A few years ago I was sitting next to a leading Scottish builder at a black tie function. He explained his work succinctly: “Any fool can build houses. Any fool can sell them.
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Those three sentences have reverberated round my mind ever since. Now, at last, I can put them in context, having read Andy Wightman’s devastating new book. He notes that across Scotland volume builders own land that was acquired some time ago: the so-called land banks. Once planning permission is granted, this land’s value multiplies by tenfold or more, and when you come to buy a new house, the land represents around 40% of the cost.
Wightman has written a frank, fearless (some of his comments on leading Scottish figures are not far from being defamatory) and at times ferocious book. But this is no mere polemic. Indeed there is so much well-researched material that the reader finally puts the book down battered, angry and determined that something should be done about the multiplicity of scandals discussed so forensically by Wightman.
Many people emerge very badly from this thorough and worrying work, from pusillanimous and prevaricating Scottish politicians, through our over-privileged Royal family, via a grotesque cast of crooked and exploitative landowners down the ages to – sadly and not least – the Scottish legal profession. Indeed, this book amounts, among many other things, to an eloquent lament for the Scottish legal profession’s apparent collective loss of moral purpose.
In one section Wightman analyses the loss of a particular part of Scotland’s common land, and concludes that we have a system of land registration that allows the rich and powerful to grab what they want, leaving ordinary folk in effect disenfranchised. From Robert the Bruce right through to Donald Dewar, Wightman lacerates highly regarded men whom he indicts for letting the people of Scotland down. His book provides some startling revisionist history.
Not all politicians are condemned by Wightman. Indeed the two gargantuan titans of British politics in the last century, Lloyd George and Churchill, come over rather well. Both, as Wightman points out, despaired (Lloyd George in more robust and even rabble-rousing terms) of a society which allowed a few people to be grotesquely over-rewarded for simply owning land, without necessarily doing any work or adding any value.
Yet here in Scotland we cling to sentimental notions that we have a robust democratic tradition, and our legal system is there to defend the rights and interests of the ordinary, common man. Read this book and you’ll understand how far from reality those simplistic notions can be.
Wightman’s narrative is by no means unremittingly bleak. He charts a very positive development over the past 15 years: the amount of land owned by community organisations and, to a lesser extent, conservation bodies, particularly in the Highlands and Islands.
He is convinced that community ownership is sustainable, but suggests that it must not be regarded as the sole solution to our chronic land-ownership crisis. And he points out that it is all very well for community ownership to become widely accepted in north and west Scotland; only when it becomes normal in cities such as Dundee or Glasgow will it represent a genuine paradigm shift.
Wightman is fearless; he is not worried about being something of a party pooper. He is sceptical about aspects of the generally lauded Land Reform (Scotland) Act, which granted responsible access to the general public across virtually the whole of Scotland. Here he asks two killer questions: Why do so many landowners avoid paying tax simply for letting folk walk on their land? And why is one landowner being paid not to encourage public access?
The only area where I find myself in minor disagreement with Wightman is to do with the Scottish Reformation. Essentially, he thinks that the Scottish nobility used the arrival of Protestantism as a convenient cover for a massive land grab. It is certainly true that John Knox had to work with the nobility, who for the most part were a bunch of spivs and hoodlums.
Knox’s almost utopian aspirations for a new Scotland were not fully fulfilled, and this was because the nobility were never going to allow them to become a complete reality. On the other hand, I think at least some of the Protestant nobility who helped to secure our Reformation were men of sincere religious conviction, and their Protestantism was motivated by more than mere greed for the lands and property of the old church.
Finally, it should be noted that Wightman is not angry only with lawyers, politicians and landowners. He also, right at the beginning of this remarkable book, attacks the academic community for their refusal to make research data, collected with public funds, readily available to bona fide researchers such as himself. Wightman is a feisty, independent-minded seeker after truth.
We need many more like him.