05 August 2013

To all citizens of Scotland, & Scots in the diaspora, (no comments version)

Pilkington Jackson's Bruce statue at Bannockburn: did Pilkington know that Bruce was a thug?
have any of you not yet read Andy Wightman's The Poor Had No Lawyers: Who owns Scotland and how they got it (2013)? If not, you really should, attentively, in its entirety. By the term 'Citizens of Scotland' I mean all those currently resident in Scotland, irrespective of whether or not these people have got permanent resident status, or whether these people are asylum-seekers or people born in Scotland, whether they're living off benefits or going out to a paid-job everyday. If you argue in detail for intelligent, low-cost policy like Wightman does, then you don't waste your time supporting or enforcing stupid, high-cost policy, like over-policing borders – apparently in Salmond's future models we'll still be paying for an over-policed UK border – or persecuting minorities who can't be squeezed into the template of Mrs & Mr Normal. Wightman's is the first book I've ever read on public policy that's electrified me. He campaigns for diversifying Scottish land-ownership – our current pattern is the most feudal, most concentrated in western Europe – and taxing speculation on urban & rural land, so that people who want to get up & do something with their hands & minds get rewarded. Rather than rewarding those who happen to have the hundreds of thousands spare to invest in chunks of land, do nothing with it and enjoy returns of up to 200% – value added by the economic activity of normal workers, i.e. us – for that doing of nothing.
 The book's so good that I'd want to quote huge sections of it; and any summary of the key arguments won't do anything approaching justice to both the scale of this work, & it's patient attention to a vast range of often arcane sources, without which these arguments could not have been made. He takes the reader back to the first crime scenes, aided by workers in an embryonic legal profession, during which King David I (1124-1153) replaced the older Celtic & Nordic systems of land tenure with a feudal system of land control. After that there followed a series of land grabs, where militarily stronger immigrants speaking & writing in a different language – in this case the new Anglo-Norman class, speaking an old version of French, & writing their documents in Latin – came & seized most of Scotland by force. The lawyers' work was to give post-hoc legitimisation to these acts of violence.
Wightman is good at busting those very foundation myths of Scottish history, which have blinded myself & so many other Scots for so long, blanketing the past & present in an apathy-inducing tartan-tinted fog. Robert the Bruce was actually, 'A murdering medieval war-lord': we are informed.
The Bruce guff has affected my family perhaps more than most: my grandpa was something like a third cousin with Pilkington Jackson, the sculptor who produced the Bruce-on-horseback statue outside the Visitor's Centre at Bannockburn. My dad remembers getting taken once to visit the artist at his upper-floor studio-flat in Polwarth, Edinburgh: a small window on bohemia in a mostly un-artistic childhood. While my dad's healthily sceptical of most things, there has been family pride in this character; would there have been, if a relation had produced an heroic statue of Joseph Kony? 
 I challenge our leading Scottish poets to write & publish a critical Bruce poem well in advance of the hoo-ha there'll no doubt be to mark the 700th anniversary of Bannockburn in June next year. Jackie Kay or Tom Leonard, Liz Lochhead or Robert Crawford, are you listening? This could follow in the vein of Iain Crichton Smith's The Ghost in the Snow (first pub. 1996), a poetic counter-blast to two centuries of injurious sentimentality concerning Charles Edward Stuart's role in Scottish history. The 'silly prince' is charged with responsibility for the deaths of thousands of his soldiers in an unwinnable military campaign, motivated by the prince's own romantic narcissism. And for the British government's scorched-earth reprisals that followed:

' The silly Prince /hits the wall of fact, the steel fence //of Culloden flashing fire, and discipline /clicking clearly its rehearsed routine. //Drunken sot, I hope you endlessly suffer //for the sufferings your boyish game caused /for there is cause and cause and cause //as headless men cry, as the Duke burns /the Highlands into poor threadbare ruins //while you, paunchy one, drink port, /beached, becalmed, rusted. May fierce thought //of baulked ambition thorn you, as you turn /easily away from red Culloden //towards the misty islands.' i

Wightman's book drags us out of the bog of a misapprehended past to 'hit the wall of fact' about how Scotland is now, with scores of policy recommendations for using these facts to build a fairer daily life for ourselves, our children and our grand-children. Intriguingly, he wants more economic justice but he doesn't want higher income tax, arguing instead that we should shift the tax burden away from income-tax payers, and away from business & retail, towards land value taxation (LVT.) As Wightman makes clear, LVT taxes the increase in value of a particular piece of land, including the small patches of land on which owner-occupiers live, resulting from the economic activity of the community in which the land is located, and not resulting from the increase in value which results from any investment in improvements by owner-occupiers or by land-lords:

'The philosophy behind land value taxation (LVT) is based on the idea that land, in its unimproved state, is a gift of nature, and, unlike capital and labour, has no cost of production. Furthermore, since land is fixed in supply – again, unlike capital and labour – its value is purely a scarcity value reflecting the competing needs of work, leisure and housing. Thus the value of land, excluding the value of investment in improvements, owes nothing to the owner or to individual effort and everything to the community at large and the value of land properly belongs to the community. This should be self-evident from cases such as the Jubilee Line Extension [where property values increased by 300% along the route during the 1990s. Wightman also predicts a significant rise in property values – although not 300%! – following the decision to construct the Waverly Line between Edinburgh and the Central Borders.] ii

There is not a single trace of careerism about where Wightman's coming from, which makes it all the more appealing. This is a guy who, at least from the end of the 90s on, could have gone for a high level career inside the Scottish administration, or the SNP, or Scottish Labour. Yes, he'll badger leaders in the SNP leadership, and prepare reports for the Scottish Green Party MSPs on land-reform, but that's because he's passionate about his issues, and not through a desire to land a position of safe salary and status.

If we could start to channel a fraction of this intelligence and progressive thinking into the independence debate, it could recapture the imagination of the 4.5 millions in the middle of Scottish society, turned-off by the current pettier-than-thou, party-political point scoring. These are the millions who continue to have the rewards for their innovation & hard-work appropriated by a tiny, reactionary class of owners of vast swathes of Scotland. We could get together and write a new constitution for an independent Scotland, following the model of several fairer European nations, and enshrining many of Wightman's shockingly reasonable proposals in law. A written constitution should act as a check on future Scottish governments, who may well continue to pander to the needs of a rich, idle handful, while failing to pass acts to emancipate the intelligent and industrious millions.

iFrom A Ghost in the Wind, published in The Ice Horses: The Second Shore Poets Anthology (ed. Stewart Conn & Ian McDonough), Scottish Cultural Press, 1996.

iiSee Wightman, A. The Poor Had No Lawyers, 2013. For quote, see p. 379. For more details regarding the Waverly Line, see p. 388.