Alex Salmond came to Community Land Scotland’s Annual Conference in Skye last week with a mix of radicalism, pragmatism and Tom Johnston on his mind. The First Minister’s keynote speech to the conference recalled the Secretary of State for Scotland in Churchill’s wartime coalition Government who in 1943 pushed through legislation establishing the North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board.
Johnston left politics in 1946 to become chairman of the Board, a position he held until 1959. As Mr Salmond noted, in 1945 fewer than half the homes in the Highlands had access to electricity. By 1959 such access had increased to 90%.
In bringing the ‘electric light’ to the North of Scotland, you could make the argument, the First Minister contended, “that Tom Johnston did more than any other individual in the 20th century to arrest the depopulation of the Highlands”. That’s an assessment with which it’s hard to disagree.
Much of the remainder of Salmond’s speech sought to imbue the latest iteration of Scotland’s land reform journey, which his Government has set in train, with the spirit of Tom Johnston as a visionary and radical, but also as a pragmatist. The First Minister’s focus, he assured his audience, was on “how we can actually get things done”.
‘Getting things done’ within the context of land reform had attracted considerable attention in the run-up to the First Minister’s appearance in Skye.
At Scottish Labour’s conference in April, Johann Lamont announced a significant policy shift by committing her party to extending the ‘community right to buy’ in the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 to cover circumstances in which the landowner is not a willing seller “if it is in the public interest”.
And just three days before Community Land Scotland’s conference, Professor Jim Hunter lambasted the SNP’s failure to legislate for land reform during its six years in Government and called for action to introduce a land value tax and give tenant farmers a right to buy their farms. Professor Hunter’s criticisms carry particular weight given his role as a Vice-Chair of the Government-appointed Land Reform Review Group (LRRG) prior to resigning in April for personal reasons.
Strip away the rhetoric of the First Minister’s speech and its substance reflects a pragmatic incrementalism rather than a genuinely radical hue.
Nevertheless, there is some substance. The addition of an extra £3 million in 2015-16 to the Scottish Land Fund, which the Government re-introduced after the 2011 election, is a tangible and welcome commitment.
So too is Mr Salmond’s announcement of a target of 1 million acres of land in community ownership by 2020. But that announcement – eye-catching though it may be – is only the twang of the bow. The thud of the arrow will be determined by (amongst other things) the array and effectiveness of fiscal and legislative policy instruments that the Government brings to bear to assist in the pursuit of that target.
In that vein, the section of the First Minister’s speech regarding an “improved” community right to buy, which the Government is now committed to legislating for in the current Parliament, is particularly enlightening. It advocates examining “practical barriers” concerning flexibility of timescales, whether information requirements are too onerous for communities to comply with, and whether community groups are being unduly prevented from registering an interest in land after it has been put up for sale.
All perfectly laudable. But scarcely radical, no matter how one might choose to define that concept.
Indeed, in an interview for BBC Radio Alba after his speech, Mr Salmond seemed to dismiss the prospect of introducing a compulsory purchase element to any new community right to buy. He stated: “If we tried to compulsory purchase land, we’d end up for generations in the European Courts. I mean, that’s very clear”.
That’s not necessarily the case as Andy Wightman discusses in his blog on compulsory purchase of land. Even so, the First Minister’s comments suggest that a community right to buy with a compulsory element akin to that announced by Scottish Labour is off the Scottish Government’s radar.
What impact these comments will have on generating “innovative and radical” proposals by a Land Reform Review Group which has circled the wagons around a predominantly community ownership orientated agenda is anyone’s guess. But the members of Scottish Land and Estates may be sleeping easier in their aftermath.
A final thought. Tom Johnston’s place in the history of the Highlands and Islands is assured. After all, he brought the electricity that did so much to transform the economic and social prospects of the region in the post-war era.
At around the same time, a young Congressman was bringing electric light to the remote Hill Country of Texas. There’s not much more that connects Tom Johnston and Lyndon Baines Johnson, a man who, as Robert A. Caro’s epic multi-volume biography illustrates, was in possession of political genius and ruthlessness in equal measure.
But in 1965 – before Vietnam had engulfed and shredded his political reputation – President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, a cornerstone of his administration’s ‘Great Society’ programme, and in Caro’s words “…led [black Americans] into voting booths, closed democracy’s sacred curtain behind them, placed their hands upon the lever that gave them a hold on their own destiny, made them, at last and forever, a true part of American political life”.
Pragmatism has its place in politics to be sure. But sometimes it’s more important to follow the light.