If I were a Scot, said Damian Thomas in the Telegraph last week, “I’d be feeling scared”. He reckons Alex Salmond’s jovial grandiosity is acquiring “a menacing edge”. If I were a Scottish landowner, I’d be tempted to agree with him.
The SNP is talking – a lot – about another round of land reform. Under the current system – under which the Scottish government had hoped to bring large amounts of land into community ownership – communities have first dibs on land coming up for sale if they have expressed an interest in it. Here is a simple explanation of the system.
However, this hasn’t gone that well so far (in the sense that not much land has moved from private to community hands). In one sense, this matters – some 50% of Scotland’s land is divvied up into huge estates owned by fewer than 500 people*. That’s not fair. The question is simply what you do about it.
For some parts of the SNP, the answer appears to be, find some way of forced sales or confiscation. That might sound attractive (after all, we’d all like to a world with fairer outcomes, wouldn’t we?) but it is completely insane.
The success of developed economies rests almost entirely on the success of our institutions – property rights being key. It irritates me that so much land is owned by so few (both in Scotland and in England) but I can’t see that there is anything to gain from abandoning the long-held principle that if you own something you get to keep owning it until you and you alone decide to sell it at the market price.
Land reform enthusiasts like to say that the land held by today’s landowners was all nicked from someone else at some point in Scotland’s history. That may be true, but it is hard to see how another round of the same helps right those wrongs.
There’s also no shortage of Scottish land for sale (here’s a nice castle with 10,000 acres and here’s another 6,000 odd) . If the state would like to buy some land in the market to distribute among its voters, or just to hold itself, it shouldn’t be much of a problem. Not all of it is openly for sale, but should the SNP be interested there are plenty of buying agents knocking around Edinburgh and Aberdeen who would be more than happy to help them out. I’m happy to help with introductions.
The other thing to bear in mind is that if you want to get rid of big landowners it really shouldn’t be hard to do it without trampling all over the land and property rights that make the UK a developed country. You can do it via the tax system. You can have wealth taxes, mansion taxes, high taxes on land that isn’t in agricultural use, new inheritance tax rules, and so on. You could even get rid of the odd land-related subsidy. Make it even more expensive than it already is to own a Scottish estate and you should be able to get them either split up into incoherent and financially inefficient plots, or transferred to taxpayer-supported communities in no time at all. Assuming that is what you want.
*Not everyone appears to be worried by the fact that they might soon be forced to sell something they think they own. According to the Mail, the billionaire owner of Lego, Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen, a Dane who is already a very substantial landowner in Scotland, has just added another 10,000 acre Highland estate to his portfolio. He now owns a total of around 70,000 acres of Scotland, making him very likely to be one of the 500. The man who sold it to him for £5m must be pretty pleased. Not only will he not have to deal with “right to buy” but he will no longer have to deal with the expense of running an estate, or the midges and the rain – all things his wife says he was “a bit fed up with”.