Farming Matters: Scottish Farming Needs a Specifically Scottish Brexit Settlement

“I didn’t lose the referendum. I simply repositioned the location of victory” (@angrysalmond).

“I don’t tell the truth. I tell what ought to be the truth” (Blanche Dubois, ‘A Streetcar Named Desire”)

So, how’s your week been?

Employing Scottish mainstream media logic, mine’s been brilliant. Saturday saw my beloved Stranraer FC, against all the odds, win the league after a stunning victory over East Fife. And then on Sunday, despite the handicap of trying out an impulse purchase of new Nike irons for the first time and making yet more radical changes to my golf swing, I took the money against my regular playing partners. If Carlsberg did weekends….

There’s only one problem with these anecdotes. They are completely untrue.

Stranraer were languishing at the bottom of League One in January, so manager Brian Reid got the dreaded vote of confidence from the board and was made available to the industry within twenty-four hours. The return of Stevie Farroll saw us safe from relegation – just – but it was a close call. The golf saw me putt like a dog and I ended up having to buy the drinks. Again.

It seems that the concepts of winning and losing aren’t as clear cut as I’d always thought. Seemingly minor progress is reported and celebrated as stunning victory. Social media was full of chatter, for example, about the reaction of the Rangers team, fans and manager to a last minute winner in Sunday’s humdrum, meaningless end of season fixture against the might of Partick Thistle. The celebrations were hilariously over the top, more befitting of a victory over Barcelona in a Champions League Final than a scrappy three points over Firhill’s finest.

Events in Glasgow seemed an appropriate end to the week given the mainstream media reaction to the Scottish Council election results last Thursday. Clearly, the logic runs as follows. The Tories ran a campaign blatantly bereft of policies and instead fought it as a de-facto plebiscite on independence. Just to be sure, I checked the leaflet that they kindly sent me. “We said no….we meant it!” it states, angrily, which was unfortunate wording for a party still defending the appalling rape clause.

Given that the Tories made significant gains on this platform, runs the logic, Scotland has rejected independence. We can expect to hear the same rhetoric immediately after the snap election of June 8th, when it is certain that the Conservatives, by triangulating the No vote and under no circumstances talking about policy – will win a few seats – possibly as many as nine – from the SNP, and probably Edinburgh South from Labour.

I don’t know where to begin with the flaws in this argument. Firstly, if last Thursday was a poll on independence, then it was a bad night for supporters of the union. Significantly gains for one unionist party – the Conservatives – were made almost completely at the expense of another – Labour. In fact, the number of elected councillors in Scotland now standing on a nominally unionist ticket has actually fallen by four while SNP and Green gains have boosted the pro-Independence numbers by twelve. It may well be that the Tories have hoovered up the Labour No vote whilst the SNP lead over its nearest challenger actually increased. If this was a rejection of independence, the message was clear. The 23% have spoken. No to independence! If that’s the message being sent, I fancy our chances.

For Ruth Davidson, of course, there’s also the difficulty in asking for people to reject something – a vote on independence – that has already been agreed by the Holyrood section 30 vote and which is a specific SNP manifesto pledge. In any case, it won’t happen until at least Autumn 2018.

In the meantime, we have Brexit.

In Orkney last week, I argued that Scottish farming needed a specifically Scottish Brexit settlement that reflected the different animal that our industry is – differences that include the much greater contribution to our economy and the significantly higher number of jobs that rely on a viable farming sector – about 400,000 out of a population of 5.4 million.

There is absolutely no doubt that the Westminster Government has neither the political will nor the intellectual capacity to pursue a nuanced, differentiated approach on behalf of Scotland and the other devolved administrations, as this doesn’t fit the narrative of Brexit-means-Brexit, or of its vision of a UK single market. Any attempt at compromise has been flatly rejected.

This presents a challenge, not just for Scotland but for the many parts of the UK whose support requirements differ – Scotland’s Less Favoured Areas, for example. Also, cheap imports and tariffs make us less competitive and we may end up calling for less stringent welfare and environmental standards as we try to square the circle of trying to become a global trade leader whilst maintaining a hard-won reputation for quality and traceability. That, to say the least, will not be easy.

Furthermore, I can see a real problem in the labour market. Scotland’s population numbers have flatlined and we are a knowledge based economy that relies on the free movement of labour that a hard Brexit prevents. Indeed, negotiations haven’t even started yet and people have already stopped coming. Given that the Brexit act is impacting on devolved competencies like farming, health and education, this is a clear breach of the Sewell Convention. Or it would be if the February Supreme Court judgement hadn’t ruled it legally redundant. And, post-Brexit, farming powers aren’t being repatriated so we can’t even mitigate the damage.

Ironically, one of the most articulate spokespeople for remaining in the EU was one Ruth Davidson. The industry must press her to justify her support for a hard Brexit.

Scottish farmers need to know what happens to their £500m in agricultural subsidies. We need to ask her if she agrees with the UK Government policy on Pillar One payments – which is that there shouldn’t be any. We should ask why it is that since the June 2016 referendum she has made not a single representation on behalf of Scotland to her Westminster bosses on Brexit. There was a time when Tory politicians realised that the continuation of the union project depended on strong representation in London. Those days are gone.

Ruth Davidson was right the first time: leaving the EU is a disaster.

June 8th is about Scotland’s constitutional future. The repatriation of powers from Brussels weakens further the powers of Holyrood – including farming powers.

Constitutional matters are of course a reserved matter for Westminster, so any guarantees from any Scottish politician about repatriation of powers should be disregarded. It’s not up to us.

In a very real sense, Brexit presents an existential threat not just to the industry but to Scottish democracy itself. It falls on us all, of whatever persuasion, to save it. Starting now.

Alec Ross is a regular columnist with The Orkney News

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4 replies »

  1. To paraphrase Blanche Dubois….”I don’t tell the truth, I tell what I would like to be the truth.” A very good, and pertinent, choice of quote Alec. Unfortunately – there’s a lot of it about.
    And you mention that people are already stopping coming to Britain – well, they’re also already starting to leave – some by choice – don’t want to stay her now – some because they have been told to go. These are hard working people, and people with skills and ideas and much to offer in many, many ways.
    I’m going to have to listen to ‘Reasons To Be Cheerful’ by Ian Dury and the Blockheads.
    We need some!

  2. “Ruth meets a journalist” sounds like something from a ‘Rupert’ book….maybe it is! Fantasy, all fantasy – we’ll all wake up and sanity will have returned.

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