The Poor had no Lawyers
Our guest writer is land reform activist Andy Wightman, author of ‘Who Owns Scotland’, and now ‘The Poor Had no Lawyers’.
A few years ago I bought some land. Not a lot, just a little bit. It cost me £12.95 and is located at Area F-4, Quadrant Charlie on the lighted side of the moon. I will probably never visit though I did see it the other night – it’s in the Oceanus Procellarum. The deeds for the property are detailed and they appear to be, in every sense, legitimate and proper. My problem, of course is that were I to try and defend my property rights I would have difficulty doing so since there is no legal jurisdiction for lunar property. At the end of the day I simply have a few bits of worthless paper.
By way of contrast, a few weeks ago, I uncovered the title deeds of a 400 acre parcel of common land in Scotland and was intrigued to find out that in 1986 it had been split up among the three landowners whose land bounded it irrespective of the fact that many more people potentially had an interest in it. Not only that, but these landowners only had rights of use in the commonty and had no entitlement to exclusive ownership.
Nevertheless, they grabbed it and despite all the blatant defects, this deed (unlike my moon deed) actually enjoys the full protection of the Scots law of property.
Such a state of affairs is nothing new. For centuries, the law has been framed with a view to the appropriation of land and it subsequent defence by the landed class. For a scary insight on this, see this contemporary tale of the Duke of Roxburghe.
How this happened and why it is still happening today is the focus of my forthcoming book, The Poor had no Lawyers. It was the laws framed to legitimise the theft of the church lands in the 16th century that ensured that land remained concentrated in the hands of the few rather than the many. The laws of prescription, of entail and of succession were ruthlessly framed to perpetuate landed privilege. The shocking aspect to the whole sorry tale is that much of this framework remains in place today.
All too often, debates around land reform are framed in terms of the Highlands and of remote rural areas. However land affects every aspect of our lives from the homes we live in to the economic prospects of the country. Just this week, Ireland has had to pump in billions to Irish banks and faces a budget deficit equal to 32% of its entire annual economic output. Why? Because the Irish decided that speculating on the value of land was a route to prosperity. Like all bubbles, it burst. And we are not immune in the UK. In Gordon Brown’s first budget in 1997 he announced that he “would not let house prices get out of control”. He failed to do so and we now have one of the largest inequalities in wealth for generations and a mountain of personal debt.
All of which suggests that we need a far more radical look at the role of land in the economy, at the legal framework surrounding land rights, and at the power structures inherent in the current division of land. For too long, we as citizens of this country, have let the financiers and lawyers determine how land is allocated and on what terms. We are still, for example, battling to wrest back control of our own seabed. This state of affairs is no longer acceptable.
The Poor had no Lawyers will be published by Birlinn later this month. Pre-publication orders can be placed here