Review: Blossom by Lesley Riddoch

As a collection of stories about people who have strived to empower themselves and their communities, Lesley Riddoch’s Blossom is inspiring, and makes a clear, coherent case for community ownership and more devolution at a local level. However, it is as an explanation of the persisting disempowerment and inequality in Scottish society that it is of most value.

The subject of ‘The Scottish Effect’ has been tackled many times but perhaps never so coherently. Through a thorough and enlightening examination of our history Ms Riddoch argues that Scots have an inherited tolerance for inequality. Centuries of feudal land ownership and the many social ills that has spawned – such as unaffordable housing and chronic over-crowding- have taught us not to expect access to our own resources. As a result we are politically disengaged and completely unaware of our own capabilities and capacity for change.

For centuries, Scots living at the mercy of distant landlords meant high rents, bad treatment and insecurity; feudal landownership created a huge landless class, most of whom had no choice but to inhabit industrialised areas where they were further exploited. No poor law meant work or die.

However, this was not a universal experience. In Norway and Denmark, many workers were also landowners- and those who moved with the tide of industrialisation into towns and cities were given access to allotments and small plots of land by way of compensation. Even In England, where many workers had historically been freeholders, the urbanised working classes were accommodated in terraced housing- allowing them access to a front and back garden as compensation for the upheaval from their rural roots.

The Scottish crisis in land ownership led to a second one in housing and chronic overcrowding in Scotland’s towns and cities. The Royal Commission on Housing in 1917 found an ‘almost unbelievable density’ in Scotland compared to England, a trend that continued to grow throughout the twentieth century.

In 1951, census results showed that 55 per cent of Glasgow’s population were living in chronically overcrowded conditions – compared to just 0.5 per cent of their counterparts in London. Even in the 1970s and 80s Scots continued to live with an epidemic of dampness spreading through cheaply built social housing.

The point – according to the author – is this; we are a nation of people accustomed to bad treatment and inequality; ‘such a profound experience of deprivation doesn’t easily leave folk memory.’

So what of us modern Scots?

Ms Riddoch borrows a sociological term from Frenchman Pierre Bourdieu to explain how the Scots ‘Habitus’ – or behavioural patterns and cultural preferences- are determined by the an inherited template of inequality. Because generations of our predecessors endured some of the worst living and working conditions, today we tolerate the same injustices in their modern day incarnations – and think nothing of it.

The largeness of the country estates owned by a handful of elites has been transferred onto every other aspect of our lives and we blindly trust in distant authority and centralised power instead of the capacity of the average person.

Scotland has the largest councils in Europe and the lowest level of democratic activity. Staggeringly, in France 360’000 local councils exist compared to our 32.

We don’t make decisions about what affects us locally because we’ve never owned and controlled the land we live on, and voter turnout is pitifully low because historically landownership was a precondition of enfranchisement. Today 25 per cent of Scotland’s estates have been owned by the same family for over 400 years, and tenants of these estates still live in fear of speaking out against landowners should their lease fail to be renewed.

Poor Scots don’t exercise or eat well – we are the sick man of Europe and die young because that’s the way it has always been. We continue to live within the fourth most unequal state in the world where the gulf between the richest and the poorest is obscene by any civilised society’s standards.

The voices of women are excluded from public life as if it that were absolutely normal and we tolerate some of the lowest levels of female representation in our parliament and public bodies.

We also let very rich men who were gifted everything they have by accident of birth tell us that the poor and underprivileged of our country are to blame for their circumstances – and should expect nothing from them.

Our Habbitus- Ms Riddoch tells us – is to expect inequality. Expect not to be entitled. And she makes a very convincing case.

However, the good news is that it doesn’t have to be like this. Those interpreting Bourdieu’s work as a tool for social change have noted that Habitus ‘is not fixed or permanent, and can be changed under unexpected situations.’

And across Scotland the embryonic stages of a quiet community led revolution are stirring. Ms Riddoch takes her inspiration for the book’s title in part from the people she has met during the course of her career as a campaigning journalist. People who “like the little white rose of Scotland [have] survived hard times and official neglect”.

As a trustee of the Isle of Eigg Trust, Ms Riddoch was involved in the historic 1997 community buy-out of the Island. Prior to the buy-out many inhabitants lived within the confines of one room to conserve heat. Diesel was the expensive and often inaccessible fuel they relied upon entirely. As no land was made available for a rubbish tip, most people shared their already limited living space with rats, and the majority lived without leases.

After years of struggling to finance the buyout, today, the Isle of Eigg is one of Scotland’s most capable communties, tackling problems such as climate change and depopulation head on. In 2008, diesel was finally replaced with a mini grid integrating solar, wind and hydro energy known as Eiggtricity. By 2009, emissions had been cut by a third and the Eiggachs now have a much sought after and elusive asset – affordable energy security.

A co-operatively owned estate near South Lanarkshire is another success story. Tired of tolerating the damp, badly heated and insecure towerblocks they inhabited, the tenants of West Whitlawburn formed the Steering Committee of a Housing Co-op in 1989.

Describing her visit to the estate in 2010, Ms Riddoch explains the sharp contrast between the west and the neighbouring council owned East Whitlawburn estate where icy paths, single glazed windows and disintegrating brick work were still ubiquitous.

In the west, paths were cleared every morning and alarms fitted in the homes of the most vulnerable tenants. People took it in shifts to monitor CCTV screens and provide cups of tea in the middle of the night to any of the 70 vulnerable tenants who buzzed down for whatever reason.

11 deaths have been prevented because of this monitoring system, and the co-op have produced social accounts providing facts and figures proving that their way of doing things saves lives and cash – for anyone who is any doubt that community ownership is the way to go.

The Eiggachs, tenants of West Whitlawburn and others like them – Ms Riddoch states – were only able to reach their potential once they had full access to their own resources and decision making at a local level. This is a message which will resonate well with independence supporters, and clearly one that the author feels is at least somewhat relevant to the current constitutional debate.

Nevertheless, it is an indictment that in a country which considers itself a modern democracy: “So much effort had to be expended…to reach a level of fairness that’s been normal in other neighbouring nations for centuries”.

Despite the success of the Eiggachs and the tenants of West Whitlawburn, community ownership is still not a mainstream option in housing provision. The Eigg buy-out put land reform on the political agenda, and the Land Reform Act was passed by the Scottish Parliament in 2003, but very few communities have taken advantage of the Scottish Land Fund to finance Buyouts.

There is a very practical reason for this – the community buyout model is too intimidating for most, and politicians routinely advocate for community ownership without coughing up the resources to make it happen. Land Reform is one of the most pressing issues facing Scotland and Ms Riddoch suggests the swift introduction of a land tax would be the most sensible way to bring that about. However, community buyouts alone will not rectify the disempowerment felt across Scotland.

Although the author doesn’t devote too much time to the explicit discussion of next year’s vote, there are important messages here for Independence campaigners.

Ms Riddoch warns it is possible that “Such a divided, unequal nation is unlikely to push wholeheartedly for a cause like Scottish independence. why bother when folk have smaller fish to fry?” She maintains that “change will only come when people can visualise things being otherwise” – this is an important point which is frequently made by other progressive commentators such as Gerry Hassan.

Knowing what we know about the Scottish psyche, it is essential that the broader Yes campaign move heaven and earth to spark imaginations and – although it is beginning to sound like a platitude – provide a real ‘vision’ for the future of Scotland. This can be achieved by allowing the terms of the debate to be shaped by as many sections of the population as possible. In the process people who might now be disengaged will find the confidence to participate in building the independent country we hope to see. The fact that so many are already by-passing the official campaign in favour of grass roots movements such as National Collective and Radical Independence is of course the strongest indicator we have that a Scotland closer to the democratic and empowered one Ms Riddoch provides us with snap shots of here is possible.

Trusting the people of Scotland to build a better society from the bottom up is an essential step in empowering them to take the leap towards national self determination.

Liz Thomson
National Collective