View from a Scottish-Canadian visitor

I’m Jasmine Chorley, I’m a Scottish-Canadian Settler and Masters student at the Munk School of Global Affairs (University of Toronto), which is on Dish With One Spoon territory. I’ve been living and working in the Western Highlands this summer for an internship focused on land reform and community land and assets. This post is meant to serve as a brief reflection on why I’m interested in community land ownership, and what my perceptions of it have been over the past few months.

My interest in community land ownership is academic, political, and personal; but then, the academic is almost always political, and the political is almost always personal. My family left Scotland for Canada in the early 19th century chapter of the ongoing story of massively inequitable land ownership, and like so many others went on to participate in the violent making of Canada, on a continental scale doing unto others what had been done to them. Of course, colonialism in Canada is ongoing and as a beneficiary thereof, I have duties to attend to not only on behalf of my ancestral complicity, but also as per the laws of the Dish With One Spoon territory in which I live. I begin with a land acknowledgement for that reason.

So, I study the land to better understand my place in it: the lands of my birth and the lands of my home, and how they relate.

*

I first came across community land ownership during the second year of my undergraduate degree. I was in a small seminar room in St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto where I had my weekly three-hour Gaelic course. At 8:00pm on a winter night, the conversation had veered away from grammar and onto the subject of the Independence Referendum, which was still a few years away. For a small class of less than a dozen students (lest I mislead you to believe that Toronto is somehow a hotbed of Gaelic resurgence) there was an assortment of opinions in favour of, opposition to, and ambivalence toward Independence. The conversation eventually landed on decentralization of power, which we could all agree was a good thing but was Independence the best or only way to achieve that? It was then that the instructor told us about Eigg, observing that there was already a movement taking place to secure a more democratic future, even if only for one small group at a time.

Not too long later, I visited Edinburgh and came across Andy Wightman’s The Poor Had No Lawyers while browsing a bookshop. I read it and re-read it, as the kaleidoscopic torrent of highlighter and pen marking throughout my copy can attest. Not long after I found Jim Hunter’s prolific work, and began following along with land reform debates and commentary on Twitter and in the Scottish news media.

The explicitly future-looking, unrestitutive nature of the Land Reform legislation took me a while to grapple with as I began learning about the buyout processes. Indeed, when I explain the process (of negotiated sales or the Right to Buy) to friends or colleagues in Canada, they almost always react in awe of the system followed up by disbelief that the transfers to communities involve the transfer of money.

Community land ownership and land reform more generally, may not be a restitutive revolution, but it certainly is political.

As a large, unique, and ambitious undertaking, community land ownership occupies an unusual ideological space that can be difficult to square with our existing beliefs. The right-of-centre is the most prominent origin of criticism, asking perfectly reasonable questions about state intrusion into the realm of individual private property rights. (On the balance, or indeed ‘acute asymmetry’ of property rights versus economic, social, and cultural rights I recommend Dr. Kirsteen Shields’ 2015 speech to the Scottish Human Rights Commission, available here.)  But for those of us whose concerns about society’s future tend to fall further to the left, critical questioning seems less forthcoming – especially so for those of us who also support community land ownership in principle. (I hope it’s apparent that I don’t wish to conflate community land ownership with any particular ideological bent.)

It’s this ideological limbo the community land ownership finds itself in that necessitates critical questioning from the left as well as right. The questions that I keep returning to are:

  • Does this system empower communities at the expense of relieving the state of responsibilities?
  • Does the largely volunteer-driven nature of community ownership activities replicate inequities by further empowering the most empowered communities and individuals therein? Further, does that dependency limit effective delivery and sustainability of community projects and services?

At a discussion I sat in on a few weeks ago, a participant observed that the problems that compel communities to buy land (brain drain, poor housing stock, low employment, instability from de facto governance by a private landlord, etc.) were brought into relief by the erosion of the welfare state. The neoliberal project of the late 20th century and Recession-era austerity of the last decade laid bare the aforementioned foundational cracks in Scottish life that welfare state policies had acted as putty to smooth.

Like any ambitious project, (be that community land ownership, Land Reform, Scottish Independence, the UK, the EU), we can’t assume it’ll achieve that which we most desire simply because we support it in principle.

I urge readers to consider whether the goals of democracy, economic prosperity, improved local governance, and environmental sustainability necessitate complementary reforms, policies, and programs. It’s my belief that they do, and that realizing the full potential benefit of community land ownership requires big, creative, and ambitious thinking.