Tuesday, July 28, 2020

The Scottish Commons

Today it’s estimated around half of its private rural land is owned by just under 500 individuals, while the Panama Papers revealed that as much as 750,000 acres of this may be owned anonymously by those in offshore tax havens.

The problem with Scotland’s land ownership is not new.  The word “feudalism” likely conjures up images of the stratified Middle Ages, but it was not until this century that feudal ownership formally came to an end in Scotland. Before the Abolition of Feudal Tenure Act of 2000 was enforced in late 2004, there still existed vassals and feudal superiors in the country. Although an earlier act in 1974 gave vassals the power to “buy off” their feu duties, in 1999 around 10 per cent of landowners were still making regular payments to their superiors—one such notable superior being the Church of Scotland, which at the time collected as much as £30,000 a year from feudal lands. To get a sense of just how astonishing this is, the analogous piece of legislation that brought feudal ownership to an end in England, the Tenures Abolition Act, was enacted in 1660.

Scotland’s Land Reform Act 2003—a piece of legislation described by the Scottish Conservative Party as a “land-grab of which Robert Mugabe would have been proud”—set in motion the basic mechanisms to help communities buy the land they lived on. 

It stipulates that such buyouts must take place through a body that represents local residents, typically a heritage trust. On the Isle of Eigg—home to one of the first modern community buyouts, in 1997—a board of directors is appointed to run the trust, the majority of whom are members of the Eigg Residents Association, who are in turn elected by members of the community. Aside from any suggestion of new “countryside bureaucracy,” the need to introduce democratic norms as a prerequisite for community buyouts highlights, if nothing else, just how fundamental and agenda-setting a right is property ownership: property, in other words, is power. For the Isle of Eigg and other communities like it, this power has been transformative. It’s estimated around 560,000 acres of land is now in community ownership across Scotland. With the recent success of the Isle of Eigg buyout in the back of everyone’s minds, the allure of the commons appeared inescapable; the idea was seen anew.

Community ownership is not new. It was the Romans who talked about the existence of res communis, that which belonged to all as opposed to res publica, that which was owned by the government. Even within Scotland itself, the idea of the commons has existed for centuries in the form of the commonty and the old royal burghs of King David I, which for so long were chipped away by feudal charters. To talk of the commons today then is to talk in terms of resurgence rather than revolution.  A “return” to the commons may yet hold the kernel of something far more radical than its centuries-old history belies.  With a pandemic that has left many of us feeling acutely powerless, it’s not hard to see how the commons—through community right to buy and greater decision making at the local level more generally—might empower ordinary people in ways we haven’t done for a very long time.


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