Tuesday, 22 March 2011

The Free Radical ...

Last Monday lunchtime. Hendersons Salad Bar, Hanover Street, Edinburgh.
I am here to meet a real, live author ... one that writes books an’ that using actual words, some of which exceed my psychological barrier of 10 letters. 
I bought Andy Wightman’s book “Who Owns Scotland” in 1996, when I was still a Land Agent.  It pointed out an injustice of so much of this country being owned by so few of its inhabitants.  As a Land Agent, I acted mainly for land owners and companies with amazing powers of compulsory purchase.  Most of my clients were lovely, good people but there was always a feeling that I was playing for the wrong side.  I worked hard in training, at the end of the day I gave it 110%, without a shadow of a doubt ... but I took their money to help them make more of what they already had ... and there was always a slight guilt to it.  

Andy Wightman - author who knows some big words

Andy seems far more principled.  Injustice seems his defining motivation.  He has been described as Scotland’s leading Land Reform activist. There is a twinkle in his eye when he describes situations where he has publicly pointed out an inequity and an unfairness.  He seems to do this with a clarity that reveals something obviously unjust to those blinded by either the complexity and confusion of the subject matter or burdened by vested interest and extreme passion for their own position.
Anyway, back to the Salad Bar.  Andy orders the biggest “croquet” I have ever seen ... in my mind the rules on croquets centre on the assumption that a proper one can’t be more than 5 cm long ... this one smashes this rule by at least two fold.  I have a big crepe ... (a joke I really enjoyed when I was 8 and still find amusing today).
I had bought Andy’s new book “The Poor had no Lawyers”. I had got to page 42 by Monday and - in a panic, not wanting to appear ignorant - also read half a chapter on subsidy. The book sits in the bathroom where I can read it during my “quiet times” ... I quickly realise I should have had more “quiet times” before I met him.
We talk about inheritance.  There should be a law that land is transfered equally to all children in a family, not just one. Land would then be in the hands of more people and the land monopoly we have would be broken. We talk about Land Value Tax.  This would introduce a basic fairness to taxation and eliminate the excessive values of land and homes - that sees loss-making dairy farms in the west of Scotland selling for over £1 million.  Why should all rural businesses pay business rates other than landowners?  Andy tells of a method of redistribution of land in the Netherlands where a group of owners who feel their land holding is becoming fragmented put their satellite units into a pot and swap them for somewhere nearer ... the fact this would not happen here, says a huge amount about the land culture we live in.
I enjoy our chat ... and my big crepe.  I notice Andy has a freedom in his opinions. He doesn’t mind challenging perceived “wisdom” on land issues and the aggressive negativity that sometimes comes with such a challenge.  Rather he seems to revel in it.  As we leave he talks of some gifted individuals ... who can’t express what they really feel because they are employed by companies with vested interests.  I realise I’m in a privileged position ... as my own boss, I have a certain freedom already ... even amongst the constant craving for cash, it is this overarching freedom that makes it worthwhile. 
Back at the house, I read more of the book.  It has some really interesting stuff in it.  The history of how land was effectively stolen, grabbed or taken.  How tenanted farms represented 69% of holdings in 1940 and 28% of holdings in 2008.  How 20% of the Single Farm Payment in Scotland is recieved by just 2.77% of farmers ... almost a third of the budget being given to just over 5%.  He quotes Winston Churchill and Adam Smith to support his case. 
It makes me think ... I seem to have been buffeted by divergent and very strong opinions all the way through this Nuffield study ... I bend with this wind, listen to everyone and see all the points of view.  Quite often it seems, I don’t have my own voice ... or maybe its having a fear to let it make a noise.  It would be easier if it were black and white ... if people were entirely wrong or entirely right.  Andy appears to use justice as a benchmark and fairness as a gauge ... that’s not a bad start on the long and winding road toward clarity. 


Anonymous said...

Complete freedom to express ones own opinions is the right of angels and now the self-employed!!
I always knew you were an angel, just don't burn your wings by flying too close to the sun.
-A rather philosophical comment following an evening with Fresh Start (the new entrants to farming training group that I've just joined) and two beers - yes ONLY 2 beers!

Moving from philosophy to psychology; the nugget of my evening was a concept called P.A.C. (Parent, Adult, Child)
When we talk to someone, apparently we all talk from one of these ego states. Parent = judgemental, Adult = factual/objective and Child = emotional.

Now then, where's my beer - hic!

martin stepek said...


I read this comment via Andy posting the link on Facebook. I run and co-founded the Scottish Family Business Association, and many of Scotland's land-owners fit the "family business" model. Land division, succession planning, etc is one of the huge emotional issues for such families - a sense of place, belonging to the soil, etc. Primogeniture is another contentious issue.
But Andy's is right, as usual. There is a great long-term benefit in making land-owning families...as indeed other family businesses, pass the ownership on equally to all of the next generation (or to the community, social enterprises, develop trusts etc) maybe with a trust managing the operations, because over the generations the ownership of land in Scotland, whilst still in the hands of a small minority would at least multiply, and through marriage spread way beyond the very small number of land-owning families we have today. Keep up the good work.
Martin Stepek

nevil said...

Why do i always get confused when you quote numbers.

Rona Amiss said...

ha that wasn't actually nevils comment he is much cleverer