Scotland is breaking the cover-up that stifles our political thought. Bring the Highland Spring south
This article by George Monbiot originally appeared in The Guardian on 3 December 2014.
Bring out the violins. The land reform programme announced last week by the Scottish government is the end of civilised life on Earth, if you believe the corporate press. In a country where 432 people own half the private rural land, all change is Stalinism. The Telegraph has published a string of dire warnings – insisting, for example, that deer stalking and grouse shooting could come to an end if business rates are introduced for sporting estates. Moved to tears yet?
Yes, sporting estates – where the richest people in Britain, or oil sheikhs and oligarchs from elsewhere, shoot grouse and stags – are exempt from business rates, a present from John Major’s government in 1994. David Cameron has been just as generous with our money: as he cuts essential services for the poor, he has almost doubled the public subsidy for English grouse moors, and frozen the price of shotgun licences, at a public cost of £17m a year.
But this is small change. Let’s talk about the real money. The Westminster government claims to champion an entrepreneurial society of wealth creators and hardworking families, but the real rewards and incentives are for rent. The power and majesty of the state protects the patrimonial class. A looped and windowed democratic cloak barely covers the corrupt old body of the nation. Here peaceful protesters can still be arrested under the 1361 Justices of the Peace Act. Here the Royal Mines Act 1424 gives the crown the right to all the gold and silver in Scotland. Here the Remembrancer of the City of London sits behind the Speaker’s chair in the House of Commons to protect the entitlements of a corporation that pre-dates the Norman conquest. This is an essentially feudal nation.
It’s no coincidence that the two most regressive forms of taxation in the UK – council tax banding and the payment of farm subsidies – both favour major owners of property. The capping of council tax bands ensures that the owners of £100m flats in London pay less than the owners of £200,000 houses in Blackburn. Farm subsidies, which remain limitless as a result of the Westminster government’s lobbying, ensure that every household in Britain hands £245 a year to the richest people in the land. The single farm payment system, under which landowners are paid by the hectare, is a reinstatement of a medieval levy called feudal aid, a tax the vassals had to pay to their lords.
If this is the government of enterprise, not rent, ask yourself why capital gains tax (at 28%) is lower than the top rate of income tax. Ask yourself why principal residences, though their value may rise by millions, are altogether exempt. Ask yourself why rural landowners are typically excused capital gains tax, inheritance tax and the first five years of income tax. The enterprise society? It’s a con, designed to create an illusion of social mobility.
The Scottish programme for government is the first serious attempt to address the nature of landholding in Britain since David Lloyd George’s budget of 1909. Some of its aims hardly sound radical until you understand the context. For example, it will seek to discover who owns the land. Big deal? Yes, in fact, it is. At the moment the owners of only 26% of the land in Scotland have been identified.
Walk into any mairie in France or ayuntamiento in Spain and you will be shown the cadastral registers on request, on which all the land and its owners are named. When The Land magazine tried to do the same in Britain, it found that there was a full cadastral map available at the local library that could be photocopied for 70p. But it was made in 1840. Even with expert help, it took the magazine several weeks of fighting official obstruction and obfuscation and almost £1,000 to find out who owns the 1.4 sq km around its offices in Dorset. It discovered that the old registers had been closed and removed from public view at the behest of a landed class that wishes to remain as exempt from public scrutiny as it is from taxes. (The landowners are rather more forthcoming when applying for subsidies from the rural payments agency, which possesses a full, though unobtainable, register of their agricultural holdings.) What sort of nation is this, in which you cannot discover who owns the ground beneath your feet?
The Scottish government will consider breaking up large land holdings when they impede the prospects of local people. It will provide further help to communities to buy the land that surrounds them. Compare its promise of “a fairer, wider and more equitable distribution of land” with the Westminster government’s vision of “greater competitiveness, including by consolidation” – which means a continued increase in the size of land holdings. The number of holdings in England is now falling by 2% a year, which is possibly the fastest concentration of ownership since the acts of enclosure.
Consider Scotland’s determination to open up the question of property taxes, which might lead to the only system that is fair and comprehensive: land value taxation. Compare it with the fleabite of a mansion tax proposed by Ed Miliband, which, though it recoups only a tiny percentage of the unearned income of the richest owners, has so outraged the proprietorial class that some of them (yes, Griff Rhys Jones, I’m thinking of you) have threatened to leave the country. Good riddance.
The Scottish government might address the speculative chaos that mangles the countryside while failing to build the houses people need. It might challenge a system in which terrible homes are built at great expense, partly because the price of land has risen from 2% of the cost of a house in the 1930s to 70% today. It might take land into public ownership to ensure that new developments are built by and for those who will live there rather than for the benefit of volume housebuilders. It might prevent mountains being burned and overgrazed by a landowning class that cares only about the numbers of deer and grouse it can bag and the bragging rights this earns in London clubs. As Scotland – where feudalism was not legally abolished until 2000 – becomes a progressive, modern nation, it leaves England stuck in the pre-democratic past.
Scotland is rudely interrupting the constructed silences that stifle political thought in the UK. This is why the oligarchs who own the media hate everything that is happening there: their interests are being exposed in a way that is currently impossible south of the border.
For centuries, Britain has been a welfare state for patrimonial capital. It’s time we broke it open, and broke the culture of deference that keeps us in our place. Let’s bring the Highland spring south, and start discussing some dangerous subjects.