Land reformation could be just over the horizon for the people of Scotland. But can we count on meaningful changes coming ‘top-down’ through the mainstream political process? Let’s take a look at some of the background to how the Government was formed to help with our expectations.
The sordid history of political power in Scotland as we know it begins with King David I (1124-1153). Following the crumbling of the Roman Empire, the Celtic system of common land and the Roman idea of private property blurred. The result was feudalism: a land-based power structure with the King at the top of the tower. David I ruthlessly introduced feudalism, creating a loyal elite which he granted control over pieces of Scotland in contracts called ‘feus.’ These contracts were revocable at any time, so kept the nobles in check. In this way King James I cemented his power over a young Scotland and kick-started the landowning system which we inherit today. This was the first great step in creating a national power. Kings from this point on reigned in more and more of the country under a royal dictatorship.
Advisors to the King took until the 14th Century to morph into something resembling a Parliament. Known as ‘the three estates’ it consisted of clergy, burgh commissioners and nobility. Theses were in many respects the holders of landed power: The church was once the biggest landowner, controlling ¼ of Scotland before the Reformation; burgh commissioners controlled the growing urban centres and the nobility consisted of men holding feus directly from the King. It was this last group which came to be the most important political group by the 16th Century. Partly populated by men with hereditary, landed titles (Duke of Bucchleuch, Earl of Fife etc.) it also included a social stratum of untitled ‘gentry.’ To be accepted as part of the gentry one had to own a large swathe of land and country estate, so entering the class of people who lived off rents from the land they owned (a.k.a. enjoying luxurious lifestyles funded from the labour of the landless peasantry).
As decisions on how the country was ruled were made increasingly by the men who owned the land they perhaps unsurprisingly sought to secure their interests. This was achieved by Acts of Parliament which cemented a monopoly of land ownership in their hands. For example the Act Concerning Talzies prevented land being removed by debtors when gentry went bust, the Law of Succession ensured estates were never split up and the Register of Sasines allowed the general pillaging of land by those who could afford expensive lawyers. This power to create laws which ‘good citizens’ must abide by was basically a monopoly of violence. If an impoverished peasant attempted to use land which had been enclosed they were forcibly evicted by the King’s constabulary, locked up and fined. This increasingly occurred as the commonly held ancestral land of peasants was enclosed, eventually sparked resistance during the Crofters’ War.
Such a power to write the laws of the land was central in the next two great leaps made by the landowning class towards our fine Parliamentary system. First the landowners rid the Parliament of clergy by excluded Catholics in 1567 and Protestant bishops in 1638. They also kidnapped huge areas of land held by the Catholic Church during the Reformation at the start of the 17th Century by hoodwinking the threatened clergy. The other vital step was the removal of the monarchy from the top of the pyramid . This happened following the defeat of the Jacobite rebellion when a whole raft of the King’s feudal powers were swept away by a landholders’ Parliament. The monarchy was retained but with greatly dwindling powers. This reform may have prevented widespread uprising by depleting royal rule before the masses rose up to kick them out.
The overthrow of the monarchy was by no means a win for democracy. The Parliament was now dominated by the landowning elite; a class of people defined by gaining financially from others. By securing power over the land – the only means to produce wealth – they establishing the continual transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich. Those working the land rented it from a class who lived off that rent. It is no accident that the very same class held or influenced the positions of political power. Not only that but they also secured the ability to vote for seats in the Parliament. From 1430 men could only vote if they held land worth more than 40 shillings. This of course meant that landowners voted for their sons and grandsons, securing Parliamentary power.
But wait! It surely all changed with the Great Reform Act of 1832 I hear you shout. The industrial revolution brought a new class of wealthy capitalists made rich from extractive and productive industries. These nouveau-riche men demanded political power such as their old-money peers held. In France the result was Revolution and political upheaval, the removal of hereditary ownership of land and land redistribution. Not so in the UK, we instead had the Great Reform! Extending the right to vote to property owning men, reform again extinguished the fire of revolt. However, again this was no move away from the landed class as the new industrialists bought up land in a desire to join the social elite. More fundamentally, the means of wealth was still tied to the land. Industrial capitalism simply introduced another layer of profit-driven power. The raw materials required for the industrial revolution were dug out the ground or grown from it, so great capitalist riches were still at the whim of landowners and rent. The 1832 Act was a clever move by the establishment to relinquish enough control to prevent their upheaval, effectively allowing new entrants to their social stratum into the game. And so the power-hold of the landed class was retained.
So the origins of the political system is entrenched in landowning power and the ability that gives to extract wealth from the labour of others. Although the Parliament has visibly moved far away from the blatant landed power of the feudal system, the influence of landowners, directly through positions in political parties and indirectly by influencing land use, remains deeply ingrained. Reforms in 1918 and 1928 brought the vote to all men and all women respectively but did these changes really hack at the roots of landed power or simply avert any significant upheaval? To this day we see the continued, methodical exploitation of one class of people by another, enabled and justified by the Political system. Maybe things haven’t changed so much as we would like to think…