Sunday 6 December 2015

Inquisition: frustratingly close to good.

Cassandra Pentaghast
It's about time I wrote my first review of Dragon Age Inquisition. Not because I've finished it; I haven't. Not because I've explored all possible paths - I certainly haven't, almost certainly won't, and probably couldn't: this is a deep and rich game. But because I've now explored it enough to uunderstand its strengths and weaknesses to a considerable extent, and it's time to reflect on how the experience affects my own ideas about game design.

I've played, so far, about ninety hours. That's equivalent to about two and a half working weeks, which is a very hefty investment of time; I imagine that in that time one could have read War and Peace through at least twice. And I'm not by any means finished. I'm still clearly in the second act, although I think I must be in the second half of the second act. If I do
finish I imagine the total time - for a single path - will be between one hundred and twenty and one hundred and fifty hours. But Inquisition is not a creative product of the same class as War and Peace. Does it merit that sort of investment?

To look at it a different way, a fan of Coronation Street invests over one hundred and fifty hours a year, and Inquisition is certainly a more interesting cultural product than Coronation Street. Inquisition, like any other immersive single-player computer game, is a solipsistic, solitary, and antisocial use of time, but it's also in some ways challenging, intriguing and occasionally delightful.

There have been two points at which I've very nearly given up and decided not to play any further, which I'll come to and explain.

So let's get the core criticisms out of the way first.

The initial load time is quite extraordinary - it takes about 40 minutes between switching my 8 core, 3.2GHz, 16Gb RAM machine on and having a loaded game ready to play. Given that if you do other things on the machine when the game is loading you risk crashing the graphics card, this is in itself a serious disincentive to playing. Inquisition is also not an open world game, although, to be fair, the area to area load times are only long the first time in a given session you visit each area. But that first load time is long - and I imagine on a machine with less RAM than mine, which could consequently cache less of the game in RAM, it would be longer.

This is a BioWare game, and it suffers all the core faults of BioWare games. Despite the fact that the areas are now fairly large, they're cluttered with unclimbable barriers which seem to be there just to force you to run around further. By contrast to CD Projekt Red games, the moral decisions are clear and bland. You can play as a goodie or you can play as a baddie, but there it's never difficult to decide what to do; this is not a murky, ambiguous world. The character progression system is extremely complex and not at all immersive. And the inventory system is bizarrely wrong: a finger ring occupies just as much space or weight in your baggage as a suit of armour.

It also suffers from new faults that older BioWare games didn't have. For example, the user interface to the inventory system has been oversimplified to the extent that there is not (or if there is, I haven't found it) any means to dump crafting materials from your inventory. Once you've picked them up, you have no choice to carry them until you find something to use them on. And, of course, a single sample of a herb takes up as much room in your baggage as fifty bear pelts. You can only carry on conversations with your companions when you're in 'base camp'; out in the field they won't respond to you. And so on.

But the core fault - the one that almost breaks the game - is one I've blogged about before in relation to other games: Voice Acting Considered Harmful. Every line spoken by any character in the game is voice acted, and consequently, because good voice acting is expensive, most characters have no conversation at all and the majority of those that do have very little. This shows up worst in the plot line 'Wicked Eyes and Wicked Hearts', which takes place in a palace in Val Royeaux clearly modelled on the French court. There are literally hundreds of characters present - and virtually none of them can speak. Consequently, the plot line resolves to a puzzle game with too few clues, and one, furthermore, which it appears you actually can't complete unless you do something non-obvious right at the very beginning, which you cannot go back to later. That nearly broke the game for me.

I have started playing again, but for the present I've abandoned that plotline. I suspect I'm going to have to do it before I can procede to act three, but if I do I'll do it with an open crib sheet in front of me, which isn't a lot of fun.

But the other - and more significant - fault of the fact that most characters cannot speak is the fact that most encounters in the game can only be resolved by violence. To progress, you have to kill a lot of people, as well as monsters. There are very few opponents who can be reasoned with, persuaded, brought on-side. Most are just immediately and implacably hostile. That does not make - for me - for an engaging game.

For the rest, the scenery is pleasant but - with the exception of the Skyhold Castle set - not special; again, the CD Projekt Red art team leave BioWare in the dust here. The monsters are monsters - yes, of course there are dragons and you can fight them. There is a lot of varied loot, if that's what interests you; there is a potentially interesting crafting system, if that's your bag. There are lots of different costumes, and you can customise them. I haven't really explored what the modding community has to offer, yet, but it's nowhere near as rich as the Skyrim or Witcher modding communities.

So why am I still playing? Well, frankly, story. And I realise I'm frustrated by how sparsely it's doled out, how much graft I'm being made to do to earn the next snippet.

The bit of the story that's caught my interest?

No, it isn't closing rifts in the sky or defeating an immortal talking monster; that story is cod. The real world has neither personified good nor personified evil, and stories built on them are peurile and not worth anyone's time. The real world is like the Witcher's world, a grey world, a world of least-worst choices, not like BioWare's harsh black and white.

The first time I almost stopped playing was about that. The main plot story - your own character's story arc - is that you have mysteriously acquired a unique and non-transferable magical gift, which is the only thing that can save the world from its new embodiment of evil. And the introduction to the game is entirely linear: go here, do this, go there, do that, with little opportunity for either interaction or choice. Yes, I do understand that the introduction of a game has to lead the player through the game mechanics, but that excessive focus on mechanics often leads to poor writing, and it does here, I think.

So why, actually, am I still playing?


The character Cassandra - in this game, anyway - is an angry, aggressive, clearly damaged female warrior (no pretty young girl), distrustful, private, emotionally closed; but clearly of strong moral principles and capable of strong loyalty. She's very well written and well voice-acted, with an accent which is at once foreign and unplacable.

There's also a great deal of well written, amusing and character driven interaction between Cassandra and another non-player character, Varric. Varric is a dwarf merchant and part time writer of fiction, including romances which it is heavily implied are extremely steamy. In back-story - actually in Dragon Age 2, a game I haven't played - Cassandra had interrogated Varric with at least an implication that a degree of torture was used. Consequently, at the start of the game there is considerable dislike and distrust between the characters, which gradually thaws during the game in interesting ways.

In brief, both of these were well-drawn characters I quickly came to appreciate. I believe that some of the other companion characters are probably equally well drawn, but they haven't interested me so much so I haven't interacted much with them.

At the point I was seriously considering abandoning the game because I was utterly frustrated by 'Wicked Eyes and Wicked Hearts', I browsed the Dragon Age wiki (moderated by my old friend and companion in crime Carrol Dufault) to check on a few things which might help me to decide whether to continue.

I discovered that Cassandra was 'romanceable'.

There have been romanceable characters in a number of BioWare games, and I'd assumed there would be in this one without a great deal of interest. Romanceable essentially means that there's a plot variant to be discovered which allows the protagonist (that's essentially you) to have a romance with the character.

For Cassandra to be romanceable has to give her a very interesting story arc, to develop in unexpected ways; and that thought is keeping me playing. I also do want to see the further development of her odd freindship with Varric.

In summary, this game isn't the equal in plot or setting or art or dialogue or even character to any of the Witcher games (although it is considerably easier to get into than either Assasins of Kings or Wild Hunt), and it isn't nearly as ambitious as Skyrim, but may have better character and plot. But it's interesting, intriguing, and a lot of the story is well written. Yes, it has been worth the ninety hours I've spent so far. I shall almost certainly complete Cassandra's story arc, because I want to know what happens; whether I'll play on to the end... well, we'll see.

Monday 23 November 2015

Colateral damage

Dear Richard Arkless,

I feel confident that I have no need to write you this letter; that you, and all your fellow SNP Members of the Westminster Parliament, will remember Hamish Henderson's words:
Nae mair will our bonnie callants
Merch tae war whan our braggarts crousely craw...
Broken faimilies in launs we've hairriet
Will curse 'Scotlan the Brave' nae mair, nae mair
I feel confident that you know that adding to the 'air power' deployed in Syria only increases that most cynical and most empty of modern euphemisms, 'colateral damage'. In Syria as in Iraq, Yemen and Afghanistan, only one person in ten killed by western bombing and drone strikes is a 'target'.The rest are civilians. Women. Children. The old, the sick, and the injured.

No-one's child should be colateral damage. No-one's mother should die because someone dialled in the wrong co-ordinates. No-one's grandfather should be mown down because some 'target' just happened to be passing down the road in a Toyota pickup.

And to the parents of the children we kill, to the children of the mothers we kill, to the families of the gandparents er kill, what is the moral distiction between the fanatic who detonates his explosive belt in a Paris music venue and the young pilot who unloads his payload of indiscriminite death on their village, before flying comfortably home to a slap-up dinner and a quiet night's sleep, only to do the same on the morrow?

You cannot bomb an idea. Indeed, Daesh's idea is that there is an inevitable war between the West - what they call 'Rome' - and Islam. Daesh's battle plan is that to bring on the end of days, they must 'eliminate the grey zone', to divide the world starkly into those who are with them and those who are against them. To wage war against them  is to lend credence to their ideas, to bomb them is aid them in their battle plan.

The way to defeat an extremist movement is to win over the population among whom they live and from whom they recruit, by addressing reasonable grievances and building personal connections and friendships, as Scotland's regiments learned so painfully in Malaysia. The way to end a terrorist campaign is to sit down with the terrorists and talk, as we learned so painfully in Northern Ireland. You cannot win hearts and minds from the cockpit of a fighter jet. You cannoy negotiate with a drone. You cannot kill an idea with bombs and bullets.

This week we are welcoming Syrian refugees into Scotland. That makes me proud. But let us not now make more refugees, by bombing drive more of Syria's people to flee their homes, their towns and villages, to make the long, desperate treck to hoped for safety.

As I said at the beginning, I'm sure I don't need to write you this letter. I feel sure you will not be swayed by the testosterone fueled jingoism of the Tory braggarts. I'm sure you are as keen as I am to see that no broken families in Syria will feel the need to curse 'Scotland the Brave'.

But if you can use my words can help you persuade other MPs from other parties that bombing Syria, like bombing the Bataclan, is a moral outrage which will only set peace backward and advance the black flags of the Daesh, then this letter has been worth writing.

For man tae man, the whole world oer, shall brothers be for aa that; and it it Scotland's job to make it so.


Simon Brooke

Sunday 22 November 2015

Feu Duties, and Dereliction

A Norman knight, like Walterus le Brun
I am a person of place; what in Scots we call a hamebodie. My place is between the granite and the sea, between Bengairn and Heston Island. My home is a matter of great importance to me. In 2010 I went mad, and, as one of the consequences of going mad, lost my house; and the darkest days in my life were when I realised that, with the money I had left, and given my age and my very unreliable mental health, I'd never again be able to afford a house between the blue line of the granite and the grey line of the sea.

Being mad is in some sense liberating. When you know that the balance of your mind is disturbed, when you know that your judgement is not to be relied on, when you know that any decision you take make may be bad, you can give yourself permission to make risky decisions; and when you're suicidal anyway, the consequences of any decision you make turning out to be really, really bad cannot make things worse.

So I bought a field and a little bit of wood, without planning permission, and built what a dispassionate observer might describe as 'a hut' or 'a shack'. For me it's home; somewhere I'm safe, on land which I own and on which I owe no debts. But I understand well that for many people - perhaps not for everyone - being forcibly driven from their home is perhaps the worst psychological injury they can face.

In the world now many people are being forcibly driven from their homes, most notably in Syria and the Levant; waves of refugees fleeing to hoped-for safety in Europe are testimony to this. It makes me proud that Scotland is eager to welcome some of these people, to offer them new homes in which they can be safe.

But the reason I'm writing this essay today is that in just one week from now, three more families will be driven from their homes, not in far-off Syria but here in Scotland; driven out of their homes onto the streets, literally as refugees. They are being driven out because their local laird has quite arbitrarily decided they should go. The laws of Scotland were not meant to allow this; the Agricultural Holdings (Scotland) Act 2003 was crafted quite specifically to prevent this.

That was the law, democratically agreed only twelve years ago by the democratic will of the politicians democratically elected by the polity of Scotland.

But the unelected UK Supreme Court overruled this. The rights of a landowner arbitrarily to do as he pleased with his land overrode, in their opinion, a tenant farmer's right to home and livelihood. In doing so, they sentenced the farmer in the case, Andrew Riddell, to death, since he shot himself rather than leave the home where his family had lived for over a hundred years.

Law is, at best, a lagging indicator of social consensus. At worst, it's a means for people with privilege to protect the privilege of privileged people from the seething mass of the great unwashed. Politician-made law, democratic law, at its best, tends to the first of those positions. Judge-made law - for judges are drawn systematically from the privileged classes - tends towards the second.

Andrew Riddell is dead, and his family home is lost. Andrew Stoddart's isn't - yet. He's still fighting - for his home, for his family's home, for his workers and their families' homes. Like Andrew Riddell before him, Andrew Stoddart says he's not leaving. The law of Scotland, though, as bowdlerised and mangled by the UK Supreme Court, says that he is. And his laird says he's leaving in a week from now, on the 28th November.

On the streets. In winter. In Scotland.

Is our Scotland - our Scotland that is this week welcoming a thousand Syrian refugees into their new homes - going to allow this?

The UK Supreme Court's ruling is that the laird's right to property in the land overrides the tenant's right to a secure home. But on what basis can the laird claim to have a right of property at all? Land, in Scotland at least, is not man made. We may claim of an invention or of a work of art that I made this, therefore it is mine, but we cannot claim that of land.

Nor can we claim - for any inch of Scotland - that we were the first settlers, or that it has passed peaceably from parent to child down the ages from the first settlers. All of Scotland's land has been fought over, seized, stolen, not once but many times over the past seven thousand years.

But the lairds of Colstoun's claim to ownership it particularly easy to trace; they could, in fact, be poster-boys for Scotland's lairds. Because Colstoun has been owned by the same family for nine hundred years. How did they come by it? One Walterus le Brun, described as 'a mercenary' from France, was given the land by King Alexander I.

What the medieval Kings of Scotland were doing when they gave tracts of land to tough, competent, well armed mercenaries wasn't just generosity and open handedness. There was an explicit contract on which the whole feudal system was based. The King, as the personification of the state, provided the land, and the lairds in return provided local justice, civil administration, civil order, and defence of the realm. The same contract which gives the descendants of Walterus le Brun the power to throw Andrew Stoddart and his employees and their families out onto the street also requires them to meet the full cost of running East Lothian council and Haddington Police station out of their own pockets, and to provide one fully eqipped and crewed fighter bomber for the Royal Air Force.

The other thing to be said about the feudal system under which the le Brun family were granted the lands at Costoun is that it was recursive. The tenants held their lands under exactly the same legal basis as the Lairds held theirs: as vassals to their feudal superior, in return for services rendered, and subject to - sometimes very abrupt - termination if those services weren't provided. Neither laird nor tenant held the land as inalienable property. The modern notion of property was never part of the bargain.

But what's happened over the intervening nine hundred years is that we've socialised the duties under the feudal contract - the ordinary folk of Scotland now pay for justice. civil order, civil administation and defence of the realm out of our own taxes - but privatised the benefits: we've left the aristocracy with the rewards. Worse, we've allowed them through a process of legal alchemy to transmute those feudal grants into property rights. The rents of the estate of Colstoun are now essentially a synecure, a monopoly guaranteed by the state in return for no service at all; and thus the lairds of Colstoun have lived fat off the labour of more honest folk for at least the last five hundred years and given nothing back for it.

That simply isn't tolerable.

There's another thing to be said here. In Scotland, good arable land is valuable; even good pasture is valuable. But rough grazing, willow carr, houghland, mire is much less valuable. In Scotland, good arable land doesn't just happen; it isn't just handed down by a benevolent God on a plate. Good arable land is made, by draining, by the laborious and back breaking work of stone picking, by the addition of organic matter, by fencing and hedge-laying and dyke building.

That work hasn't been done by the lairds and it hasn't been paid for by the lairds. But - especially at Colstoun - over generations lairds have encouraged tenants to invest their all into improvement of the land, and then turned those tenants off to relet the improved land to a new tenant at a higher rental.

The lairds have lived rich not only off the tenants labour, not only off the rents, but off the tenant's capital investment.

That isn't tolerable either.

It's not new that it isn't tolerable. It wasn't tolerable in the eighteenth century, when the levellers tumbled the dykes of the lairds' new enclosures. It's never been tolerable. But now, when we are in the early days of building a better nation in Scotland, it's more than ever intolerable.

We need to look again - and much more closely - at what we understand by ownership of land in Scotland. We need to look at the heritability of ownership. We need to look at the limitations to ownership. Because we cannot build a better nation in a land where some people have, by right simply of birth, vast privilege unavailable to the rest of their fellow citizens.

But most of all, we need to look at the duties consequent on ownership. The state guarantees to land owners a monopoly on the right to use and manage a piece of land, guarantees that others will not seize that land off them by force. What duties does the landowner owe back to the state as their side of that bargain?

Walterus Le Brun's descendents still live in the Big Hoose of Colstoun. Nevertheless, it's perfectly clear that for several hundred years at least, the lairds of Colstoun have not been fulfilling their part of the bargain under which the lands of Colstoun were granted to them. They were never given property of the lands in the modern sense; rather, they were granted a vassalage from the state in return for services to be rendered.

Now, how Alexander the Fierce would have dealt with dereliction by a vassal of their feudal duties is a matter of conjecture, but given his nominative epithet my conjecture is that he would have been bloody, bold and resolute. Times have changed: I'm not proposing that the lairds of Colstoun should be deprived of their lives, their heads or even their home, no matter how desirable it might be pour encourager les autres. They have as much right to a secure home as anyone else; I'm not proposing that they should be driven out of it, any more than I think we should allow them to drive Andrew Stoddart out of his.

But the lands are another matter. The lands were granted in return for services to be rendered. Those services are no longer being rendered, therefore the contract is void, therefore the land isn't theirs, therefore they have no power to evict Andrew Stoddart (nor, incidentally, to levy rents, so they may owe him twenty years of rent back).

And just as the state could, nine hundred years ago under Alaxandair mac Maíl Coluim, grant the lands of Colstoun to Walterus le Brun in return for services to be rendered, so the state can now, under Nicola Sturgeon, revoke that grant on the grounds that his descendents are in default on their obligations under the grant.

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!

Friday 28 August 2015

Breaking young minds

This morning I listened to a radio programme. Before it was half finished I was screaming in anger and anguish at the radio; by the time it was finished I was sobbing. For the rest of the day I've felt headachy and ill.

The programme was called 'mending young minds'. You don't mend young minds, you break them; and once they're broken it's extremely unlikely that there will be any road back. Of the twenty or so kids who were in the Young People's Unit of the Royal Edinburgh Hospital with me forty-five years ago, I'd be extremely surprised if half a dozen are still alive. Those who are will, like me, have suffered a lifetime of mental illness.

Being mad just isn't fun
It isn't fun for anyone
It isn't fun if you are mad
It isn't fun it it's your dad
If it's your child it's just as bad
There is no fun in being mad.

My mind was broken fifty-five years ago in Stamfordham Primary School in Northumberland. I've never recovered. The damage was probably irreversible after three months, but I had three years of it before there was any intervention, eight before there was useful intervention. And by that time it was far too late.

Since then I've made excuses for them. Dyslexia wasn't well understood then, I've said to myself. My parents were trying to do the right thing. The teachers had no way to know the damage they were causing.

Perhaps. But that was half a century ago. What the hell was the point of me and hundreds like me going through all that pain and suffering life-altering injury if lessons aren't going to be learned?

So when I hear on the radio today of a little girl who's now ten, who showed signs of distress immediately on being sent to school... I am overwhelmed with anger and distress and compassion.

Let's be clear about this: we have a lot of ongoing scandals about elite sexual abuse of children. We should treat that very seriously. We should hunt down, prosecute and imprison the perpetrators, because raping a child is extremely likely to lead to life-altering trauma, to damage that cannot be undone. To ruin the child's whole life.

But for fuck's sake so is sending an obviously distressed child to school.

School is a dreadful, evil institution - a place where we send people to punish them for being young. It's also, of course, an environment in which some young people blossom. But that is the point. One size does not fit all. Mainstream education - in which some flourish and most more or less cope - does dreadful, irreparable harm to many. If we are to have compulsory schooling at all it must be child-centred, highly responsive and individualy tailored. To send a child to a school at which they are clearly unhappy is an act of unconscionable cruelty.

But if the parent who sends a child day after day to a place in which they are being systematically tortured is cruel, how much more so is the educator who inflicts the damage?

This isn't acceptable. It has to stop. If we don't have enough resources to educate the children we have without injuring them, then we just need as a society to have fewer children. If we aren't prepared to have fewer children then we have to put more resources into individually tailored child centred education.

But there is no criminal worse than the adult who sees a child in distress and continues, day after day, week after week, month after month to send that child into the place of torture to be further injured. No punishment which a civilised society could impose would be sufficiently severe to fit such a crime.

You don't mend young minds, you break them. And there's no road back.

Friday 17 July 2015


Jackie Bird talks over Mhairi Black -
the straw that broke the camel's back.
This is the whole of my response to the government's consultation on BBC charter renewal. You can find the consultation, and make your own response, here.

Q1: How can the BBC’s public purposes be improved so there is more clarity about what the BBC should achieve? 

The BBC is intended to be a public broadcaster and not a state broadcaster, but the actions of successive governments have reversed this and we now have the worst of all worlds: a state propaganda arm paid for by the public.

If anything of the BBC is to be salvaged the link with government must be entirely severed. The BBC should become a co-operative owned and governed by its audience. This means that the license fee can no longer be a universal impost but must become a voluntary subscription, which probably means in turn that content should be broadcast encrypted and that the subscription should include a  decrypter. I know no-one wants this, but so long as the license fee is an impost the BBC cannot be brought under democratic control and will remain a state broadcaster.

I have to say I'm a relatively recent convert to this view; as recently as a year ago I would have been a staunch defender of the BBC. But its naked and unapologetic bias throughout last year's referendum campaign tested my loyalty beyond endurance. Last week's incident of the reporting of Mhairi Black's maiden speech re-emphasised this, and deepened my conviction that the BBC in its present state is not fit for purpose.

Q2:  Which elements of universality are most important for the BBC?

The BBC has no universality; it never has had, having been essentially an elite London-centric institution serving primarily an elite London-centric audience since its inception. It did try to break out of that mould in the eighties and nineties of the last century, but that quest for independence and broad popularity was peremptorily ended in 2004 by the Blair Government, and since then the BBC has been in craven retreat.

It is no longer - if it ever was - the people's broadcaster, and the public are no longer forelock tugging and deferential. The BBC cannot expect the public to defend it.

Q3: Should Charter Review formally establish a set of values for the BBC?

No. No body appointed by government should have any part in establishing values (or anything else) for the BBC. That is for its audience, and for its audience alone, to do.

Q4: Is the expansion of the BBC’s services justified in the context of increased choice for audiences? Is the BBC crowding out commercial competition and, if so, is this justified?

The 'commercial competition', in this context, is a very narrow set of mostly foreign, mostly right-wing and mostly very corrupt media oligarchs. If the BBC has any residual merit it is precisely in crowding them out.

The BBC should provide those services that its audience want and are prepared to pay for. The Government should have no role whatever in deciding what the BBC may, or may not, do.

Q5: Where does the evidence suggest the BBC has a positive or negative wider impact on the market?

It prevents its domination by the media oligarchy. Since the Government is unable or unwilling to tackle Murdoch, Lebedev, Harmsworth, Desmond or the Barclay brothers, it should not interfere with the BBC.

Q6: What role should the BBC have in preparing for the future technological landscape including in future radio switchover?

Radio switchover is a largely failed project. Over much of the British Isles, digital radio offers a substantially poorer service than VHF; only in the cities is it competitive in quality. In any case the DAB standard used in Britain is obsolete and not widely adopted elsewhere, and Internet technologies will have made it wholly irrelevant before it has been completely rolled out.

Q7: How well is the BBC serving its national and international audiences?

The BBC currently serves the Government, not its audience.

Q8: Does the BBC have the right genre mix across its services?

No. The BBC now has very little content I would either trust or choose to consume, and I think in this that I'm representative of a substantial minority of the population.

Q9: Is the BBC’s content sufficiently high quality and distinctive from that of other broadcasters? What reforms could improve it?

Why should it be distinctive? If the BBC is providing the service its audience wishes to pay for, then inevitably other broadcasters will want to supply similar content. If other broadcasters do not want to supply similar content, then it must be because there is no audience for it. In any case this is a matter for discussion between the BBC and its audience, in which no-one else's views are relevant.

Q10: How should the system of content production be improved through reform of quotas or more radical options?

The Government should get right out and stop interfering. The matter for the right system of content production is a matter for a discussion between the BBC and its audience (if it wants to keep one). The Government should have no role whatever in this.

Q11: How should we pay for the BBC and how should the licence fee be modernised?

Those people who wish to consume the BBC's content should pay a subscription fee. The whole of the subscription fee should go to the BBC to use as the BBC sees fit, with no part of it being diverted to other services; at the same time, the BBC should expect and receive no subsidy from the Government.

There might be a scale of subscription fees, with different subscriptions buying access to different mixes of services (for example, those who don't want to watch wall-to-wall football should not be obliged to pay for it). But the setting of fees should be a commercial matter for the BBC, in which the Government should have no role.

I would personally prefer that the BBC remain subscription and not advertising funded, but that too is a matter between the BBC and its audience.

Q12: Should the level of funding for certain services or programmes be protected? Should some funding be made available to other providers to deliver public service content?

That's a matter between the BBC and its audience. Other providers are perfectly able to set up their own subscription funded services - and, indeed, are doing so. The Government has no role and should not interfere.

Q13: Has the BBC been doing enough to deliver value for money? How could it go further?

That's a matter between the BBC and its audience. The Government has no role and should not interfere.

Q14: How should the BBC’s commercial operations, including BBC Worldwide, be reformed?

The BBC should be able to offer subscription charges in any markets it cares to. It's notable that the Guardian and the Daily Mail, for example, now have very large audiences outside the United Kingdom. A large non-UK income base, and possibly overseas centres of operations, would help the BBC better resist interference from Government.

Q15: How should the current model of governance and regulation for the BBC be reformed?

The BBC should become a co-operative, wholly owned by its audience. The governors should be elected by and from the audience, and should determine the management structures. Governors should be elected on four or five year terms and serve a maximum of three terms.

No other body should have any role in this whatever.

Q16: How should Public Value Tests and Service Licences be reformed and who should have the responsibility for making these decisions?

They should be done away with altogether. Only the audience has any role in determining what the BBC does; and if the audience don't like the BBC's output, they should be able to vote with their feet and withdraw their subscriptions.

Q17: How could the BBC improve engagement with licence fee payers and the industry through research, transparency and complaints handling?

Through the ownership structure and democratic process outlined in my responses above.

Q18: How should the relationship between Parliament, Government, Ofcom, the National Audit Office and the BBC work? What accountability structures and expectations, including financial transparency and spending controls should apply?

Parliament, the Government, Ofcom and the National Audit Office have no role or standing whatever in this. Their input has been universally and wholly destructive. They should all butt right out.

Q19: Should the existing approach of a 10-year Royal Charter and Framework Agreement continue? 


Q15: How should the current model of governance and regulation for the BBC be reformed?

The BBC should become a co-operative, wholly owned by its audience. The governors should be elected by and from the audience, and should determine the management structures. Governors should be elected on four or five year terms and serve a maximum of three terms.

No other body should have any role in this whatever.

Q16: How should Public Value Tests and Service Licences be reformed and who should have the responsibility for making these decisions?

They should be done away with altogether. Only the audience has any role in determining what the BBC does; and if the audience don't like the BBC's output, they should be able to vote with their feet and withdraw their subscriptions.

Q17: How could the BBC improve engagement with licence fee payers and the industry through research, transparency and complaints handling?

Through the ownership structure and democratic process outlined in my responses above.

Q18: How should the relationship between Parliament, Government, Ofcom, the National Audit Office and the BBC work? What accountability structures and expectations, including financial transparency and spending controls should apply?

Parliament, the Government and the National Audit Office have no role or standing whatever in this. Their input has been universally and wholly destructive. They should all butt right out.

Ofcom has standing only in so far as it leases radio spectrum. The BBC should bid commercially for radio spectrum just like Vodafone or BT. What the BBC does with the spectrum it leases should be a matter between the BBC and its subscribers in which Ofcom should have no role.

Q19: Should the existing approach of a 10-year Royal Charter and Framework Agreement continue? 


The BBC should have no special privileges and should not be dependent on any special deals from Government.

Friday 8 May 2015

Bright sun, and a bitter wind

Scotland wakes to a morning of bright sun, and sharp, cold wind. To a morning of elation and of shock. We've won an historic victory: but every great victory hides within it a great tragedy. For many - and not just here in Scotland - much has been lost, and many things which were treasured are put at risk.

We must not overwheen. We must keep the heid. This victory - enormous and overwhelming as it is - is a product of an electoral system we all know is deeply flawed: First Past the Post. In fact, only 51.5% of votes cast in Scotland were for pro-independence parties; under a fair electoral system we would still have won - might, in fact, have won a slightly bigger share of the vote - but we would have won only thirty of Scotland's fifty-nine seats.

The seeds of this victory and this tragedy were planted in 1979, when Labour, urged on by old Etonian Tam Dalyell, stole from Scotland the referendum that we had fairly won. They were nurtured in Sedgefield in 1983, when Fettes and Oxford educated Tony Blair was appointed Labour candidate to represent Durham miners. Blair calculated that, given first past the post, the left had nowhere to go and must stay loyal as he moved his party to the right; and so, he destroyed it. Because the left in Scotland did have somewhere else to go, and we went.

In every victory is a defeat, and this defeat is Labour's. They earned it. For Labour to recover it needs to introspect, to own its own errors. It needs to understand  that although the SNP won in part because they outflanked it on the left, the SNP are vulnerable not from the right but from further left. The true opposition in the next Scottish Parliament will not be Labour: it will be the Greens, the Left Project, and even, possibly, a revived Socialist Party. The essential struggle is still a class struggle, not an ethnic struggle; Scotland is slowly turning to independence because we have lost faith in the possibility of socialism across Britain. If we are to build socialism in one country, that country can only be Scotland.

In England as in Scotland, I believe, there is still a left whose voice has been silenced by Labour's journey rightwards. The things which Labour held up as its crown jewels are lost in England. The English NHS is on life support, and Osborne is fiddling with the off-switch. The English welfare state is in tatters. The Tories, like Blair before them, are redistributing wealth from the poorest to succour the rich.

It's a good thing Balls has gone. Without him, Labour - in England at least - can begin to rebuild; but first it must find some cojones.

Wednesday 22 April 2015

For those in peril on the sea

Migrants, many of them displaced by wars caused by the West's meddling, others driven off their land by climate change, are drowning in the Mediterranean. This isn't a new problem. It also isn't a temporary problem: as climate change makes tropical regions increasingly hostile to human life, more and more people will seek to move to temperate zones, even if capitalism doesn't continue to rape Africa's economy and the West doesn't continue fomenting war in the Middle East.

So stopping people drowning in the Mediterranean is not a quick fix. Population movement out from the tropics is inevitable and will continue, and it will continue to be resisted - as we see with the Zulus in South Africa as much as with UKIP in England.

There are a range of responses we can make. We can kettle people up in Africa and let them cope as best they can, occasionally holding concerts to send some meagre 'aid' over like Lady Bountiful. We can make positive efforts to ameliorate economic conditions in Africa, and to build peace in the Middle East in the hope of slowing the movement. We can work to welcome and integrate migrants into economies across the temperate zone - which, from our point of view, means Scotland, because Scotland is where we are.

But what we can't do, it seems to me, is what the UK government is currently doing: turn our backs, withdraw the search and rescue boats, and let them drown.

So what can we, as ordinary citizens, do about this?

We can send a boat, well equipped, to help. It isn't impossible - folk in Northern Germany have already done it. One boat isn't going to stop the drownings, of course. It would be mainly a symbolic gesture - a gesture by the people of Scotland to shame the politicians of Westminster. And stopping the drownings will not stem the pressure of migrants seeking a better life; if anything, it will, as the cynical Tories calculate, encourage more to migrate. Migration is a bigger problem which we will have to address.

But in the meantime, we can - we practically can - do something to stop the drownings.

A good second hand 24 foot RIB, like the lifeboats use, costs about £30,000. Getting it kitted up and driven to the south of Italy, not more than another £10,000. The boat can cross to Lampedusa or Malta or wherever else it's needed under its own power. Rotating a crew change - crew of four - out to the south of Italy, not more than a £1,000. I'm guessing we could blag accommodation cheap for a project like this, but if we couldn't, people can live in tents in the Mediterranean in summer.

We'd also need fuel, food, large quantities of first aid supplies, and a whole lot of other consumables - say £10,000 worth a month.

So I think you could run this project for the summer - including buying the boat - for £100,000, and that's a practical crowd-fundable amount. I'm confident we could raise it.

The limitation, it seems to me, is crew. They'd need to have good boat-handling and navigation skills and also, ideally, paramedic skills. Some media skills and Italian language skills wouldn't hurt. People who've been through RNLI training would be ideal; some ex Marines and ex Navy people would have appropriate skills. And, of course, quite a few 'ordinary people' - medical people who also happen to be yacht folk; inshore fishermen who know first aid. Adventure training people.

We'd need to have at least four crew on station at any one time, ideally six; and either we would need to raise enough (extra) money to give those people a decent wage for the season, or else we'd have to have four crews (of at least four people each) who would each do about forty days on station, to have some handover time with the crew before them and the crew after them.

So the crew is either sixteen to twenty-four highly skilled volunteers, or it's a matter of raising at least another £150,000, which begins to look ambitious.

Of course, we'd need to check first that the Maltese or Italian or Greek coastguards would welcome the help, and we'd need to organise to work pretty much as they directed us. Of course, one boat, even well equipped and with a skilled crew, isn't going to solve the problem by itself - the objective is at least as much to shame the government into taking action as it is to directly rescue folk. And finally, of course there are risks - one has to assume that many of the people traffickers may be armed.

I cannot do this by myself. Realistically, I'm not reliable enough and I don't have the energy. For it to happen at all, I need to get a group of people together with energy to make it happen.

Will you join me?

Thursday 19 March 2015

Distant echoes

Predjama castle, Slovenia. Distant, elite and echoey.
I can't remember which Scottish MP called Alexander is the Labour one. It doesn't matter. He - the Labour Alexander - opines (in London, of course) that the reason his party are in trouble in Scotland is because we - the pro-independence element of the population of Scotland - get our news from social media, and we've created out of it a self-reinforcing echo-chamber for our own beliefs. And, of course, to an extent he's right.

But his problem - and ours - is this. The pro-independence element of the population of Scotland is by and large us - the people - the great unwashed. Those whom Labour were once wont to call 'the workers'. In the days when they were the party of the workers. Remember? By contrast, the pro-union element of the population of Scotland - them - is drawn largely from the elite. And it's the nature of the elite that they control many of the principal institutions of the country, including what we've been politely calling the main stream media, but which we ought to call by its true name, the elite media. The newspapers, the television channels, the radio. And they've made of that a self-reinforcing echo chamber which reinforces their own beliefs.

So we look - more and more infrequently - at the main stream media, and we don't recognise what we see. The stories it tells do not reflect what we actually experience as we live and work in streets and workplaces of Scotland. It becomes irrelevant to our lives, a distant, unimportant fiction. We turn instead to the media which do actually reflect the truths of our lives as we experience it: Twitter and Facebook, of course, but also the National, the Sunday Herald, Newsnet, Bella, the Unsavoury Cabal, and even, sometimes, Bonkers of Bath.

Meantime, they look at these channels - occasionally - and are aghast. They don't recognise what they see. What we write does not reflect what they experience as they live and work in the Corridors of Power, in Whitehall, in Westminster, in the Square Mile. They don't recognise it. It is not, in their experience, in their reality, true.

We have created two echo chambers, distant from each other, mutually incomprehensible, intersecting rarely.

Monday 16 March 2015

The Law of Freedom in a Web Page; or, the True Levellers' Standard advanced anew

The Scottish Parliament
The law is at best a lagging indicator of the social consensus; at worst, a set of rules made by the privileged to preserve privilege. In reality, all law falls somewhere on a continuum between the two, with - in democracies - politician-made law tending towards the first end of the scale, and judge-made law - for judges are everywhere appointed from the elite - towards the second. But the truth is that even at best the law lags; and it lags most when the social consensus is moving fastest.

That's where I think we are now with Land Reform. The law as it stands is mainly elite-made law, most of it, in fact, dating back before the beginning of the democratic era. Thus our great estates have their origins in the dispositions of medieval civil administration. The Bruce, and the Stuarts who followed him, did not see in their grants of land anything like the modern idea of heritable property; they made ad-hoc grants to reliable allies who could hold the area and suppress revolt. Then, in the turbulent years of Scotland's late middle ages and early modern period, through a parliament from which ordinary folk were ruthlessly excluded, the rights of the great estates were progressively fortified and extended.

Thus we have law which is mainly made by the elite, for the elite; overlaid on that is the - in itself very good - 2003 Land Reform Act which made some feeble and timid attempt to limit the power of landowners. That is politician made law, and in so far as it goes it very nearly represents an indicator of the social consensus in 2003. But my sense is that the consensus is moving, and moving fast. The 2015 act must be much more adventurous, or else the left must oppose it.

I'll start, here, by making it clear that I see law which is a lagging indicator of social consensus as morally justified law; if you like, legitimate law. Law as the entrenchment of privilege is illegitimate law - unjust law. And as Martin Luther King said plainly, “One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” Thoreau was more long-winded, but the meat of it is the same:
"Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right."
Ghandhiji's counsel is along the same lines:
“An unjust law is itself a species of violence. Arrest for its breach is more so. Now the law of nonviolence says that violence should be resisted not by counter-violence but by nonviolence. This I do by breaking the law and by peacefully submitting to arrest and imprisonment.”
So where does that take us?

It takes us to this. The government, now, are once more considering land reform. They might - they might - do something genuinely radical, something which would meaningfully return the land to the people, something that could give us quarter of a million crofts. I am, however, a man of little faith.

The Unsavoury Cabal this week described Humza Yousaf as "yer archetype SNP politician (competent, well meaning, a bit dull)". That's harsh, but fair. The SNP governments of the past decade have been astoundingly competent and disciplined - something which, I'll be honest, I didn't expect of them. And despite their ambivalent relationship with fossil fuel and their boundless appetite for centralism, I do think they're on the whole well meaning.

But they're dull, and they're timid. They do not want to rock the boat, and, as I've argued before, I believe the lost their longed for referendum because of it. I hope that they have the courage to take on the serried ranks of the landed elite, but I fear that, with (to use their own choice of phrase) no-one to hold their feet to the fire, they will not.

The tactical question is this: when do we hold their feet to the fire? Do we do it at once, in order to lend them fortitude in their disputations, or do we wait until they have strained mightily and produced a gnat? But the strategic question is, how do we hold their feet to the fire?

The Levellers of Galloway cast down the dykes which created the enclosures, and they are heroes of mine. The Levellers of the New Model Army, seventy five years earlier, declared for universal suffrage and equality before the law, and they too are heroes of mine. But far out on the left beyond the mainstream of the English Levellers was the great hero of all Britain's Anarchists, Gerrard Winstanley, and his little band of True Levellers upon St George's Hill. It is from them I believe we must take inspiration:
“... we are resolved to be cheated no longer, nor to be held under the slavish fear of you no longer, seeing the Earth was made for us as well as for you. And if the Common Land belong to us who are the poor oppressed, surely the woods that grow upon the Commons belong to us likewise. Therefore we are resolved to try the uttermost in the light of Reason to know whether we shall be Free-men or Slaves. If we lie still and let you steal away our birthrights, we perish; and if we petition, we perish also, though we have paid taxes, given free-quarter, and have ventured our lives to preserve the Nation’s freedom as much as you, and therefore, by the Law of 92 Contract with you, freedom in the land is our portion as well as yours, equal with you. And if we strive for Freedom, and your murdering, governing Laws destroy us, we can but perish. 
“Therefore we require and we resolve to take both Common Land and Common Woods to be a livelihood for us, and look upon you as equal with us, not above us, knowing very well that England, the Land of our Nativity, is to be a Common Treasury of Livelihood to all, without respect of persons. 
“So then, we declare unto you that do intend to cut our Common Woods and Trees, that you shall not do it, unless it be for a stock for us, and we to know of it by a public declaration abroad, that the poor oppressed, who live thereabouts, may take it and employ it for their public use: Therefore take notice, we have demanded it in the name of the Commons of England, and of all the Nations of the world, it being the righteous freedom of the Creation.”
And then, of course, there's the Wobbly Man himself, Woodie Guthrie, who sang into the darkness of the second world war:
This land is your land, this land is my land
From California to the New York Island,
From the Redwood Forest, to the Gulf stream waters,
This land was made for you and me.
Winstanley was, of course, as he repeatedly claims, English. Guthrie, as his lines make clear, American. There's nothing particularly Scottish about the observation that the land is the birthright of us all, but is everywhere stolen by the elites. Land reform is an issue which unites the common people of every nation, and, thus far, of every age. But we are Scots, and Scotland is our theatre: it is the stage upon which we must act.

If our elected government will not give back to us the land of Scotland, then we must take it: we must, like Winstanley and his True Levellers, occupy it.

There are two ways we could do this. We could pitch up with a bunch of tents somewhere high profile - Holyrood Park outside Parliament, for example, while they're debating the bill. We could organise that quickly. It's a tactical response, a public gesture, which risks little more than a few arrests, a few fines, a caution or two. It's doable.

Or we could actually settle somewhere, not as a symbolic action but with the intent of hanging on, of creating a new permanent community out of some laird's grouse moor or deer forest. Scotland - both highland and lowland - is littered with abandoned clachans and fermtouns - places where folk have lived, and could again. That's not something we could do tactically. That's a strategic play, for spring of 2016 at earliest. To break ground that has lain fallow for generations, to create a tilth in which a crop can be grown, is hard work which must be started early in the Spring. To erect dwellings sturdy enough to be comfortable through the winter, to lay in fuel against that winter, take time.

It would also take a considerable amount of money, but not beyond the possibility of crowdfunding. We would need a tractor and some implements, some prefabricated dwellings, some cattle and hens, a polytunnel, a lot of hand tools. We'd need upwards of a dozen folk, all of whom would have to be hardy and most of whom would have to have experience in building and maintenance and forestry and small boat work and horticulture and animal husbandry and social process.

It would be tough - crofting is, at the best of times, even without the continuous threat of eviction. It would be tougher still if we chose an island site, although that would have the advantage of making eviction more difficult. It's probable that it would end with eviction, after a year or two, unless we could build a great wave of public support behind it. It could easily end with fines and possibly prison sentences. But all this is doable. Furthermore, it continues a good old Scots tradition: on South Uist, for example, in 1909; in Skye in 1928; and in other places too (I've left my precious copy of The Poor Had No Lawyers at home, so cannot check at this moment).

This too is doable.

Who's up for it?

Wednesday 25 February 2015

Voice acting considered harmful

The Witcher: Conversation with Kalkstein
Long, long, time ago, I can still remember when... we played (and wrote) adventure games where the user typed at a command line, and the system printed back at them. A Read-Eval-Print loop in the classic Lisp sense, and I wrote my adventure games in Lisp. I used the same opportunistic parser whether the developer was building the game
Create a new room north of here called dungeon-3
the player was playing the game
Pick up the rusty sword and go north
or the player was talking to a non-player character
Say to the wizard 'can you tell me the way to the castle'
Of course, the parser didn't 'understand' English. It worked on trees of words, in which terminal nodes were actions and branching nodes were key words, and it had the property that any word it didn't recognise at that point in sentence was a noise word and could be ignored. A few special hacks (such as 'the', 'a', or 'an' was an indicator that what came next was probably a noun phrase, and thus that if there was more than one sword in the player's immediate environment the one that was wanted was the one tagged with the adjective 'rusty'), and you ended up with a parser that most of the time convincingly interpreted most of what the player threw at it.

Text adventures fell into desuetude partly because they weren't graphic, but mainly because people didn't find typing natural, or became dissatisfied with the repertoire of their parsers. Trying to find exactly the right combination tokens to persuade the game to carry out some simple action is not 'fun', it's just frustrating, and it turned people off. Which is a shame because just at the time when people were abandoning text adventures we were beginning to have command parsers which were actually pretty good. Mine, I think, were good - you could have a pretty natural conversation with them, and in 'building' mode, when it hit a 'sorry I don't understand' point, it allowed you to input a path of keywords and a Lisp function so that in future it would understand.

So much, so Eliza.

Modern role-playing games - the evolutionary successors of those high and far off text adventures - don't have text input. Instead, at each stage in a conversation, the user is offered a choice of three or four canned responses, and can pick one; very often what the player's character actually says then differs from the text the user has chosen, often with differences of nuance which the user feels (s)he didn't intend. And the non-player-character's response is similarly canned. Indeed, the vast majority of non-player characters in most games have a 'repertoire', if one may call it that, of only one sentence. Others will have one shallow conversational tree, addressing one minor quest or plot-point.

If you want to talk to them about anything else - well, you just can't.

Only a very few key non-player characters will have a large repertoire of conversational trees, relevant to all parts of the plot. And even those trees are not deep. You soon exhaust them; the characters' ability to simulate real agency just isn't there.

I first wrote about the limiting effects of voice acting in my review of the original Witcher game, back in 2008; things haven't got better.

On phones: speaking

In my pocket I carry a phone. It's not big: 127 x 64.9 x 8.6mm. A small thing.

When I first used Android phones for navigation, I used to delight in their pronunciation of Scots placenames - pronouncing them phonetically, as spelled, and as though their spelling were modern English. What's delightful about Scots placenames is that they are linguistically and orthographically so varied - their components may be Brythonic, Goidaelic, Anglian, Norn, French, English, or even Latin; and very frequently they combine elements of more than one language (Benlaw Hill, anyone? Derrywoodwachy?).

Yes, gentle reader, this does seem a long way from game design; be patient, I'm getting there. But I'm going to digress even further for first...

There have been orthographic changes, and pronunciation changes consequent on orthographic changes. For example, medieval Scots used the letter Yogh (ȝ), which isn't present in the English alphabet. So when Edinburgh printers in the early modern period bought type for their printing presses from England, there was no Yogh in the font. So they substituted Zed. So we get names like Dalȝiel, Kirkgunȝeon, Menȝies, Cockenȝie. How do you pronounce them?

The letter that looks like a 'z' is pronounced rather like a 'y'; so
  • Deeyell
  • Kirkgunyeon
  • Mingis
and... drumroll...
  • Cockenzie.
What happened?

Well, Dalȝiel and Menȝies are personal names, and people are protective of their own names. Kirkgunȝeon is a small, unimportant place, and all the locals know how it is pronounced. Scots folk, are, after all, used to Scots orthography and its peculiarities. So those names haven't changed.

But at Cockenȝie, another small, unimportant place, a nuclear power station was built. The nuclear power station was built by people (mostly) from England, who didn't know about Yogh or the peculiarities of Scots orthography - and were possibly too arrogant to care. So they called it 'Cockenzie'. And as there were so many more of them and they had so much higher status than the locals, their name stuck, and nowadays even local people mostly say 'Cockenzie', as though it were spelled with a Zed. Because, of course, it is spelled with a Zed. Because, as any British schoolchild knows, there's no Yogh in the alphabet.

Except, of course, when there is.

Another more interesting example of the same thing is 'Kirkcudbright'. It's a town built around the kirk (church) of saint Cuthbert. So how does it come to have a 'd' in it? And why is it pronounced 'Kirkoobry'? Well, the venerable Cuthbert pronounced his name in a way which would be represented in modern English as 'Coothbrecht', but he spelled it 'Cuðbrecht'. See that 'ð'? That's not a 'd', it's an Eth. Because Cuðbrecht was Anglian, and the Anglian alphabet had Eth; it's pronounced as a soft 'th', and Icelandic still has it (as well as Thorn, þ, a hard 'th' sound). Medieval scribes didn't know about Eth, so in copying out ð they wrote the more familiar d. The local people, however, mostly couldn't read, so the pronunciation of the name didn't change with the change in spelling (although the pronunciation, too, has drifted a little with time).

So, in brief, pronouncing Scots placenames is hard, and there are a lot of curious rules, and consequently it's not surprising that five years ago, listening to Android's pronunciation of Scots placenames was really funny.

But what's really curious is that now it isn't. Now, it rarely makes a mistake. Now, Android can do text to speech on unusual and perverse orthography, and get it right better than 95% of the time - and manage a reasonably natural speaking voice while doing so. On a small, low power machine which fits in my pocket.

On phones: listening

But navigation is not all I can do with my phone. I can also dictate. By which I don't mean I can make a voice recording, play it back later and type what I hear, although, of course, I can. I mean I can dictate, for example, an email, and see it in text on my phone before I send it. It quickly learned my peculiarities of diction, and it now needs very little correction. On a small, low power machine which fits in my pocket.

And breathe

Right, so where am I going with all this? Well, we interact with modern computer role playing games through very restricted, entirely scripted dialogues. Why do we do so? Why, on our modern machines with huge amounts of store, do our non-player characters - and worse still, our player character, our own avatar - have such restricted repertoires?

Because they are voice acted. Don't get me wrong, voice acting makes a game far more engaging. But for voice acting to work, the people doing the acting have to know not only the full range of sentences that their character is going to speak, but also roughly how they feel (angry? sad? excited?) when they say it. Ten years ago, voice acting was probably the only way you could have got this immediacy into games, because ten years ago, text-to-speech systems were pretty crude - think of Stephen Hawking's voice synthesiser. But now, Edinburgh University's open source synthesiser is pretty good, and comes with twenty-four voices (and seeing it's open source, you can of course add your own). Speech to text was probably better ten years ago - think of Dragon Naturally Speaking - but it was proprietary software, and used a fair proportion of a machine's horsepower. Now there's (among others) Carnegie Mellon's open source Sphinx engine, which can quickly adapt to your voice.

So, we have text-to-speech engines which can generate from samples of many different voices, and speech to text engines which can easily be tuned to your particular voice. There's even a program called Voice Attack, built on top of Microsoft's proprietary speech to text engine, which already allows you to control games with speech. Where does that take us?

Well, we already know how to make sophisticated natural language parsers for text, given moderately limited domains - we don't need full natural language comprehension here.

You may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist

There are things one needs to know in a game world. For example: I need a sword, where's the nearest swordsmith? In a real quasi-medieval world, certainly every soldier would be able to tell you, and everyone from the swordsmith's town or village. Very celebrated swordsmiths would be known more widely.

And the thing is, the game engine knows where the nearest swordsmith is. It knows what potion will heal what wound, and what herbs and what tincture to use to make it. It knows which meats are good to eat, and which inns have rooms free. It knows good campsites. It knows where there be dragons. It knows where the treasure is hid. It knows - as far as the game and its plot are concerned - everything.

So to make an in-game Siri - an omniscient companion you could ask anything of - would be easy. Trivial. It also wouldn't add verisimilitude to the game. But to model which non-player characters know what is not that much harder. Local people know what's where in their locality. Merchants know the prices in nearby markets. They, and minstrels, know the game-world's news - major events that affect the plot. Apothecaries, alchemists and witches know the properties of herbs and minerals.

And to model which non-player characters are friendly, and willing to answer your every question; which neutral or busy, and liable to answer tersely; and which actively hostile, and likely, if they answer at all, to deliberately mislead - that's not very much harder.

I'm not arguing that voice acting, and scripted dialogue trees, should be done away with altogether. They still have a use, as cutscenes do, to advance plot. And I'm not suggesting that we use voice to control the player characters movements and actions - I'm not not suggesting that we should say 'run north; attack the troll with the rusty sword'. Keyboards and mice may be awkward ways to control action, but they're better than that. Bur I am suggesting that one should be able to talk to any (supposedly sentient) character in the game, and have them talk reasonably sensibly back. As one can already do physically in wandering an open world, a full voice interaction system would allow one to go off piste - to leave the limited, constrained pre-scripted interaction of the voice-acted dialogue tree. And that has got to make our worlds, and our interactions with them, richer, more surprising, more engaging.

A hybrid system needn't be hard to achieve, needn't be jarring in use. You can record the phonemes of your voice actor's voice, so that the same character will have roughly the same voice - the same timbre, the same vowel sounds, the same characteristics of  pronunciation - whether in a voice acted dialogue or in a generated one.

We don't need to let voice acting limit the repertoires of our characters any more. And we shouldn't.

Tuesday 27 January 2015

Response to the Government's consultation anent land reform


Simon Brooke
Standingstone Farm


Nae dykes stood when this land was new
An when enclosit for the few
On ilka barn the red cock crew
The new big't dykes we overthrew
I tell ye, swear ye, this is true
And though thae dykes are raised anew
As we did then sae we can do
It's time tae rise as levellers again.

1. Scotland did not emerge from the ice with title deeds attached, nor has any square inch of Scotland passed down peacefully within the family from generation to generation from its original settlers. On the contrary, all land in Scotland has changed hands by murder, theft, extortion or deceit, most of it many times. There is no land-holding in Scotland now which is not based at some remove on malfeasance. Property rights have been arrogated by force, or handed out by authorities with greater or less legitimacy so to do as suited their needs over the sweep of historical time.

2. In any case, these dispositions of land do not serve modern Scotland well. However those who now own land came to own land, assigning the management and benefits of a scarce and vital resource to individuals on the basis of their heredity is neither  a just nor a rational policy, and should not in the modern age be a tolerable one. If we seek to build a just and equal society in Scotland, the inheritance of significant areas of land must cease.

3. I am not someone who would seriously propose hanging the lairds from the lamp-posts, but if we do not address the accelerating concentration of wealth and power in society, of which the concentration of land holding is a significant aspect, ultimately violence and disorder must ensue. The seeds of the French Revolution, so we are told, were in taxing the poor to subsidise the rich; and yet that is exactly what we are doing in Scotland today.

4. Consequently it is essential that we take dramatic action now to reverse this concentration, to break up the very large land holdings, to settle more people on the land with good security of tenure, and to take a very significant proportion of Scotland's land, especially our uplands, into common ownership.

5. The default state of land in Scotland in future must not be that it is property, but that it is common.

The Queen sits in far London toon
(Dunfermline's lang syne tummelt doon)
Yet owns the pairks for miles aroon
Her cronies, tae, in hose and shoen
Haud lands fae here tae Campbelltown
An siller, aye, round as the moon
That's taen fae ilka honest loon
Its time tae rise as levellers again

Very large holdings

6. Fewer than 1000 individuals own 60% of all the land in Scotland. This represents a small number of very large estates, managed, generally speaking, with no thought whatever to the common weal.

7. When we consider large private land-holdings in Scotland which are arguably in the public interest, Grangemouth petrochemical works is the largest at some 700 hectares in total extent. Edinburgh and Glasgow airports are each smaller. Clearly, both the Grangemouth works and our large airports are significantly profitable and could bear a burden of taxation without endangering their viability.

Birthright: land area per head

8. Scotland has a land area of 78,000 square kilometres and a population of five million, which equates to 67 people per square kilometre or one and a half hectares per person. In natural justice it seems hard to assert that one person has more right to the enjoyment of the land than any other. Yet Richard Walter John Montagu Douglas Scott1 monopolises 111,369 hectares, arrogates the birthright of 74,000 Scots. The landed lobby complain that redistribution of land would be 'theft' which, they claim, would violate their 'right to property'. But the theft has already taken place, and time does not give good title to the proceeds of crime. However, as I shall argue below, redistribution can be achieved not by confiscation nor by compulsory purchase, but by the simple processes of ordinary taxation. Land which the owners voluntarily vacate because the burden of taxation is too onerous is not stolen, it is given up – or, to speak more honestly, returned to its rightful state.

9. In any case, however redistribution is achieved, achieved it must be. As this  graph shows, 1% of the population own more property by value than the other 99% put together. A community built on such gross inequity cannot stand.

10. I am grateful for the Land Reform Review Group's proposal for a fixed upper limit on private land holdings. If we were to take, as an example, an upper limit of 1,000 hectares – four square miles – and limit each of the big estates to this, we would release enough land to create quarter of a million new crofts.
Ilk' pauper pays their Vee Aye Tee
On aa they need tae live or dee
Fae whilk the lairds aa dip their fee
Their 'agriculture subsidy'
On land they lang syne stole fae ye
Land that they haud, whit's mair, scott free
Sall we bide douce, an let this be?
It's time tae rise as levellers again
11. However, I feel that very large holdings are best dealt with by fiscal means. If landowners are required to sell or surrender lands exceeding a fixed maximum area, I fear we might be bogged down in long running, complex and expensive litigation. Consequently I propose a tax, possibly in addition to a land value tax, payable on all private holdings of land but which scales exponentially with the total area of all holdings with common beneficial ownership.

The exponential land tax

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

13. For example, with a constant of 40 pence and an exponent of 1.07, you get this pattern:


Annual tax liability

Average croft:


Average farm:

£ 2,527.60

Glasgow Airport:

£ 24,231.17

Edinburgh Airport:

£ 43,991.94

Grangemouth Refinery:

£ 140,263.37

Thousand hectares:

£ 293,619.00

Ten thousand hectares:

£ 34,529,389.03

Countess of Sutherland:

£ 408,831,245.15

Duke of Westminster:

£ 1,133,132,260.20

Duke of Atholl:

£ 1,346,812,248.20

Duke of Buccleuch:

£ 4,849,562,627.23

14. As you can see from the table, based on these values for c and e, the tax due on the Grangemouth petrochemical works, or on the airport, would not be not onerous as a proportion of the business revenue. The tax on the Duke of Buccleuch would be unsustainable, even for him. Yet this is the same tax, levied under the same simple rules, on each holding.

15. As a detail to this, the exponential tax might possibly be levied only on land that was heritable; that is to say, a landowner, being a natural person, might elect not to pay the exponential tax. The rationale for this is that it is not really the ownership of land which causes the greatest social cost: it is the locking in of ownership to particular privileged families, persisting through time.

16. Under this revised proposal, if the landowner1 did elect not to pay the exponential tax, then on his or her death the land would revert to common; they would have, in effect, a liferent only. Or an owner being a natural person might elect to pay the exponential tax only on a specified portion of their holding, in which case that portion would be heritable and the remainder would revert to common on their death.

17. Obviously an entity not being a natural person could not elect not to pay the exponential tax as such entities do not have limited natural lifespans; obviously also, a landowner, being a natural person, who had elected for a period not to pay the tax could not start paying the tax and immediately regain the benefit of heritability.

18. This proposal does not mean turning distressed gentlefolk out of their castles and their mansions to wander destitute upon the highroad; on the contrary, it leaves them with amounts of wealth which are to their fellow citizens unimaginable. But it does mean that within one generation, fully half the land of Scotland would revert to common, available to local communities to employ as they see fit for the common benefit of the land, the community and its people.

House prices and the local economy

19. Much has been made of the depopulation and social disruption that has afflicted the 'crofting areas' - the Highlands and Islands. I do not wish to minimise that in the least. But depopulation and social disruption has affected areas of Galloway on an equally devastating scale. My home village of Auchencairn had, in the 1880 census, around 2400 inhabitants; it now has 180. That raw figure sounds devastating, and it is; but the truth is worse.

20. Of the eighty or so stone built houses which make up the core of the village, only two are now occupied by people born in the village, and those people are in their eighties. No more than six houses on Main Street are occupied by people of working age. There's a reason for that. The price of even a modest house is now of the order of two hundred thousand pounds, and local wages are depressed: the average working wage in the region is £20,800. So it simply isn't possible for people earning their living in the local economy to buy a house.

21. The reason for this is that people retiring from the cities, with the proceeds of selling an urban house, can outbid local people, and have done so. Most of these people are resident - only about 10% of houses stand empty - and many of them make a positive contribution to the community. But nevertheless their interests are different from the interests of people who need to earn a living in the local economy, and that does skew communal decision making away from economic development.

22. Furthermore, with the local private housing monopolised by incomers, what 'native' - second or third generation, or more - villagers remain are corralled into a bantustan of 'social housing' on the other side of the burn, leading to a community divided between white settlers in the increasingly gentrified village and natives in the social housing. This is not a good thing.

23. And finally, it's even worse than that. The people of my generation born in the village who remain in the village are the children of farmers who inherited the family farm, and those families which have subsisted largely on social benefits, and who therefore qualify for social housing. There's virtually no-one in between. Everyone else went away to university and never came back. There are no jobs for them, and there is no housing they can afford.

24. I'm painting a bleak picture. Driving through, you'd see a pretty village, and a vibrant village, with its own newly built, community owned post office, with its recently renovated village hall, with its new community allotments, with its generally well kept and pretty houses. It's true that, by comparison with many other villages in Galloway, Auchencairn is doing well. Nevertheless, my picture is also a true one, and it is a picture of depopulation and social disruption every bit as bad as that experienced in the West Highlands. It's just less visible.

25. Auchencairn, of course, is by no means unique. In villages throughout remote rural Scotland this pattern is repeated. A second clearance is being perpetrated; local people with real knowledge of and investment in the locality and its landscape are being progressively driven out, to be replaced by a population of incomers who, because of their age when they arrive, are active and effective members of the community for only a few years before being replaced in their turn with new strangers. These are not social conditions in which community can be sustained.

Second homes and hutting

26. As stated above, Auchencairn does not have a particular problem with second homes, but we all know areas of Scotland that do. The problem of second homes can be even worse for fragile communities than the problem of retirees, since their owners do not have time to put energy into community projects, and buy most or all of their needs in urban centres, where prices are lower.

27. Three strategies could address the second home issue. Firstly, there could be a formal change of use required to convert a dwelling house into a second home. Secondly, there could be sharply increased taxation on dwelling houses left unoccupied for more than 180 days (or some other defined period) of the year. Thirdly, in conjunction with a policy to promote and greatly increase hutting, use of dwelling houses as second homes could simply be banned.

28. A significant promotion of hutting would have the additional benefit that it would make regular access to the countryside and the land available for city dwellers in all income groups, not only the rich.

29. As an ironic footnote to this, Auchencairn did have, from the end of the First World War into the present decade, a colony of huts at Rascarrel, enjoyed by families primarily from Dumfries. They have, however, all been evicted by a landowner eager to make better profits from holiday chalets.

Related issues

30. Land is a core issue, one which cannot easily be separated out from a number of other issues which the Scottish nation must address urgently. These critically include:

  • Taxation
  • Local governance, and the powers and competences of local authorities
  • Planning and housing
  • Agriculture, fisheries and forestry
  • Energy
While these issues are outside the narrow scope of this particular consultation, I shall need to make reference to them in some of my responses.

31. I endorse and commend to you the submission of the Birnam Workshop.

The Consultation Questions

Q. 4. Do you agree that a Scottish Land Reform Commission would help ensure Scotland continues to make progress on land reform and has the ability to respond to emergent issues?

32. Land Reform will need to be a continuous process in Scotland for at least the foreseeable future, and the Government will need some body to oversee this process and to develop policy.

Q. 6. Do you have any thoughts on the structure, type or remit of any Scottish Land Reform Commission?

33. The Scottish Land Commission will be a prime target for elite capture. The rural 'great and good' – the great landowners and their agents and toadies – are bound to seek places on it, and it must be jealously guarded against them. A personal interest in private ownership of land should be a clear disqualification from appointment to such a commission.

Q. 7. Do you agree that restricting the type of legal entities that can, in future, take ownership or a long lease over land in Scotland would help improve the transparency and accountability of land ownership in Scotland?

34. Transparency of beneficial ownership is vital. It's (obviously) vital to any scheme of tax which is progressive with respect to the area held. It's also vital to communities seeking to discover who they have to negotiate with in order to achieve some change in local land management. However, such a change must affect current owners as much as incoming owners.

35. Where it cannot be shown who the beneficial owners of land are, for the purposes of a progressive tax all such land must be taxed as though it comprised one estate belonging to one beneficial owner, because it cannot be shown that this is not so. Under progressive tax this will automatically produce a very much higher tax burden on land whose ownership is obfuscated5, strongly motivating owners to deobfuscate ownership.

Q. 8. Do you agree that in future land should only be owned (or a long lease taken over land) by individuals or by a legal entity formed in accordance with the law of a Member State of the EU?

36. If it is the case that the beneficial ownership of every legal entity registered in the EU is a matter of public record, then this condition would satisfy my concern for transparency of ownership.

Q. 9. What do you think the advantages or disadvantages of any restriction would be?

37. I can see no disadvantages whatever.

Q. 10. How should any restriction operate and be enforced, and what consequences might follow if the restriction is breached?
38. There should be some specified and limited time period – perhaps six months – between the date the State notifies the registered owner of irregularities in their registration, and the forfeiture of title in the land. If the irregularities were corrected within that period, the title would not be forfeit. Otherwise the land must revert to common. Once it has reverted to common, there should be no legal mechanism for the former owners to recover it, or to be compensated for its loss.

Q. 11. Do you agree that better co-ordination of information on land, its value and ownership would lead to better decision making for both the private and public sectors?

39. Clearly so.

Q. 12. Do you hold data you could share or is there any data you would wish to access?

40. Apart from my own holding, I do not hold any. I certainly wish to be able to access data about landholdings in the Stewartry in particular, and across Scotland in general.

Q. 13. What do you think the advantages or disadvantages of wider and more flexible sharing of land information would be and do you have any recommendations about how this can best be achieved?

41. I think that a combination of crowd-sourcing based on (for example) the field boundary dataset, in concert with a public web API which allowed links to be made to official records, would enable the state to make use of local knowledge through citizen activism. Clearly crowd sourced knowledge could not be treated as authoritative in itself, but would form a basis for a much richer dataset than could be provided from official sources alone.

42. Ideally the data model would be sufficiently open to support mapping of such things as biodiversity, land management, climate record, public access and other forms of information as well as ownership and planning designation.

43. The Open Street Map and Geograph projects provide models of how crowd-sourcing might work.

Q. 14. Do you agree that there should be powers given to Scottish Ministers or another public body to direct private landowners to take action to overcome barriers to sustainable development in an area?

44. It is extremely tendentious to claim that 'Landowners are instrumental in promoting sustainable local development and supporting communities.' In most areas the opposite is the case.

45. In general and with a very few honourable exceptions, large private landowners are by their very existence barriers to sustainable development.

46. The appropriate level of public authority to intervene is not in the first instance ministers. Land issues are local issues, and it is communities who should be empowered to intervene and direct. Clearly, mechanisms must be put in place to resolve disputes between communities and landowners, but the presumption must be that community interest should always takes precedence over private interest.

Q. 17. Do you agree that public sector bodies, such as Forestry Commission Scotland, should be able to engage in a wider range of management activities in order to promote a more integrated range of social, economic and environmental outcomes?

47. Generally I think Forestry Commission land should be released as common and passed into the care of local communities, as local communities gain the self confidence to wish to take this on. As a founder trustee of Southwest Community Woodlands Trust I appreciate both the need for very long term management and stewardship of woodland and the need for a strategic timber resource; consequently I understand the need for communities to continue to be supported by expert advice and assistance from public service foresters. However it does not seem to me that there is any need either for the ownership of the land to be centralised, or for the final authority for management decisions to be outside the local community.

Q. 20. Do you think a trustee of a charity should be required to engage with the local community before taking a decision on the management, use or transfer of land under the charity's control?

48. I have very grave doubts as to whether there is any 'charitable purpose' whatever in owning land, with the possible exception of conserving ancient monuments. Obviously charities may need to own land to provide for their offices, and some types of charity may need to own land for other buildings. But where environmental charities are concerned, it seems to me greatly better that the land should be common and should be managed by the community as common, with the charity providing advice and incentives to influence that management in the direction that it would prefer.

Q. 21. What do you think the advantages or disadvantages would be?

49. So long as charities own and manage land, they will continue to do so to the detriment of the community and of the public interest.

Q. 22. How should "community" be defined?

50. Community councils are much maligned. But we have a clear concept of a community council area, normally based on a settlement or a subdivision of a settlement and its surrounding lands. It seems to me that for the purposes of a legislative framework, the collectivity of people normally resident in such an area, possibly considered together with those people with strong associations with the area not currently resident, provide as good a proxy for community as we're likely to get.

51. Under present legislative arrangements, the community council is effectively the collective voice of such a community. As community councils are given more competences and more discretionary budget, elections will become better contested and the quality of people elected will tend to improve. Although there will always and inevitably be some community councils which are not providing the best possible community leadership and service, democratic organisation is always to be preferred to a quangocracy of the unelected sio-disant great and good.

52. Under the principle of subsidiarity, community councils are generally the appropriate tier of government to consider detailed local land issues.

53. It's worth bearing in mind that in many rural areas there are people with strong and long-standing associations with a locality who are not normally resident. These people include, for example, people of local descent who have moved away for education or employment; hutters and others with a long-term relationship with the area as visitors, including the homeless, yacht owners, or caravanners; and, in some areas particularly, climbers and other mountain sports enthusiasts, anglers, cyclists or canoe users. Some mechanism is needed to allow non-residents to register their long term commitment to and interest in a particular locality, and to have some influence over the community council, perhaps a vote in community council elections. But such non-resident registration would have to be limited – perhaps an individual might register such an interest with only one locality in addition to their place of normal residence – and should, I feel, involve some cost.

Q. 23. What remedies should be available should a trustee of a charity fail to engage appropriately with the local community?

54. I've said above I'm not persuaded there's a public interest in charities owning land. However, where a charity does own land (and I have been a trustee of a charity that does), if it acts against the expressed will of the local community then, if the dispute cannot be resolved, I think either the land should revert to common or the charitable status should be revoked.

Q. 24. Should the current business rate exemptions for shootings and deer forests be ended?

55. Second only to housing Trident missiles, sporting estates are the most obscene misuse of Scotland's land. While I believe a wholesale review of land taxation is urgent, in the interim business rates would be better than nothing. But they would represent a very small amount of revenue in respect of a great deal of territory whose current use is manifestly contrary to the public interest.

Q. 25. What do you think the advantages would be?

56. A very small benefit to the public purse.

Q. 26. What do you think the disadvantages would be?

57. It might be used as an excuse to delay the much needed general review of land taxation.

Q. 27. Do you agree that the need for court approval for disposals or changes of use of common good property, where this currently exists, should be removed?

58. No, I don't, quite the contrary. Local Authorities across Scotland are disposing of or building on common good land to make up for temporary shortfalls in their budgets, and this cannot continue. There should be extremely strong safeguards against further disposals or changes of use of common good land.

Q. 28. If removed, what should take the place of court approval?

59. A plebiscite of the local population might be an alternative, subject to a minimum turnout guard.

Q. 29. Should there be a new legal definition of common good?

60. I'm not qualified to comment on this.

Q. 30. What might any new legal definition of common good look like?

61. I'm not qualified to comment on this.

Q. 31. Do you have any other comments?

62. There is a distinction between common good land and common land. I would like to see a public policy commitment to having at least 50% of Scotland's land area common by 2050. I would like to see the total area of common good land also increasing rather than decreasing.

Q. 32. Do you agree that the Scottish Government should take forward some of the recommendations of the Agricultural Holdings Legislation Review Group within the proposed Land Reform Bill?

63. Scotland's tenant farmers are among the most exploited and oppressed groups in western Europe. Such legal protections as they have are minimal, and many live in unfit habitations under constant insecurity and bullying. Tenant farms are very often marginally profitable, with virtually all the surplus being gouged by the landowner. We hear regularly of tenant farmers being sanctioned when they make any public protest against their conditions.

64. Under these circumstances it is ridiculous to suppose that tenant farmers, unsupported, could make adequate representations to parliament to make their voice heard, against the extremely well funded public relations and lobbying machine that is Scottish Land and Estates.

65. It is vital in order to protect the interests of tenant farmers that reforms of such protections as they have are passed within the body of the Land Reform bill, in order that they may have the support of a wider activist body.

Q. 35. Do you agree that further deer management regulation measures should be introduced to be available in the event that the present arrangements are assessed as not protecting the public interest?

66. I'm not aware of anywhere in Scotland where the present arrangements adequately protect the public interest.

67. The issue of the overpopulation of grazing and browsing animals on Scotland's uplands needs to be addressed urgently and seriously, since erosion of topsoil is happening at an unsustainable rate and problems of storm water runoff are greatly aggravated by the lack of forest cover. Flooding and landslips have become pervasive problems in many parts of Scotland at huge cost to the public purse, while open scree is growing in many areas leading to instability of hillsides.

68. It needs to be remembered that the 'natural' state of almost all of Scotland is forest. There are productive forests in Norway at higher altitude than the peak of Ben Nevis. While heather is a native species, large open heather moorlands are not natural. They are man-made wet deserts, with extremely impoverished ecosytems. Where grazing pressure is taken off, at all altitudes at least scrub and in most places forest will make a natural recovery.

69. The problem is not only deer. Grouse also contribute, as do sheep, and in some areas wild goats. There are sustainable levels of population for all of these species; all are present at sustainable levels in Scandinavian boreal forests, as are elk, a species once native to Scotland. However, without climax predators there is no natural mechanism here for maintaining sustainable populations.

70. We should reintroduce Scotland's native climax predators: lynx and wolf most urgently.

71. While predator populations are re-establishing, either landowners must be required to cull browsing and grazing species to levels at which forest cover can regenerate, or else the State must intervene directly and cull.

Q. 36. What do you think the advantages would be?

72. People would be able to drive over the Rest and be Thankful in winter. The burghers of Elgin would not be flooded out of their homes. Tourism would increase.

Q. 37. What do you think the disadvantages would be?

73. None.

Q. 38. At present, section 18 of the Land Reform (Scotland) 2003 Act is silent on the issue of resolving objections to a core path plan consultation. Do you agree that access authorities should be required, in the interests of transparency, to conduct a further limited consultation about proposed changes arising from objections?

74. The Land Reform Act 2003, where enforced, is an admirable piece of legislation which has been of great benefit to everyone in Scotland. However, the problem is that it has not been sufficiently enforced, and some landowners still seek to dissuade or restrict access to their land, and public bodies do not do enough to enforce access rights.

75. The behaviour of the Loch Lomond National Park Authority in this regard is particularly disappointing.

Q. 39. Do you agree that section 20 of the 2003 Act should be clarified so that Ministerial direction is not required when an access authority initiates a core path plan review?

76. I agree that section 20 of the 2003 Act should be clarified so that Ministerial direction is not required when an access authority initiates a core path plan review. Once again, land issues are local issues. The appropriate level of public authority to act  is the community council, or, for longer distance paths, the local authority.

Q. 40. Do you think that the process for a minor amendment to core path plan (as set out in section 20 of the 2003 Act) should be simplified to make it less onerous than that for a full review of a core path plan?

77. This seems sensible.


We Scots were ae a motley band
Cam fae ilk airt intil this strand
But Scotland. noo, is whaur we'll stand.
Sall 'indy' be oor sole demand
While six hunner haud half the land
An aa the siller in their haund?
Aye right. That's no whit we hae planned!
It's time tae rise, it's time tae rise, it's time tae rise, it's time tae rise
We're here tae rise as levellers again!
78. It is not acceptable in the twenty-first century that we should perpetuate inherited privilege through land-holding. It cannot be acceptable that changes in the management of land are made without the consent and involvement of the people of the locality. Land cannot, ultimately, be allowed to be a private resource. It belongs, inalienably, to everyone or to no-one.

79. If we are to create a Scotland where every person is equal, a socially just Scotland that is at peace with itself and can hold its head up among the community of nations, then everyone must have equal access to the land.

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