Henry Hill is a British Conservative and Unionist activist and writer. He is also editor of the non-party website Open Unionism, which can be followed on Twitter here.

Scottish Tories attack “Big Brother” Nationalist land reforms

There’s something slightly archaic about a political campaign for land reform. It smacks of such the great Irish political battles of the Nineteenth Century, or the Highland Clearances. Nonetheless “who owns the land” is, courtesy of the SNP, once again one of the core issues upon which a 21st Century political party is campaigning.

The SNP’s proposals come on two fronts. First, they plan to prevent companies registered outside the European Union from owning land in Scotland, with a view to potentially extending the restrictions to trusts and partnerships. This is allegedly to ensure that land ownership is transparent and serves the interests of “social justice”.

The SNP is also proposing to enable ministers to “take action” against landowners viewed as barriers to “sustainable development” – possibly including forced sale of land – and strip shooting and deerstalking estates of the tax breaks they currently enjoy.

Grouped together in a proposed Land Reform Bill, this rural populism has Labour’s support is opposed by the Conservatives, who point out that shooting and stalking generates jobs in some of Scotland’s most economically fragile areas and described the scheme as “a Big Brother land grab”. Scottish Land and Estates, the organisation which represents private landowners, has attacked the Scottish Government for viewing private landowners as part of the problem.

It also seems likely that such a measure might discourage foreign direct investment into Scotland from outside the EU and increase Scotland’s economic dependence on it, with obvious implications for a future referendum.

Whilst the proposals don’t apply to individuals fear not, there is a stiff dose of reform directed their way too. The SNP are mulling proposals to give all the children of a landowner equal rights to their heritable estate – rather than leaving it to the discretion of the deceased, as now.

Families could obviously come to their own arrangements in advance to “get around” the law, in the slightly surprising phrase of Rural Affairs Minister Richard Lochhead, but the intent of the law is to break up the great Scottish estates. The logic runs that when several people have claim upon an asset like land or property, it is more likely to be sold off.

Once again the Tories are on the offensive, with farmer Alex Johnstone MSP pointing out that the law would also encompass hundreds of small and medium-sized family farms such as his own. He claims that if broken up many of these holdings would no longer be economically viable and there would be a detrimental effect on Scottish agriculture. Ireland provides a useful historical example here, where inheritance laws that divided land equally between the children of Catholic landowners devastated farming.

The Nationalists have, as one might expect, gleefully charged the Conservatives of taking to the trenches for their deer-shooting gentry “colleagues” against the best interests of the people of Scotland. It looks to me like another sign of Scottish Tory self-confidence that they are prepared to pick this particular fight.

Despatches from the front lines of devolution

If this column were to make itself a handy companion to constitutional arcana, there would probably be sufficient material.

This week has seen Nicola Sturgeon wait scarcely a matter of hours before leading an SNP backlash against the Smith Commission’s proposals – agreed by two representatives of her own party – which culminated in three Nationalist councillors burning the report. Polls show a majority of Scots want absolute control over tax and welfare but don’t want to deviate from UK levels in either, whilst a panel of economists assembled by the Financial Times are deeply sceptical.

Reactions south of the border at the scale of Lord Smith’s proposals range from bemusement to scepticism to outright fury – and not just in England. It has rightly been noted from all perspectives that it is not in the Nationalist interest to accept these proposals as legitimate and final – just as it has never been in their interest at any previous point in the of devolution, for all the glib confidence from the “more powers” camp.

Meanwhile nationalists continue to use the chaotic state of the three separate devolution processes to bid against Westminster. For example, Sturgeon has taken great umbrage at the Government’s proposal to allow Northern Ireland to set its own Corporation Tax, which none of the unionist parties proposed to devolve to Holyrood.

More egregiously Carwyn Jones, the Labour First Minister of Scotland, has chimed in to demand that Wales get all the powers Scotland is getting. This would have the handy result of giving Welsh lawmakers a short-cut to increased power and prestige (and remuneration!) without having to square it off with their markedly less enthusiastic electorate. Devolution should reflect the differences between the home nations in all areas except, it seems, how much of it they want.

Sinn Fein councillor arrested for paramilitary activity as DUP plot to retake East Belfast

A local councillor was amongst one of five arrested by the Police Service of Northern Ireland on Thursday morning as part of counter-paramilitary activity. A PSNI spokesperson said that incidents covered by the investigation included threats and even shootings.

Not that the example set by Councillor Tony McCaul is by any means a universal one: just this week Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister, a fierce critic of Sinn Fein’s links to Republican terror, had to defend his cooperation with Billy Hutchinson, the leader of the left-wing Progressive Unionists and an unrepentant former murderer for the loyalist UVF paramilitary group.

Meanwhile the Democratic Unionists have selected a “Teflon man” to contest what will probably be one of Northern Ireland’s most interesting constituencies come May: East Belfast. Up-and-comer Gavin Robinson, known for his adroit navigation of a politically tricky year as Mayor of Belfast, will hope to recapture the seat lost by party leader and First Minister Peter Robinson in 2010, in one of the night’s shock upsets.

Naomi Long, leader of the liberal-leaning and cross-community Alliance Party, captured the seat on a 22.9 per cent swing after a period of political difficulty for the Robinsons, but has since been the target of loyalist violence in the heavily pro-Union seat after the APNI joined nationalist councillors to restrict the flying of the Union Flag from Belfast government buildings.