Last month, after First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced plans for a second independence referendum, Theresa May refused to grant one. “Now”, she said repeatedly, “is not the time”.
Her argument was that it would be unfair to ask the Scottish people to decide whilst Brexit negotiations remained unfinished. But on Tuesday,18th of April, she made it clear that she felt it perfectly ok to hold a snap General Election, which will be a de-facto plebiscite on both Europe and Scottish self-determination, before the Brexit negotiations have properly started.
It wasn’t the only glaring irony from the shock announcement. The Conservatives, as the senior partner of the coalition, passed the Fixed Term Parliament Act in 2011, presumably to guard against what the unelected Tory leader chose to do. Seeing the opposition in disarray and sensing an opportunity, she called a General Election.
Everything about the announcement was, initially at least, baffling. Usually, there’s some hint of what’s to come because of a leak, or a strong rumour. Tuesday? Nothing. It appears that it hadn’t even been discussed until the Easter weekend, and then only amongst a tiny inner sanctum of May confidants. Only weeks earlier she’d ruled out a snap vote, and that seemed logical. After all, she saw the narrow Leave vote from June 2016 as all the mandate she needed to pursue a hard Brexit. Parliament had given its blessing over Article 50 by an overwhelming margin: 498-114. She had a working majority in the House and there was no public clamour for an early election.
And the thought did cross my mind – what happens if June 8th goes badly for the Conservatives? Here’s an unlikely but not impossible scenario. Labour and Jeremy Corbyn, sensing they’ve nothing to lose, rediscover their inner radicalism and bring out a manifesto that promises, let’s say, a 50p top rate of income-tax and minimum wage of a tenner an hour. My suspicion is that the right-wing media (or, as it’s otherwise known, the media) would savage it but amongst the vast majority of people who aren’t part of the narrow, neoliberal establishment group-think, it could prove quite popular and Corbyn would make some gains.
If this was combined with the LibDems making any sort of a recovery (in England, anyway – Alistair Carmichael’s jaiket could, post memogate, be on a shoogly nail) and assuming (rightly, I think) that there won’t be significant Conservative gains in Scotland, we’d have a perfect storm which would see the Tory majority wiped out. We’d then have the quite bonkers situation of a minority government in a hastily jumbled together coalition which would no longer have any moral case for a hard Brexit, yet Article 50 will already have been triggered.
We’d have a new Prime Minister who will, like May until a few days earlier, have no mandate from the people and who may well be pro-EU. In these circumstances, anything approaching another SNP landslide in Scotland would be much, much more than a mandate for a second shot at self-determination; it would be nothing short of a Declaration of Independence.
So here we have a government that told Scotland to park the independence issue and get on with the day job but who has effectively abdicated its responsibilities over Brexit negotiations to fight an election that looks, on the surface, totally unnecessary and fraught with risk. This is omnishambles on stilts.
The announcement of a General Election, like so much of modern day politics, defies all reason.
Or does it?
A day after the shock announcement, I realised that there may in fact be method in this madness. The key to understanding the decision lies in us abandoning any residual belief that the UK Government gives a damn about us. Like Brexit, the calling of a general election now has nothing whatsoever to do with the good of the people and absolutely everything to do with the avarice and utter ruthlessness of the Conservative Party and its commitment to continuing and absolute power, which in the short term means continuing austerity, a hard Brexit, a further rolling back of the state, hard won privileges removed and a further shift to the hard right. Welcome to Brexit Britain. Unless you don’t have the right paperwork, of course.
Timing is everything here. The Conservative Government has a working majority of seventeen, but twenty four of their number may yet be subject to criminal charges relating to alleged fraud during the 2015 election campaign. There’s your working majority right there. Unless, of course, you call a new election and conveniently delay the expected Crown Prosecution Service announcement indefinitely. In this context, Tuesday’s decision is suddenly a lot less baffling.
The Tories may be mad, bad and dangerous to know, but they’re not stupid. They know fine well that the Brexit negotiations aren’t going to end well. They haven’t even begun well. In the words of one insider, the result will either be bad, or terrible, or catastrophic. They know – and farmers need to know this – that there will be no easy access to the Single Market. They also know that means we’ll revert to World Trade Organisation rules, which means substantial tariffs on, for example, Scotch lamb.
Theresa May also knows that Scotland will do everything it can to stop a hard Brexit, even though, as I’ve written before, the Supreme Court judgement on Article 50 makes it legally impossible for us to impede it. That’s why I believe that promises over repatriation of farming and fishing will not be fulfilled – because any devolution of competencies hampers May’s plans for a UK single market.
We’ll be left, once again, cap in hand. But the cupboard could be bare. Sure, there might be some level of support for a year or two, but reduction of Pillar One payments to zero has been Tory policy for ten years. A hard Brexit lets them deliver it. Even the little bit we gratefully receive from our imperial masters will be reluctantly given, and gladly withheld when some crisis or other in the English NHS needs some money thrown at it. And it’s easy to take that money from the ungrateful subsidy junkie Jocks than from the Home Counties. And keep sending the oil, lads, that’s the spirit. And the whisky revenue. We’re all in this together, after all, in this inclusive and precious family of equal nations. Now go and eat your cereal.
The Supreme Court ruling confirmed our legal irrelevance. Our parliament has limited and reversible powers and those that we currently have are being challenged by a Brexit that impacts on our devolved competencies, rendering the Sewell Convention redundant. We didn’t vote for Trident, austerity, the Bedroom Tax, Brexit. Yet we got the lot. Every bit of it. An SNP councillor got into a bit of a minor stooshie for questioning the Scottish Conservative Party’s commitment to Scotland, but what other conclusion was he expected to reach? At least one of their MSPs doesn’t recognise the sovereignty of the parliament she sits in. Her leader argues forcefully to remain, and then jumps onto the good ship Brexit. The same leader defends the horrific rape clause and even blames the First Minister for not mitigating against it.
So given all this, in what possible parallel universe could be possibly imagine that a hardline, neoliberal, emboldened and ruthless Conservative government would consider a special deal for Scotland? Or, for that matter, any sort of deal whatsoever?
And all the time, all the industry can say is “we want the best deal for Scotland”. But that isn’t a policy. That’s a wish list. I mean, I wish I could have dinner and drinks with Scarlett Johansson – but that isn’t going to happen either.
June 8th feels like endgame, the day of reckoning. For Scotland, it is not one election but three, for it will comprise not only a vote for Westminster representation but also a plebiscite on Scottish self-governance and a re-run of the EU vote. It’s also a stark – and, hopefully, easy choice between two ideologies from different ends of the moral spectrum. To borrow once again from the late, great writer Iain Banks:
“..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”.
Theresa May, in her hubris, in her narrow worldview, in her capriciousness, in her arrogance, may actually have done us a favour and offered us the ultimate prize. Some day I may feel like thanking her. But not now.
When I was a referendum agent on polling day in 2014, I was told to remind folk that they weren’t allowed to take selfies in the polling station. I’d imagine the same rules will apply, and that’s quite right. But part of me wants to do it anyway.
Because I’d love to record the moment when I voted in the very last UK election in which Scotland was a part.
You know where I stand, and you know what to do.
And I’ll meet you further on up the road.
Alec Ross is a regular columnist with The Orkney News and every Friday writes a Farming Matters column