“What an antithetical mind!” (Byron, on Robert Burns).
“A house divided cannot stand” (Abraham Lincoln)
You never know where life will take you
One Monday morning, in the summer of 2014, I was driving up to Glasgow for a meeting and listening to a Radio Scotland ‘phone-in. They were asking listeners to share their stories about their experiences of the current referendum campaign, and the effect it was having on their relationships.
I pulled over into the nearest lay-by and wrote my story.
By that stage in the game, I was an active member of Farming for Yes and Yes Wigtownshire, writing articles and speaking at events up and down the country. I really enjoyed it, too, and while I knew we wouldn’t persuade the majority of farmers to join us, I knew that we were making some gains.
Despite the relative remoteness of my home, the road outside is quite busy. Anyone driving from Portpatrick to Dumfries has to pass my house. So one day I bought the biggest Yes banner you could possibly imagine and tied it to my fence, before heading into town to do some campaigning.
When I got home, the banner was gone.
I stormed into the kitchen. “Some bastard just stole my banner!”, I may have said to Mhairi.
She looked at me evenly. “Nobody’s stolen it” she said. “It’s in the shed. I took it down. It might reflect your views but it doesn’t reflect mine. Not yet, anyway”.
After a month or so of fraught and sometimes tense negotiation, there was an outbreak of peace and the banner was returned to its rightful place.
She voted Yes, incidentally, but whether it was through a yearning for equality and social justice or just to shut me up remains, in these parts, an open question.
In the film “Sliding Doors”, Gwyneth Paltrow’s love life and career both hinge, unknown to her, on whether or not she catches her train. The two destinations are shown in parallel.
Sending that text from an East Kilbride lay-by feels, three years on, as my sliding-doors moment.
Roughly ten seconds after pressing “send”, my ‘phone rang. It was the producer from Radio Scotland. “I’m putting you on”, she said.
So I told the story again. The next day, a producer from Radio 4 called to arrange an interview, which we conducted at the Highland Show and subsequently at my house in Stranraer. The eventual programme, “Don’t Mention the Referendum”, was then picked up by a Norwegian television station who flew to Scotland to make a programme about the vote. Mhairi and I even got asked by the BBC to sit in a live panel in London on the night of the vote. Frankly, it was all getting a bit bonkers.
When I think about it now, I realise why our story was interesting to people. When you’re involved in political discussion, it’s easy to forget that being a political anorak is actually quite weird, and that most folk couldn’t give a monkeys about GERS figures or The Barnett Consequentials (which would, I always think, be a great name for a rock band – but I digress). But we’re all suckers for a good old-fashioned human interest story, and ours ticked all the boxes.
But there’s another reason why the BBC liked it, I think. It fed into to mainstream media narrative that the referendum was nasty and divisive, a view tediously parroted by unionist politicians and their apologists.
There’s only one problem with this contention: it isn’t true.
Of all the lies being told about the 2014, the “Scotland was ripped apart by division” one is, by some distance, the biggest. And here’s my argument.
Let’s look through the looking glass from the other side. I mean, this is Scotland we’re talking about. Division is in our DNA. We’re the country of Highland and Lowland, of Celtic and Rangers, Glasgow and Edinburgh. A country where the radicalism of Burns co-exists with the twee sentimentality of the Kailyard. No wonder Jekyll and Hyde was written here.
We can start an argument in an empty room. We frequently do. We didn’t need a referendum to get us to disagree. We’d fallen out with each other way before that. When it comes to arguing, we’re the undisputed champion of the world. If we’re being totally honest, part of us watched Alex Salmond sign the Edinburgh agreement and relished the opportunity of a good rammy.
Secondly – and this can’t be said often enough – the 2014 referendum campaign was notable for the exemplary conduct of its participants – the people of Scotland. People throughout history have shed blood and died for their independence. Here in Scotland? Somebody threw an egg at Jim Murphy. That’s it. That’s about as divisive as it got. The campaign showed the people of Scotland in a wonderful light and an exemplar of a modern, peaceful democracy. Attempts to re-write the campaign as divisive need to be called out for what they are – a terrible slur on the good people on both sides of the debate who behaved, almost without exception, impeccably. Sure, things got a bit heated sometimes, but so what? It showed it mattered, reminded us that we were still alive.
The papers certainly weren’t – aren’t – divided. In a country where a 27% support for independence in 2011 became a 45% groundswell in 2014 and where currently half the population want a self-determining Scotland, not a single weekday newspaper supported independence – a concept, incidentally, that isn’t actually very radical. We live in a modern democracy where half the population don’t get their views represented in print. When you think about it, that’s utterly bizarre.
Whenever independence comes, it will be because we’ve thought long and hard about the kind of place we want to live in. And that’s as true for farmers as it is for everyone else.
The journey took me to some wonderful places. And Airdrie.
For it was there that I heard the standout speech of the whole campaign. And I don’t say that lightly – I heard Jim Sillars in full flow. It was, I think, a moment of clarity, an epiphany in deepest Lanarkshire.
At the farm of well-known farmer and columnist Jim Brown, a fellow farming campaigner called Sally – a smart, bright lassie from the Borders, a real out-of-the-box thinker – got to her feet.
Essentially, she said this: What if we asked the question another way?
Imagine, she said, the question posed the other way round. An independent nation is asked to decide whether to surrender its sovereignty to a larger union. It would be allowed a measure of autonomy, but key aspects of its governance would be handed to another nation. It would be used as a military base by the dominant power and yoked to an economy over which it had no control. It would have to be utterly desperate.
In other words, if the current arrangements didn’t exist, we would never construct them.
Scottish farming now has the opportunity to build from the base up.
The current chaos over Brexit provides an opportunity to have an honest discussion about our priorities as an industry. That discussion must include every single person in Scotland. Let’s take the next two years to re-think everything from land use to the supply chain, to re-invent our payment system into something based on the civic good, the environment and economic regeneration.
Absolutely nothing should be off the table. It’s a new game with new rules. Let’s decide what we want our industry to look like and then, crucially, decide who we trust to deliver it.
Informing these discussions must be a realisation that This is a chance to fashion a Scotland that puts people above profit, morality above money. Decency over dividends, fairness over fanaticism. And side before self.
A Scotland that judges people not by the size of their wallet but by the depth of their humanity.
That recognises that social democracy and liberal values can flourish side by side.
When my neighbour’s house is on fire, said Roosevelt, I don’t charge him for the hose.
Scotland must never become the kind of place that asks for a deposit.
I want to live in a Scotland that wears its genius lightly and gives the best of itself freely.
That instinctively knows that there is such a thing as society, and that whether we are from Portpatrick or Palestine, we are all Jock Tamson’s bairns.
Scots have never been afraid to astonish the world. A small country has made a habit of producing big thinkers.
I believe it falls on all of us, in farming and beyond, to think big again.
And to think for ourselves.
This is a big Sliding Doors moment, and this is a train that we cannot afford to miss.
Alec Ross is a regular columnist with The Orkney News and every Friday writes a Farming Matters column