Scottish land reform: echoes of Zimbabwe?

Imagine a country with a nationalist government that is proposing land reform. Imagine that a few hundred individuals, many of them ‘foreigners’, own half the country’s private land. Imagine that large swathes of this land was used for sport hunting for a rich elite. Imagine that the government was proposing to enforce proper use of the land for sustainable development through new legislation. Imagine the government through its land reform plans was proposing potential compulsory acquisition to transfer land to community use. Imagine the country’s leader saying that land as a national asset should benefit the majority not just the few. Imagine that the landed elite took umbrage, and shouted loudly at the injustice.

Have you guessed the country? No it’s not Zimbabwe, but Scotland. In June the Scottish government published a land reform bill with proposals for changing the tax benefits landowners had for grouse shooting and deer hunting. The bill proposes that land should be brought under sustainable management, and if it is not, the government could intervene and purchase the land. A fund is to be established for community purchases, and a target of 1m acres under community control is proposed, doubling the current amount. A land commission will oversee the policy and a land registry. The proposals are actually rather constrained – much like Zimbabwe’s were in the 1980s and 1990s. Perfectly reasonable proposals for land holding ceilings, common elsewhere in the world, were not included, for example.

But the outraged reaction has been staggering. The prophets of doom in the right wing press have been calling the proposals a ‘Mugabe style land grab’, the end of game shooting and hunting, a huge injustice, and an attack on a way of life. In the Spectator magazine, Lord Astor, the step-father-in-law of the current UK Prime Minister sounded off in self-righteous, indignant tones:

“Are we estate owners now to be nationalised or made to feel so unwelcome that we have to sell up in a Mugabe-style land grab? It would be a pity, but we are accused of owning too much. Are we really going to have to defend owning so many acres of hill when 500 acres of hill may be only worth the same or even less than one acre of good farmland in the lowlands of Scotland? Is it because we don’t sound Scottish? We should not all have to sound like Rob Roy”.

He recalls how his grandparents arrived, and, “after investing in the estate, improving the crofters’ cottages, reroofing them from turf to slate, they became well liked within the community. They spent summers on Jura, and occasionally visited in winter”.

The patrician tone, and the assumed benefit of large-scale land ownership, is well rehearsed in southern Africa too of course. Lord Astor goes on to explain how his neighbours on Jura are investing in golf courses, water turbines and distilleries to improve the lot of the locals (and presumably keep the estate owners’ bank balances and offshore trusts healthy too). The Duke of Argyle complains to the press about the ‘terrifying idea’ of land reform and that his castle and hunting grounds are at risk of falling into disrepair, like a French chateau. The imperious statements of these landed grandees demonstrate a privileged sense of entitlement; a feeling that massively skewed land ownership is somehow acceptable, no matter what the history of displacement. Sound familiar?

As so often when land reform issues are being debated, history is brushed aside, or just completely ignored. Scottish tenant farmers were removed in large numbers during the Highland Clearances from the second half of the eighteenth and into the nineteenth century to give way to sheep farming. Displaced to crofter settlements and coastal villages, great suffering resulted, and many migrated to the New World. Later the sheep farms were replaced with deer forests and grouse moors, as a new elite, the beneficiaries of the industrial revolution, took over. Relatively few small-scale producers remain in crofting communities in the Highlands; most had to move to the cities or abroad to give way to new forms of production. The estates were very often run by the English gentry; and later also rich elites from the Middle East, even Africa. Bizarre but true, around the time of the Zimbabwe land invasions, a rumour went around that Robert Mugabe owned a Highland estate, and BBC journalists were apparently dispatched check out the (false) story.

No-one of course knows exactly how many people own the land in Scotland, and who owns it. Land ownership remains secret, and there has never been a full, transparent audit. Hiding unequal land ownership is a familiar pattern (again some parallels?), and pressures to impose a full registration to allow for proper taxation and land auditing have been resisted for decades (I wonder why?). Some estimate that 0.025 per cent of the population owns 67 per cent of Scotland’s rural land, and only 432 individuals own half the private land in Scotland, some of it absolutely massive estates. Ten per cent of Scotland is estimated to be owned by just 16 individuals or groups. It makes Scotland one of the most unequal countries in the world in terms of land ownership.

The Scottish National Party, now the dominant political force in Scotland, has land reform as one of its core platforms. It will be important in the 2016 Holyrood elections for the Scottish parliament. Nationalist rhetoric, and a narrative about the return of the land, is of course good electoral material (yes, more parallels), and the hysterical reactions of a privileged (perceived ‘foreign’) elite makes it all the more effective (familiar too?).

Only now are Scots and the wider UK population waking up to the shocking disparities in land ownership and the outrageous tax breaks and benefits that are being drawn on by the landed elite in Scotland. The Scottish government argues that the modest, sensible, rather cautious land reform proposals should be seen as the first step towards a more radical transformation of the Scottish countryside and rural economy.

Such moves are always resisted: names are called, terrible disasters predicted, and outrage vented to anyone who will listen. But land reform can be beneficial, and progressive as our work has shown for (some of) Zimbabwe’s land reform experience. The prospects of more positive change (rural and urban) is enhanced if it becomes part of a mature national debate about more just economic futures, as is beginning to happen in Scotland. Resisting, delaying and then rushing a land reform through when politically expedient, is not the best path, as Zimbabwe’s failure to address land inequality after Independence shows. When a slow, more modest change, leading to more radical shifts over time were proposed in the 1990s, they were rejected by those with their head in the sand, as some are now doing in Scotland. This was a big mistake, and one that Zimbabwe has paid a heavy price for.

I suggested last week that Zimbabwe might offer some lessons for Greece. Perhaps the Zimbabwean advisers could stop off in Scotland too.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and first appeared on Zimbabweland

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One response to “Scottish land reform: echoes of Zimbabwe?

  1. Pingback: Landreform in Schottland: Gibt es Parallelen zu Zimbabwe? | Miss Ubuntu

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