The Planet Has No Lawyers: Andy Wightman’s Closing Green Conference Speech
I am not sure why I have been asked to make these closing remarks. Perhaps it is because I am a relatively new member – I joined little more than a year ago so Perhaps it is because I have a new book out (copies still available – £5 to Scottish Green Party from every sale). Perhaps it is because it took me so long join that the Gavin Corbett who finally persuaded me to join thought I should do some penance.
Whatever, I thought I would begin like some other speakers by briefly outlining my own journey to joining the party.
The conference organisers remind me that this is the third time I have been asked to speak at conference. The last was a few years back in Glasgow. The first was in 1996 I seem to recall in a small guest house in Aberfeldy where the plenary session was held (literally) in front of the fire in the living room.
Curiously enough, we met just a few doors along from where I rented digs when I left school in 1980. On the first evening I remember the news reporting the election of Ronald Regan as President of the USA.
I had gone to Aberfeldy to work in a forestry squad in the hills above the town. Over that winter, we cut down acres of the birks of aberfeldy, piled them up, placed tyres on top, filled them with diesel and set them alight. Huge forestry ploughs then ripped up the ground and we planted hundreds of acres of Sitka Spruce for the landowner, the Midland Bank.
This all intrigued me and I wondered why this was happening. I went to Aberdeen University to study forestry hoping to find an answer.
I was to be disappointed.
Not long after I arrived the question of planting trees in the so-called flow country in Caithness and Sutherland blew up. Millionaires such as Terry Wogan and Dame Shirley Porter were being given substantial tax breaks to effectively destroy a valuable habitat for some of the UK’s rarest birds. The RSPB asked why.
I asked why – but not about the birds.
I asked why rich celebrities in London being given taxpayers money to plant trees when this would be better spent in providing grants to the existing crofters and farmers who lived and worked in the north of Scotland.
Asking why is naive in the true sense of the word and yet ,as I have increasingly noted, lies at the heart of why green politics is different.
I remember the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 when those of us involved in northern forests – and particularly the Canadian NGOs – invited the Brazilian Govt to ask the northern governments: “why are you asking us to stop destroying the Amazonian rainforest when you (and they pointed to Canada in particular) are destroying a greater extent of old growth original rainforest in British Columbia alone than we are in the Amazon?”
My own question of why quickly turned in to the much bigger question of who owned Scotland – that forestry, like all other land uses – agriculture, industry, and housing is intimately tied up with issues of power and only when one understands how that power is derived, distributed and exercised can one begin to develop informed policy.
Some recent examples of the power of this question are worth highlighting
Recently Scotland’s 6 MEPs voted against a moratorium on deep-sea drilling for oil.
We know that to keep global temperature rise within 2 degrees Celsius we need to leave 60% of known reserves in the ground so why the search for new reserves?
Why did these MEPs vote this way? I suggest it was for political expediency and because mainstream politics is only willing and able to go so far in pursuit of what needs to be done to secure a sustainable future.
Why warships on the Clyde?
Our MSPs responded to the campaign to retain warship building jobs on the Clyde by refusing to support the letter of opposition being sent by the Liberals, Tories, SNP and Labour. Why? Because weapons of war should not be used as part of a job creation scheme when there are many more engineering priorities in creating a new green economy.
In the past weeks, an almighty fuss broke out over plans by the coalition government to cap housing benefits at £400 per week.
Why though, should anyone be paying £400 per week rent? There’s no shortage of land. And Ikea of Sweden have developed high quality kit houses that are so affordable that in Sweden, lotteries are held to decide who gets one. High quality housing should not cost a lot but will do so long as we do nothing to tackle the unjust enrichment that flows to landowners through rising land values.
And why, when a cap of £26,000 is to be placed on the total public benefits that any family can receive does one farmer who owns 39 farms in the north of Scotland, who sells housing plots for £150,000 (and has £3 million worth on the market right now) and who is pictured on his website standing proudly beside his Bentley Continental GT – why was he given over £1 million in agricultural grants last year? Why since 2000 has he been given over £3.5 million in public subsidy Why, over the past 10 years have 50 of the wealthiest families in the country including the Duke of Buucleuch, Duke of Roxburghe and Earl of Seafield receive over £168 million in public subsidy – over £3 million per family.
These are all examples of why, as NEVER before, has there been so much need for green politics in order to achieve a fair, just and sustainable Scotland.
AND it’s not just in Scotland – we need to reach out internationally.
One of big stories over past months was the rescue of 33 Chilean miners trapped underground following a mine collapse
It ended a wonderful story of faith, hope and, above all, of what humans are capable of achieving when they work together for the common good.
BUT I’m sure I cannot have been alone in wondering WHY at a certain level all this attention (the BBC sent 25 staff to cover the story) was a bit vulgar and a bit distasteful. Millions of pounds were spent (rightly) in saving 33 trapped miners. Imagine for a moment, however, what could be achieved if the world’s cameras were trained full time on the young children dying every day from preventable diseases such as malaria, diarrhoea and pneumonia – pneumonia alone claiming the lives of 1.5 million children under 5 every year.
It seems that the role of the media now is primarily to provide entertainment. Green politics is thus about asking not just WHY we continue to let so many die but WHY we have a media that ignores what would appear to be moral obligations to cover such stories.
As some of you know I have just written a new book about land and a review of where we are today with this vital topic.
Forgive my self-indulgence but a week ago last Monday I sat down to read it and so angry did I quickly become that 2 days later I wrote the following on my blog:
I am not one who usually goes in for some of the wailing and hand wringing about the evils of the landlords or how “we wus robbed” in the past. Scotland is already full of plenty people for whom this appears to be a full-time occupation. I get a bit hacked off with them because whilst some cathartic complaining might be therapeutic, I want to see reform, justice and action not personal therapy. I don’t deny the utility of deploying rhetoric but it is only really useful if done with a purpose beyond ventilating frustrations. However, I am now, for the first time, reading my book, The Poor had no Lawyers and am getting rather angry. To hell with any purpose – we wus robbed!!!!
I’m serious. The evidence is clear. For centuries and right here and now, the law is conspiring to defraud people of their land rights. In any other walk of life this would be criminal. In land law, you can grab, take, steal, purloin, appropriate and filch to your heart’s content. The law has dreamt up a whole language to sanitise this truth.
Confucius advised that “The corruption of society begins with the failure to call things by their proper names and its renovation begins with the reattachment of words to real things and precise concepts”. Until we apply the same conceptual framework to property as we do to simple theft then we will always end up arguing about the wrong thing.
Were it not for the fig leaf of some of the civil law of Scots property, this would not be a problem. Consider this – I steal £100,000. I am found out. I am charged, convicted and imprisoned. I am a criminal. I understand that.
If I grab some land that doesn’t belong to me though, I admit it. It is legitimate. It is lawful. After a period of time my theft “cures, ripens, matures” info full ownership. But what about the poor sod whose land it was in the first place? Tough. It’s the law of the jungle. It’s corrupt, it is criminal, venal and bad. We have not moved on in 400 years.
Someone emailed me last week and observed that the “gloves now appear to be off”. Indeed……., actually, they were never on in the first place. I’ve simply been too polite
Perhaps some of us in the green movement have also, for too long, been too polite.
I now realise that it is in response to these kinds of insights that, in October 2009, I decided at last to join the Scottish Green Party.
Because I realised that much of what I have been doing in my life is, like all of you and thousands of people across the country, about trying to live a life that promotes fairness, equality and justice. I realised that this party is the only party that asks why – and that whilst we may not always agree on the answer – at least we tend to ask the right questions.
Green politics believes in fairness, believes in justice and believes in sustainability. But we still live in an age where politics is looked down upon.
In the first Scottish elections in 1999, I voted for Robin Harper. He won a seat. It was the first time in my entire adult life that my vote had counted and I remember clearly the sense of elation.
Making people believe in the possibility that politics can change their lives, that they can be elated remains a challenge. Our job is to make the politics of climate change as engaging as the x-factor or as animatedly discussed as the finer points of football tactics on a Saturday evening.
I would like to observe that if the coalition’s plans to reform the House of Lords come to pass, we should also have our sights on the first Green member of the House of Lords….!
So there is so much more to do if our ideas are to become reality.
We have heard some of them this weekend
– the need to work at the grassroots;
– the need to smile at people and to engage in our local communities. To be the people that work to make the kind of practical differences in people lives AND WHO THEN move on to tackle the root causes of such issues;
– the knowledge that there are many, many people out there who agree with us – we need to get them to vote AND to join the party.
The coming year is of vital importance with Holyrood elections in May. And hard on the heels of that will be the local government elections in 2011.
We have green candidates elected at all levels of government now. The challenge is to gain sufficient critical mass to enable them to make the kind of difference we have been talking about this weekend.
So how to do this?
– If you are not already active in your local branch, go along to the meetings. If you don’t have a branch, form one.
– Get involved in local issues: there are green issue everywhere. Getting involved in local issues builds connections, promotes our vision, and helps improve our visibility in the local community.
– We have no millionaire backers or big organisations with vested interests to provide us with finance. Everyone can help by making regular donations or by organising fund raising events.
– It’s an old chestnut but if we could each recruit one member each we would double our membership. Gavin Corbett had to work on me for 4 years – it can pay off! Make green politics fun by inviting people to fundraising or community events. Organise public meetings like the one I spoke at a few weeks ago in Forres organised by Moray Greens which attracted over 120 people. In time some of these will join because they respect the time and commitment we put into local issues.
Thank you to all involved in organisation of weekend. Thank you to the speakers, chairs of sessions, volunteers, exhibitors, staff at Napier University, our elected representatives, Scottish Green Party staff, parliamentary staff an our extraordinary communications team. Thank you in particular to Gavin Corbett whose stamina, enthusiasm and skills as an organiser of everything from a school board meeting to a bothy weekend and yes, a national party political conference, seems to know no bounds.
This party is one of the beacons of hope, light and freedom in Scotland – hope for a fair, just and sustainable Scotland, light being shone on the institutionalised dumbing down of politics, on the corruption that has entered so much of local politics – thank you Debra Storr, Martin Ford and Paul Johnson from Aberdeenshire Council – and freedom for communities to take a far greater role in managing their own affairs through improved local democracy.
Conference, be inspired by your colleagues, by your representatives and by the work of everyone in communities up and down the land who are fighting for a fair, just and sustainable Scotland. Take heart from their efforts and believe that together we can make the kind of progress in the year ahead that will make a green future happen.
A safe journey home and thank you all for your contribution to a truly inspiring weekend’s conference.
- This Guest Post is the barnstorming speech from Andy Wightman, who closed Scottish Green conference with it last weekend.