Whatever way you look at it, it takes a full day to travel from Orkney to Stranraer. A couple of weeks back I could have caught the early ferry to Gills Bay, but I opted for morning coffee with the Ritch Family at Kierfiold, Sandwick. Conversation was lively as always, and though I was cutting it fine for the midday sailing from the Hope, I made it – just.
A longer than anticipated stop to see a farmer pal in Tain, followed by roadworks on the A9 meant that, when I reached Lochans village hall at 9.59pm I was almost certainly the last person in Scotland to cast his vote in the council elections.
“I’m glad I made it in time to vote”, I said to the ladies at the desk. They weren’t so enthusiastic.
“I wouldn’t have hurried, Alec”, said one of them. “There’ll be another election along in a minute”.
Something in her tone suggested that she was barely able to contain her apathy. In this age of permanent democratic process and constitutional to-ing and fro-ing, I got the impression that she had reached new heights of indifference. Like much of the population, she seemed distinctly underwhelmed at the prospect of a snap General Election on June 8th. And I can hardly blame her.
As I wrote in these pages before, anyone who says they saw a snap vote being called isn’t being entirely honest. The Tories already had a perfectly good working majority, Article 50 had sailed through the House and there was no discernible appetite for a new vote. Yet naked political opportunism (a poll showed Labour twenty points behind) and the chance to (successfully) divert attention from the imminent Tory election fraud scandal was too good an opportunity to miss.
The official reasons given for the decision are, of course, absurd. The claim that an increased Commons majority strengthens the negotiating position over Brexit is a flat-out lie. I’m fairly confident that an increase in the Tory majority in Cleethorpes, for example, will not change the views of Messrs Juncker and Tusk one iota. Mrs May is presenting a vote for the Tories as our patriotic duty, but I’m not convinced that her majority will increase. Labour’s leaked manifesto may actually be much closer to voter consensus than the media portray and could win them some seats, and the LibDems may win some support in marginal seats that voted to remain last June. This could backfire badly.
If you aren’t scunnered enough already, you soon will be. The strategy of the people running the Prime Minister’s campaign is as intellectually pessimistic as it is deeply cynical – do nothing, and meet nobody apart from true supporters and sympathetic journalists. On no account take part in any debates and if you do a press conference make sure and get advance warning of the questions. And absolutely never meet a real voter. Above all else, say that you’re strong and stable at all times, even when it’s painfully obvious that your very strategy – hiding – proves you are weak and incompetent.
It’s a revealing strategy, as it shows that the PM isn’t even rated by her own party. On the rare occasions when the networks show any footage of Prime Minister’s Questions, she looks hesitant, badly briefed, lacking in empathy and utterly humourless. She seems totally incapable of thinking on her feet. Whatever one thinks of her predecessors like Blair and Cameron – and I didn’t think much of either – they were both bloody good at the cut and thrust of political discourse. This one couldn’t debate her way out of a paper bag, and the nagging suspicion that she might not actually be all that bright. No wonder she refuses to engage with her opponents – I’d back Corbyn to best her. Nicola would eat her alive.
Where’s the farming angle here?
We’re now at a stage in the game where the time to the vote is a matter of days rather than weeks. Luckily, Orkney is not Westminster and none of our candidates, from Alastair Carmichael to Miriam Brett, will refuse to engage with the people they wish to represent. Time is short, but there will be opportunities to ask questions. We must ask the right ones.
A deadline tends to concentrate the mind so let’s not be distracted by all the strong-and-stable baloney and ask what’s important to Orkney farmers and the wider community.
We vote against the backdrop of a real prospect of the hardest of hard Brexits that I believe the Prime Minister has absolutely no mandate to pursue. A Brexit that would see support for farmers reduced or even removed completely. Like much of Scotland, we have an ageing population and a knowledge based economy, yet we face the prospect of the ending of the free movement of labour that is central to the prosperity of farming in particular and the region in general. Food and drink is significantly more important to Orkney than it is to other parts of the UK. Relatively speaking, many more people depend on a vibrant agricultural sector. In other words, If farming thrives, our region prospers.
Given the relative importance of agriculture to our area, and given that the UK is likely to return yet another Tory majority, here are five questions that I believe we should be asking our candidates.
- Will you ensure that Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, George Eustice returns the convergence uplift money given to the UK government to distribute to Scottish farmers which they then split between all four U.K. countries, depriving the farming constituents of Orkney of the monies to which they were entitled?
- Will you tell Andrea Leadsome that sheep farmers in this constituency are struggling to make a living?
- Can you guarantee that the powers returned from Brussels to the UK on agriculture are returned to Scotland where they should be. And if you think that’s not in our interests, why not?
- Why is this UK government refusing to return all levies for Scottish products processed in England and Wales to the Scottish promotional bodies like Quality Meat Scotland so they can do a better job of promoting our world class produce?
- Will you oppose any Barnetisation of agricultural funding post 2020 and ensure the current levels of support are at least matched, if not improved on?
For our farmers, demanding that candidates get these five answers right should be the minimum requirement before going to the polls on June 8th. Anything less than that will leave us with no option other than to consider once more a different constitutional arrangement that would empower us as an industry to create a sustainable agricultural model, and ensure a prosperous future for Orkney’s farmers and its wider community.
Alec Ross is a regular columnist with The Orkney News and every Friday writes “Farming Matters”