Podium: Scotland's shameful land ownership

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From the McEwan lecture, delivered at the Edinburgh Books Festival by the author and campaigner

LAND AND politics have been intimately related since the beginnings of modern society. As Jean-Jacques Rousseau argued in 1754: "The first man who enclosed a piece of ground and found people simple enough to believe him was the real founder of civil society."

In Scotland, as elsewhere, the history of land ownership began with a system of governance based upon the feudal relationship between the monarch and the nobility - a system of land tenure that is still with us today, 900 years later, and is an indication, if ever one were needed, of the resilience of Scotland's land laws and our historic failure, indeed inability, to do anything fundamental about reforming them. Rights over land that began as political rights of civic administration, evolved over time - and under the control of those who possessed them - into full- blown property rights.

This transformation has been carefully and assiduously protected and nurtured by landed interests for many centuries. And it has been this careful definition and assiduous protection that has denied Scotland the kinds of reforms that are enjoyed by our continental European neighbours. And closely associated with politics has been the phenomenon of power - political power, economic power, and cultural and social power.

Power is, of course, a complex phenomenon that manifests itself in a wide range of ways. Despite this complexity it is, however, quite simple in essence; it means the ability or capacity to do something, the ability to act. This ability to act over land has been the fundamental feature of the ownership of land - the ability of some to act and not others.

Indeed, the Scots law of property emphasises rights in property - the right to act - to the complete exclusion of responsibilities. Only in the 20th century have we begun to see significant incursions into these rights by the growth of statute law limiting the ability of landowners to act.

Politics has thus had a long association with the way land is owned and distributed. That does not, however, prevent those who wish to defend the status quo from arguing that interest in land reform is driven by political moves.

But politics as defined in the dictionary is something that is concerned with or relates to the state, to government, to the body politic, to public administration and to policy-making. Politics is thus concerned with civic organisation. And it is the process of politics that has shifted power steadily away from those who traditionally enjoyed it in disproportionate measure. Not only through the reform acts of the 19th century but also through the planning, environmental and tenancy legislation, the balance of power has, quite properly, been steadily shifting from the historically tiny number of people who owned land to the hundreds of thousands more who, as tenants, now enjoy security of tenure or, by virtue of owning their homes, are property owners.

The 19th and early 20th centuries saw radical action on land reform and delivered lasting social and economic progress. After the Second World War, however, despite Labour's commitment to land reform, little has happened.

Labour, to the extent that it gave much thought to the land issue at all over the past 20 years, has right up until recent years remained burdened with the legacy of state socialism and state ownership. In the process it rejected the social democratic model that had emerged on the Continent.

A social democratic property-owning society with strong mutual and co- operative institutions exists right across Scandinavia and Western Europe. The revolutions that swept Europe in the 18th century laid the groundwork for today's rural economy of small-scale proprietors linked together by a strong network of collective institutions that give European social democracy a distinctive and culturally rooted constituency of support.

A land-owning democracy provides a framework in which private property ownership is protected and cherished, where such privileges are widely distributed and where the framework, both legal and fiscal, in which those rights are enjoyed is accountable to the wider public interest.

The development of land-owning democracy is a long-overdue task, but it is one that provides unparalleled opportunities.

From having one of the most primitive systems and patterns of private land ownership in Europe, we could, if we are ambitious enough, move to a situation where we have among the most progressive. And, what is more, we could achieve this within a matter of a generation or so.