Thursday 11 February 2016

Jim Gave The Land To The Landlords

Land reform and support for the rights of crofters and tenant farmers has for over a century been a keystone Liberal value; a symbol of what the party has stood for.  "The Land" with its clarion call for reform is the anthem of Liberalism.  Since the days of Gladstone, the party has stood up against landowner vested interests, backed invariably by the Tories.

Until now.  This week in a Scottish Parliament committee on the Land Reform Bill, Jim Hume MSP for the Liberal Democrats voted with the Tories against enhanced protection for tenant farmers.  As Scottish commentator Lesley Riddoch put it, "shameful for the party that introduced land rights for crofters in 1886".

Hume has form, having recently voted against introducing Marine Protection Areas.

But what this serves to emphasise is not only the disastrous decline of the Lib Dems in Scotland and in particular rural Scotland; but the party's total lack of vision and direction.

Since at least the 2014 referendum, the battle of ideas in Scottish politics has been vacated by Labour and the Lib Dems.  Astonishing in a country with a proud history of radicalism, the work of groups like the Liberal Futures group is sadly ignored by too many.  Radical politics is alive and well; but exclusively on the pro-independence side of the divide through groups like Common Weal.  As Riddoch points outthe opportunity even exists for Scotland to deliver the Liberal holy grail of a Land Value Tax; it was one of three options set out by a cross-party commission on local taxation which reported in late 2015, alongside a local income tax.  The Scottish Lib Dems have been silent on the subject.

With only tentative steps taken towards the reform of Scotland's land laws (the land is in the ownership of fewer people than in any country in the developed world) under the Lib-Lab government in Holyrood from 1999-2007, the Nationalists have moved from inertia to strengthening legislation.  It appears this political territory has been entirely ceded by the Lib Dems, in spite of the party's consistently strong support in rural Scotland through the darkest days of the last century and until the recent SNP landslides.

Liberals have since last May's catastrophe talked (though not always acted) about clarifying and defining Liberal values in order to give the Liberal Democrats an identity and detoxify the party from association with hated Tory policies.  In Scotland where the party alienated 45% of the population by identifying itself as 'unionist' and where the Tories are hated even more, learning from past mistakes is at least as important.

Instead - and with the right wing political market crowded and a relatively popular Scottish Tory leader in Ruth Davidson, the mistakes are being compounded and repeated.

The party in Scotland has an opportunity to partially redeem itself in March by voting the right way.  However, the obituary for its abject performance in May's election and possible wipeout could be written now.  It urgently needs to present a coherent picture of what it stands for.


  1. But we are a unionist party? What would you prefer the message to be? A volte face on being part of the Better Together campaign? That makes us look even more duplicitous.

    We're in favour a federal UK, not breaking it up...

  2. Owning 10 acres of grass and hosting our tenant who is in the middle of lambing his tiny flock, I am of course interested in Landlord tenant law (not that I understand much about it.)However having worked as both a farmer and an ecologist I do understand the vital importance of managing land in as small a packet as possible. There are about 2000 species (when micro fauna and flora are included) on every acre of Agricultural land in the UK. This diversity depends on the existence of a great diversity of micro-habitats within farmland that might look uniform to you and I. Anything that makes habitat more uniform, therefore, puts the survival of some species at risk. We need farmland to be managed efficiently because we need the food, but wildlife does not understand human economics, so we must compromise. Huge areas of land run by economically efficient agribusiness, that make themselves look green by ticking lots of boxes, do not support wildlife as well as smaller farms or tenanted land where each unit has a different style of management and therefore supports different species. The managers of smaller units can more easily respond to local market demands by exploiting local habitats in a way that benefits both the species that live in them, and their human customers. And don't forget that it is the micro fauna and flora (including bacteria and viruses) that are the most important actors in the natural nutrient cycles, and carbon capture, on which we increasingly depend. The Scottish Landlord and Tenant system has evolved over a long period for particular reasons. In some places it definitely needs modernising, in others it works fairly well. We should think very carefully about what we want from it, and how that is to be achieved. We neither want huge agribusinesses or hundreds of inefficient tenants, but we do want individual farms, or tenanted estates that work efficiently to provide benefits for all. I do not know whether Hume was right to depart from Liberal policy or not, but our survival depends on getting agriculture and ecology right, and too rigid adherence to historic policies may be damaging. The climate is changing, and flexibility is needed.


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