WELL, it was a helluva SNP conference for me – and I could only stay for two hours. Long enough though, to realise a few things.

Firstly, the degree of frustration and quiet despair throughout Scotland over unaffordable land prices, unaffordable housing and the depressing absence of local self-government is reflected nowhere on the official SNP agenda. Again.

Second, exposing this mismatch between urgent reality and complacent government statements at fringe meetings may make good theatre but changes nothing about SNP policy. Communities everywhere must spend volunteer time “bidding” for funds to save vital local services, while broken structures of local democracy and land ownership remain completely intact.

The National: The SNP conference, October 2019The SNP conference, October 2019

Thirdly, political parties are not ideas incubators, but electoral machines that respond to electoral threat. And that’s why I concluded, at the end of an event on Monday, that I wouldn’t be speaking at any more SNP fringe events because the presence of bold “outsiders” only serves to mask the responsibility of delegates to challenge the party themselves. And, in response to a direct question about how a platform of change might be delivered, I replied that change probably needs a new party, and if necessary, I’d endeavour to set one up, at a time that doesn’t harm the independence campaign.

And to avoid any misunderstanding, working together to win the next referendum comes first.

Naturally there’s been a bit of response! In fact, it’s been overwhelming and the SNP would be wise to take note.

It’s not just about me – one person voicing concerns felt by no-one else would simply be ignored.

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But evidently there is widespread (if unspoken) despair about the SNP’s ability to make big life-changing impacts on the age-old problems that hold Scots back. When will plots of land be available for £10k an acre so locals can build not leave? When will vacant and derelict land be taxed or compulsorily sold? When will the interests of speculative volume house builders come second to cooperative, self-build and locally commissioned homes – the cheaper, proven methods that dominate housing provision elsewhere in Europe? When will district heating be normal? When will “local” councils the size of small countries be replaced (or supplemented) with town and island sized authorities? When will community councils stop being palmed off with an average annual budget of just £400 and no statutory powers? When will the tendency to centralise power and the unhesitating embrace of market solutions actually stop?

The National: Portree is demolishing its homeless shelter, where a business owner was forced to stayPortree is demolishing its homeless shelter, where a business owner was forced to stay

I appreciate these may not be the questions on everyone’s lips. Folk generally express frustration more directly. The lasses I met earlier this year, temporarily living in a second home on Skye, are leaving their jobs and the island they love. The homeless Portree-based business owner whose landlord changed her long term let into holiday accommodation has already quit, unable to sell her restaurant as a going concern because prospective buyers realise there’s nowhere to accommodate staff. The homeless accommodation she stayed in is being demolished. Yet all the time, tourists keep pouring onto the misty isle.

Locals are not sitting on their hands. In north Skye, the Staffin Community Trust is near the end of a wearying five-year battle to build six new family homes, a medical clinic and business units. But delays, obstacles and cumbersome systems mean their funding promises might expire before all the boxes are ticked, building warrants secured and a final £350k is raised. Without this new housing, young families will leave. Already the school roll has more than halved in a decade and the worry is that another vibrant Gaelic-speaking community will “sleepwalk into becoming a holiday village,” dwindling as a place for local people to live, even as it sky-rockets as a place for film companies, bus tours and tourists to visit.

The bad thing – it’s avoidable. The worse thing – yet another generation of Scots are having their energy sapped and their modest hopes crushed.

Is it just Skye? Is it heck.

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I may be a misery magnet, but the tale of everyday dispossession and disillusionment is repeated almost everywhere I go.

Yet in the midst of this, some SNP politicians insist that if Scotland was an independent country it would be higher up the democratic league table than England.


The world’s most democratic nation is Norway – not because their folk try harder but because land has always been owned by local people and democratic power is owned by local people too. Admittedly, the Norwegians missed the plague of feudalism – a system of hierarchy, entitlement and top-down control that’s become an unconscious default in Scotland, stifling confidence, initiative and dissent. The devolved Norwegian Government went on to abolish nobility, establish tiny municipal councils as the all-powerful, self-governing units of Norwegian democracy and, after independence, effectively nationalise rivers so that hydro wealth could swell municipal coffers. That’s why Norway has 422 local councils today while Scotland has just 32.

That’s why one in 88 Norwegians stands for elections while just one in 2071 Scots does the same. Norwegians don’t have community buyouts, asset transfers or decade-long processes to build a few blessed houses – they have laws to keep land affordable and ownership widespread. All of this keep the self-belief of citizens (and belief in the Norwegian Government) at a world-beating high.

For long centuries, Scotland couldn’t emulate Norway. Now – in many areas – we can.

Yet what happens?

Some SNP politicians wring their hands, bemoan sky-high urban land and housing prices, yet vote down Andy Wightman’s proposals to curb short-term lets and shrug as the long-awaited Compulsory Sale Order, forcing the sale of derelict and vacant land, is inexplicably postponed.

The National: Andy WightmanAndy Wightman

Whatever happened to the brave Scottish Government that defied the mighty alcohol industry over minimum alcohol pricing – through every court in the UK – and won? How great would it be if ministers stopped taking their cue from hyper-cautious lawyers and acted urgently to release plots of land for housing – determined to fight any legal action that might arise?

How great would it be if the Scottish Government changed building regulations now, phasing out the gas heating installed in almost every new build and announcing a scheduled shift to district heating and green heat pump technology? That would boost our own advanced heat-pump businesses, create thousands of jobs and create a template of can-do urgency about the climate emergency, for every public body. Why not?

Last month, I attended an excellent conference about the 1919 Land Settlement Act – a piece of Victorian legislation which, with astonishing speed, created seven thousand new crofts and a similar number of new lowland landholdings in less than a year. At the event, Professor Jim Hunter called on the Scottish Government to set up a Re-peopling Commission to echo that inter-war urgency, and cut through the delay and red tape that’s choking community effort a century later. It’s a good suggestion.

Will it happen?


I’m sure the SNP will cite myriad projects, commissions and small advances instead. But these aren’t systemic, bold or big enough.

The Scottish Greens echo almost all these sentiments, but spend most of their time at Holyrood on the back foot, thanks to the “winner takes all” system that dominates a parliament designed for compromise and consensus. So maybe a new politics is more urgently needed than a new party. I don’t know yet.

To be crystal clear, I hugely admire Nicola Sturgeon’s energy, human rights focus, tenacity and clarity and realise that being First Minister is an utterly thankless task. If the SNP leader turns her remarkable skills towards optimism-inspiring bold moves and encourages ministers to reverse the polarity of top-down, centralised Scotland, I’ll be right behind her. But if not, once indyref2 is jointly fought and won, the task of transforming Scotland must find a new channel.