There is a hilarious irony in the fact that it is Environment Minister, Paul Wheelhouse who is leading the SNP government’s populist charge to redistribute landownership across Scotland.
Wheelhouse said tonight that it will be a failure if there is not substantial redistribution ‘within this parliament‘.
This is the Minister who was described by the crofters of the Isle of Raasay, less than a year ago and with good reason, as ‘acting like an absentee landlord’.
Needless to say, this phrase struck terror into the indy vote-catchers.
The Raasay Crofters Association had been formed back in 1994 to take over the management of of the island’s shooting and fishing rights on behalf of the island’s crofters. That powerhouse of initiative and ambition, Highland’s and Islands Enterprise – once memorably described by a frustrated Argyll businessman as ‘just a pocket’ – had decided they were no longer interested in leasing the rights from the government.
In February this year, the Scottish Government, through the Environment Minister, sold these rights from under the Raasay crofters – in the best capitalist traditions, to a higher bidder: a firm from Ayrshire, South Ayrshire Stalking.
As the ‘acting like an absentee landlord’ tag struck a match across the media, Mr Wheelhouse showed his mettle under fire.
He publicly blamed his officials.
No nonsense about the buck stopping with the bold Wheelhouse.
Within little more than a week, the government, with antennae glued to this September’s indy vote, had leapt all obstructions, withdrawn the rights from the Ayrshire stalkers and returned them to the crofters – who took them and, one presumes, cannily marked the Wheelhouse card.
You have to grin today, at the sight of this weakling sent out to bat for the Scottish Government in the latest of what has been an increasingly desperate series of distraction efforts in the past week, none of which has hit the boundary with the public at large.
There has been:
- the ‘cold war’ demand for the MoD to explain what a Russian naval vessel was doing off the east coast of Scotland. Answer: it had been on exercise with some of the Black Sea fleet and was trying to get away from the storm conditions. Was it really likely to shell Bute House?
- the daft cry to Labour party members and voters by Nicola Sturgeon to vote indy to escape from Tories, with Scotland already the most Tory-free zone in the UK? And making Hallowe’en guys out of ‘Tories’ is so unevolved.
- the cage rattling, chest beating of an ageing primate to try to get the youngster Cameron to strip off and give him one last crack at a payday.
- the pre-announced announcement by the First Minister of free school meals for P1-P3 – that somehow forgot to be upfront about the fact that this was the result of additional UK Barnett formula funding to make sure Scotland’s tinies [and Wales's and Northern Ireland's] could enjoy the same support as England’s.
- and today it’s the inflaming of the lynch mobs – out there, near you, are those greedy landlords who must share what they own with all comers ‘within this parliament’.
This is becoming an unstable, dishevelled and primitive campaign.
And if any crofter is daft enough to see Paul Wheelhouse as the latter-day champion of the people’s land rights, they really will have been blinded by the rhetoric of an earlier time from seeing that this is all about indy votes.
This government has been in power since 2007. If they had focused on taking land reform seriously, they could have made real progress in the seven years they’ve had. Instead they have muddled around half heartedly with a diminishing and discredited Land Reform Review Group, established and managed at a level of incompetence that would raise the eyebrows of a child on an abacus.
There was tacit SNP support for a flash in the pan stunt last year – an ill-judged attempt fronted by campaigner Andy Wightman, designed to ratchet up nationalist antagonism to landowners as a genre, by targeting two of Scotland’s estates – the Mount Stuart estate on Bute and the Applecross estate in Wester Ross.
A bizarre grab campaign flooded an Edinburgh solicitor’s office with hostile applicants to be members of the boards of trustees of each of these estates – with the applicants almost invariably having nothing whatsoever to do with the areas concerned. This wheeze was obviously about local empowerment?
For the record, the Mount Stuart Estate in Argyll showed its openness and lack of fear by appointing and welcoming a new trustee from the batch of applications it had received.
If the campaign had had the bottle to go for the Crown Estate it would have been respectable – but then the SNP Scottish Government itself has been remarkably muted about the Crown Estate – this body hightailed it to London upon devoluti0n. But perhaps we’re to keep it after all, along with the Queen?
The trouble with this latest ploy to distract from a struggling pro-indy campaign – which could have been so different if it had had the courage of its convictions – is that it is old fashioned, the campaign of a different day.
In the 21st century we are no longer diggers and levellers – although Billy Bragg’s The World Turned Upside Down remains a visceral recruiting sergeant, touching on ancient fidelities.
The reality is that demographic projections see the continuation of the rural exodus, in the urban drift that Britain has progressively known since the 19th century.
This is a worldwide pattern not one specific to Britain.
In a way, the majority of landowners, who in reality struggle with keeping their estates going and do what they can to provide local employment, do us a favour in taking on those responsibilities and keeping the countryside scenically appealing for the occasions when the majority of us drive or walk through it.
Making them targets of what is a short termist political hate-campaign, for motives other than genuine rethinking of the role of land in today’s nations, is brutish and primitive.
The revisioning that needs to be done would take more than the time available between now and 18th September – and so is of no interest to the one trick pony that the SNP government increasingly appears to be.