WHEN will indyref2 be called?
That question is the talk of the steamie, even though nobody – perhaps not even Nicola Sturgeon – has the answer. Yet.
That of course won’t stop speculation. Partly because January is a “crystal ball gazing” time of year, partly because the timing of another referendum is pretty important, but mostly because political involvement has come to mean a lot of speculation, a bit of demonstration and a tiny bit of action.
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It could be otherwise. Indeed it must. Scots can’t sit through the whole of 2017 waiting for the indyref starting gun to fire again. Apart from anything else, it scunners many wavering No voters.
Au contraire – to paraphrase David Cameron – we should be mending the roof while we’re waiting (and the rain pelts doon.) The sell-out Build event being held by the Scottish Independence Convention next weekend is a good example of using down time constructively and opening up discussion of big issues that need debate whether indyref2 is this year, next year or (perish the thought) next decade. Building a nation, a fair media, a pro-active independence movement, a new currency, a green energy policy – if you’re kicking yourself because you didnae get a ticket, dinnae fash. It’ll be live-streamed by the redoubtable volunteers from Independence Live – follow them on Twitter @liveindyscot to get the link.
But there’s another thing we could all be doing while “will she, won’t she” builds to a crescendo. We could be doing politics. We could be proving the Yes movement doesn’t just want a puppy for Christmas but does want democratic political control located in Scotland, right now and for keeps. The business of leaving Britain will probably last several lifetimes, given the number of top-down, elitist, centralised governance structures we must dismantle.
The great news is that we could get a lot done during 2017 within our institutions, laws, communities and above all in our heids to kick-start the vital process of becoming independent-minded. In truth, that process never stops.
Do we think politics is about the indyref and nothing else, or about big, noisy demonstrations and online petition signing? These are important – but political change also involves the relatively lacklustre stuff. The backroom work, the slow shifting of policy gears at every level of government so that empowerment of our citizens informs every policy decision. It’s also the tedious business of watching politicians like hawks to make sure what’s delivered reproduces what was promised in the heat of election battle.
Puppies are not only for Christmas – political activity is just the same. It’s needed everyday – not just for the final sprint to the line of indyref2.
Let’s take one of Scotland’s biggest areas of injustice, which is also a source of international notoriety and one of the biggest reasons for unaffordable housing, rural depopulation and low productivity: our feudal system of land ownership.
Yes – a Land Reform Act was passed last year. But just as the hard work only begins with a bairn’s birth, so the passage of that legislation only kick-started the business of change.
The to-do list for land reform in 2017 is long and giddy.
First of all, the Land Reform Commission has been set up with a fairly feisty, independent-minded bunch of folk appointed, which is very good news. A commission may sound dull as ditch-water but whilst governments come and go, and political parties back an issue one year then let it drop down the priority list, the Land Commission just keeps going. With staff, cash and a legislative right to roam across every land-related problem – from urban housing shortages to common land, from tenant farmer trouble to the merits of a land tax – a commission like this will make a sustained effort to change Scotland’s feudal, cap-doffing status, independent of government, parliament or political parties. That is excellent news.
Right now the Land Commission is pondering its remit and should be persuaded to adopt the boldest and broadest agenda. In fact, that’s every bit as important as signing the petition to help the Arran tenant farmers or turning up for Our Land talks and demonstrations – it’s just a lot less sexy.
For example, if the Land Commission decides it should consider how to deliver greater diversity in land ownership, or how to combat further concentration of land ownership, then there’s a greater chance that community buyout proposals like the current one at Wanlockhead will get the go-ahead in future.
Similarly, if the Commission decides it can consider the potential use of tax powers on land ownership patterns, how to cap ever escalating land values, or whether it should consider a public interest test for big land ownerships, then Scotland will lose its unwanted status as Europe’s last bastion of feudal privilege a bit more quickly.
The Land Commission should also decide that its remit includes investigating local land ownership monopolies, a tenant’s right to buy, providing more land for new tenancies, modernising law to make compulsory land purchases easier for councils, delivering a supply of smaller land holdings, tackling urban and rural renewal and repopulation, and ending urban dereliction. It could decide to act against the negative effects of land banking and land speculation.
That’s heady stuff.
Similarly, the Scottish Government is consulting on its own Land Rights and Responsibilities Statement. It could follow the example of governments in developing countries who have tackled the very same problem of land scarcity by insisting that large landowners should bear greater responsibility for ensuring local people can realise human rights like the right to housing, food and affordable energy. By simply adopting high expectations of landowners, the Scottish Government could lay the foundations for radical change – indeed why shouldn’t the 1.6 million acres of forestry land held by Scottish ministers meet the same economic, social, cultural, environmental and community empowerment objectives as privately owned land? Another thing.
If Scotland does find itself briefly or permanently outside the European Union, there’ll be an opportunity to change the quota system for fisheries and the subsidy system for farmers to eliminate “slipper” production, whereby a very small number of people get large payments despite not actively farming, fishing or even living in Scotland at all. It’s been hard to discuss these unfair practices whilst there’s so little opportunity to change EU subsidy systems. But Brexit will provide just such a chance. Will we use it to spread the goodies out more fairly, or will big fishing and farming interests persuade politicians to simply reproduce the EU’s old subsidy regime?
The National Farmers' Union Scotland has seconded a member of staff to the Scottish Government to help think through these issues. To be fair, other interested organisations like the Crofters Union, the Scottish Tenant Farmers' Association, the RSPB and food organisations like Nourish should also be invited– but they probably haven’t got the spare staff or cash to influence policy.
That shouldn’t mean old, failed subsidy regimes get through again on the nod.
All of this matters because what’s debated in these dull-sounding committees and commissions today shapes what’s possible for tens of thousands of Scots tomorrow.
And there’s another thing. Vast acres of land and sea currently managed by the London-based Crown Estates Commission are to be devolved – hooray. But devolved to whom? It seems Westminster is prepared to hand over the power to collect rents – but will then remove £14 million from the block grant.
With an eye on that £14m, the Scottish Government seems to be arguing it should take over most management responsibility and cash from rents and offshore licences rather than devolving them to battered coastal communities, most of whom sit within massive councils that are unable or unwilling to help.
Used imaginatively and devolved to the hundred Trust Ports around Scotland and to newly created development trusts in other coastal towns, the Crown Estate cash and clout could do more to reinvigorate small town Scotland than the Scottish Government ever could. And a rise in economic activity in our old ports and fishing villages could even generate cash for the Scottish Government.
A consultation on this issue has opened this week. Anyone from Eyemouth, Wick, Methil, Stornoway, Ullapool, Largs, Invergordon and Scotland’s other coastal ports should be reading up and whacking in a response pronto. Gordon Brown was much criticised for failing to mend the roof while the sun shone. Let’s not have it said that Scots failed to tackle long overdue, fundamental, structural repairs to our own democracy whilst indyref2 was still well round the corner.