become the tenant (or a joint tenant) under the tenancy in the partner’s own right.
In other words, under the Scottish act, tenants have security of tenure even if they were limited partnerships. The Supreme Court ruled that this is incompatible with the landowner's rights to property guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights. The court, in their infinite wisdom, seem to give no thought for the tenants' rights. It seems to me that it is probably this judgement that is making the SNP so knock-kneed and generally useless on land reform.

The things it seems to me that we could practically immediately do are:

  1. Mount a picket outside the Turcan Connel offices at Princes Exchange, 1 Earl Grey Street, Edinburgh, EH3 9EE 
  2. Organise a flash mob there (but we'd need to be confident we could get a lot of folk)
  3. Organise a mass lobby of Parliament
  4. Attend the Rural Affairs Committee's meeting in Dumfries on 2nd November, and give the politicians a hard time about it.

I'm not saying we should do all these things. I'm just floating ideas. It would be better to do one thing really well than half a dozen things badly. There may be something I haven't thought of which would be better.

But what I'm trying to do is assess how many people are prepared to do something now to defend first Andrew, his family, and his tractorman's family, and to defend the right of the Scottish Parliament to determine the limits on the right to property in land in Scotland.

Are you in? If so, please respond. And please feel free to link to or copy this message on any mailing list or social media you choose.

Thursday 1 October 2015

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold

The subject of this essay is the Labour Party of which Jeremy Corbyn is leader, and its implications for the left in Scotland.

 I'm impressed by Corbyn, despite his total failure to understand the situation in Scotland and his schoolboy errors - perhaps passed to him by someone else - about the SNP's alleged 'privatisations'.

He is, I believe, genuinely a person of the left; genuinely a person of peace, of sharing, of consensus building, of honesty and of egalitarianism. I suspect that he would name Ghandi as one of his inspirations; I think that he would mean it.

One can imagine him sitting perfectly happily at Harold Wilson's cabinet table, or Clement Atlee's before him. But one cannot imagine Jeremy Corbyn sitting happily at Jeremy Corbyn's shadow cabinet table, and therein lies the problem. Because - with the solitary exceptions of Diane Abbot and his Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, all of his shadow cabinet would have been sitting not on Harold Wilson's front bench, but on Edward Heath's, opposite him.

And this is the point. 'The Labour Party of which Jeremy Corbyn is leader' is not at all the same thing as 'The Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn'. Jeremy Corbyn was elected - overwhelmingly - by the members and supporters of the Labour Party. The footsoldiers who go out and campaign, who knock doors, who fill in canvass returns, who stuff leaflets through letterboxes.

The footsoldiers who, as I reported a year ago, so notably didn't turn out in the independence campaign.

Labour's problem is that it is two radically different parties. Corbyn's party is the footsoldiers' party; 'Old Labour', a party which someone my age has no difficulty in recognising as the linear descendants of Atlee's party.

But Labour elected politicians are overwhelmingly 'New Labour', an Oxbridge educated metropolitan elite. That's come about because Labour had come to be a regular party of power; a party which aspiring carreerist power-seekers saw it as in their personal interests to join. And over at least the past forty years, bright, articulate, self-confident Oxbridge graduates have over-awed ordinary Labour members at candidate selection meetings, and have consequently colonised the Labour benches.

And Corbyn's problem is that actually these elected politicians don't give a stuff about what the members and supporters think: they assume they can use their privileged access to the media to talk over the heads of the members and supporters to the electorate.

It is, sadly but obviously, from these self-centred power-hungry carreerists that Jeremy Corbyn's shadow cabinet are drawn. They overwhelmingly support

To what extent they support these things because these are the things well funded lobbying companies urge them to support I don't know, but that's beside my present point. Let's compare that list, for a moment, to the founding principles of the Labour Party:
To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.
It's common parlance within the Labour party to accuse the faction(s) you disagree with of being 'entryists'. Just now, the Blairites are accusing the 'Corbynistas' of being entryists. But as I've said, it's obvious that it's the Corbynistas who inherit their ideology from the Labour Party of Atlee and Bevan. They are the traditional Labour party: a broad church of unionised workers and leftist intelligentsia. The Blairites - in so far as they have any discernable ideology beyond 'power at any price' - are not. So, seriously, who are the entryists?

The SNP, like Labour, is a broad church; Nicola Sturgeon, like Jeremy Corbyn, is substantially to the left of many members of her cabinet, and, like Corbyn, is, I believe, held back in consequence. But the SNP is bound together by a single overarching goal: the independence of Scotland. It also has the benefit that it is relatively new to being a 'natural party of government', and consequently doesn't yet have the cadre of power-hungry opportunists that Labour has attracted. Labour, by contrast, has nothing to bind it together and is, I suggest, now rapidly unravelling, across the rest of the UK as much as here in Scotland.

There is no natural alliance between socialism, however loosely defined, and neoliberal capitalism. Nothing unites 'the common ownership of the means of' with first the deregulation, and then the bailing out, of private sector financial institutions. No-one can find a compromise between securing for the workers the full fruits of their labour on the one hand, and rentiers getting filthy rich on the other. There is no common ground between meritocracy and inherited wealth.

All this, I think, has lessons for the left of the independence movement. We have sought to be a broad, inclusive, unified movement; but currently the main political expression of that movement is the SNP, who talk the left wing talk but are much less good at walking the left wing walk, and who tend to the illiberal besides. We've seen the centralisation of the police; the council tax freeze which has robbed local authorities of discretionary spending power; and they're currently turning their coats over land reform, frightened of the - admittedly considerable - power of the landed interests.

I grant the SNP government have been - surprisingly - competent; the present relatively minor scandals are virtually their first. But the SNP cannot be above criticism. They must be challenged from the left. They must be challenged on land reform and on land tax. They must be challenged on basic income. They must be challenged on public ownership and on workers' co-operatives. They must be challenged on planning and housing law.

They cannot be challenged from the inside. The SNP leadership have stifled debate on the Monarchy and Nato. Tactically, they were probably right to do so; but Scotland needs to hold those debates. They've stifled debate on currency and I'm utterly convinced that was a grave tactical mistake. But again, Scotland desperately needs that debate.

So as there is no place in Labour for both socialists and neoliberals, just as the internal contradiction between those positions is driving Labour to ruin, so it is impossible to reconcile in the independence movement those careful tacticians trying to build the broadest possible consensus, and those wild-eyed visionaries who are trying to create the blueprint of a better nation.

The left, here in Scotland as in England, needs its own party, and in Scotland as in England that party cannot be the Labour Party the neo-liberals have such a firm hold of. We must have our own Scarlet Banner to raise high. The saltire must also be available in red.

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold. But we shall rise, now, and be that nation again!

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The fool on the hill by Simon Brooke is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License