Far from being a ‘Mugabe-style grab’, Scotland’s land reform is too timid

Far from being a ‘Mugabe-style grab’, Scotland’s land reform is too timid
The Guardian, by George Monbiot

Tartan Stalinists”, the “Highland Stasi”, “Scottish Nazi party”, the “new Zimbabwe”: surely the corporate press will soon run out of similes? Or at least drop dead through hyperventilation.

No such luck. The mild proposals in the Scottish government’s land reform bill, published last week, provoke such fulminations among the proprietorial classes that they could power the national grid. Much of this fury is caused by the plan to cancel the business rate exemption (granted to the aristocracy by John Major’s government in 1994) for deer-stalking estates, grouse moors and salmon fishing. Talk about a culture of entitlement.


As a result of the Highland clearances, which dragged much of the population off the land destroying their houses and replacing them with sheep ranches or deer and grouse estates, Scotland vies with Brazil for the world’s highest concentration of ownership. (It’s hard to tell which comes first as the ownership of many estates has been kept secret.) One estimate suggests that 432 people own half the country’s private rural land. No other rich nation has so excluded its citizens from their common heritage.


Given these circumstances the bill is, if anything, too timid. It gives local people consultation rights over how land is used, strengthens the ability of communities to buy land, improves the position of tenant farmers, removes the business rate exemption, tries to discover who the owners are, seeks to reduce the ridiculous densities at which deer are maintained for stalking, and creates a land commission to keep the issue alive. That’s all. Not exactly prison camps and mass murder.


To his credit – unlike columnists in the Telegraph and the Mail – David Cameron’s stepfather-in-law, Lord Astor, managed to write an entire article for the Spectator without once mentioning Hitler or Stalin. Instead he described Scotland’s proposals as “a Mugabe-style landgrab”. He owns, among the other properties he was enterprising enough to inherit, the deer-ravaged Tarbert estate on the isle of Jura, run by a trust patriotically registered in the Bahamas.


It seems to me that two things are missing from the bill, besides the machete-swinging mob Lord Astor invokes. While there are new opportunities for families and communities, there is no designation of land for the nation as a whole. There is also little that will alter the ownership pattern where it is most extreme: in the rocky Highland cores, which are likely to be unsuitable for community buyouts. As the Scottish minister Aileen McLeod concedes, “community ownership may not be appropriate for all land: it’s not a panacea”. But perhaps there’s a way in which both issues could be addressed.


Is there a stronger or more inclusive symbol of nationhood than a national park in common ownership? Is there a more powerful sign of intent to make this a nation for all its people, or a better way of restoring income and employment in places where there is little of either?


With the possible exception of the western side of the Cairngorms, there are no national parks in Britain that meet the international definition: places protected mainly for their wildlife and habitats. When the International Union for Conservation of Nature sought to classify Britain’s national parks, of which there are 15, it had to invent a new category. Ours are neither owned by the nation nor set aside for nature. They are, strictly speaking, neither national nor parks.


There are good reasons for this and bad ones. When the parks were designated, many people were living within their boundaries. It’s essential that they can make a living and keep their communities alive. (Unfortunately the industries covering most of the land offer neither possibility: though lavishly subsidised, they still bleed jobs and money.) But on the rare occasions when the private owners are not wrecking the land with sheep, overstocked deer and scorched-earth grouse shoots, the park authorities step in to finish the job.


A representative of the Exmoor National Park Authority recently told me: “We don’t do enough burning on Exmoor.” “Why do you want to burn the land?” I asked. “To keep the heather looking nice.” The authority’s website offered the following justification for this annual act of vandalism: it provides “habitats for wildlife”. For the tiny proportion that can survive such treatment, perhaps, but not for the great majority of species that could live there.


With a few exceptions the ecological management of our existing national parks is irrational, anally retentive and scientifically illiterate. They remain subject to a 19th-century worldview in which the natural world is seen as a garden to be pruned and trimmed rather than as a thriving, living system in which we could escape from the management and control that surrounds us everywhere else.


Scotland, thanks in part to its dismal feudal legacy, has only two national parks, and less land designated than in the other parts of Britain – 7%, while England has 9% and Wales 20%. Is it not time to augment those with new parks, with a different philosophy, whose purpose is to mark the recovery of the nation?


Hidden behind the Astorian dinosaurs, I’ve recently met a number of Scottish estate owners who appear to have accepted the public mood for change: what’s missing is a vehicle that allows them to alter their relationship with the country. What I propose is that the Scottish government sets up a national parks agency that would own land and invite enlightened owners to donate their estates. Their act of generosity would be recognised in perpetuity: no other legacy would last like this. I believe, surprising as this sounds, that quite a few would come forward.


There are good examples elsewhere, such as the land in Wyoming bought by John D Rockefeller Jr and bequeathed to the nation as the Grand Teton national park, and the extraordinary programme of park creation in Chile and Argentina by the clothing magnates Kris and Doug Tompkins, and the network of wealthy people they have recruited.


Where Scotland’s deer stalking and grouse shooting provide possibly the lowest level of employment per square mile to be found in any temperate region in Europe, national parks could generate new jobs within an economy built on wildlife and tourism. They would restore both human populations and the other species that were wiped out by the clearances. They would bring life of all kinds to barren lands. Long live the Highland spring.