“Facts are chiels that winna’ ding” (Robert Burns)
A week, said Harold MacMillan, is a long time in politics.
What might he say now? A day? An hour?
This is a weekly column but I’m beginning to feel that it’s being overtaken by events. Things have escalated so quickly that I’ve thought about posting something daily, but things are moving so fast it might still be obsolete by the time you read it. I don’t know about you, but I’m struggling to keep up. In his more philosophical moments, old Harold summed up politics thus: “Events, dear boy: events!”
There’s been plenty of those recently. When, last month, a snap General Election was called despite it being specifically ruled out by the Prime Minister on several occasions, I feared the worst. I genuinely thought that, with the election fraud scandal whitewash and a twenty point lead in the polls, we were looking at a Tory supermajority and permanent austerity. And yet, events, dear boy…
We have become wearily familiar with politicians making U-turns, but it takes a different stratosphere of incompetence to actually make one *before* winning an election. And yet this is what Theresa May did this Monday on social care, taking her u-turn tally to a hugely impressive nine. This didn’t seem “strong and stable” at all, it looked like a woman making it up as she went along. Which is of course exactly what she is doing.
And now it really is up for grabs. Her jaiket, as we say down here, could be on a shoogly peg. One poll sees Labour within nine points. Her Monday press conference saw her visibly rattled as journalists finally did their jobs and asked her difficult (but legitimate and obvious) questions that she couldn’t answer. The penny may be dropping that we may be about to entrust the most important negotiations of our lifetimes to a woman entirely devoid of empathy, badly briefed and without a single original thought. No matter how much you stage-manage these things, the truth will out.
The u-turn proves they are now officially petrified. She’s been rumbled, and could yet lose her majority and resign. What then? We’d have a new Prime Minister who might not fancy a hard-Brexit, or any kind of Brexit at all, and article 50 will already have been triggered. Omnishambles. Never mind Project Fear, this would be Project Hilarious.
The public aren’t stupid. They might realise that by “hard choices” the Tories mean cuts for the poorest and most disadvantaged. This manifesto is about paying the colossal Brexit invoice, but it isn’t the City or the rich donors who will sign the cheque. It’s us. It’s Granny who won’t get her heating allowance. It’s your weans who won’t get free school meals or a glass of milk. There’s folk in Stranraer who toss a coin to decide whether to turn on the cooker to feed the family or the fire to heat them. How’s that for hard choices?
It can be demonstrably proven that GDP will drop by around 9% per annum, which equates to around £66bn. We know this, because Ruth Davidson said so while arguing strongly for Remain before joining the over-the-cliff-edge brigade and failing to make a single Brexit representation to London from Scotland after the vote. Not one.
We may return to this not-impossible boorach soon enough, but for the purposes of today’s article, let’s assume that May survives and gets her hard Brexit and secures (hallelujah) our exit from the worlds largest free trade area and the Customs Union. What does that mean for farmers in remote areas?
Brexit affects the rural economy more than its urban equivalent, so given that Scotland’s farming economy is six times more important to its GDP than its English counterpart it isn’t hard to do the maths. Tourism and inward investment will decline. We rely on a bespoke support system that up to now has seen us receive 17% of EU subsidy in recognition of our predominantly Less Favoured Area status. What if that were “Barnettised” to 8%? What if it went to zero? 50% of our farms are unprofitable without EU monies, but ironically it might be the better ones – those who have borrowed and invested – who would suffer most. It could be a double whammy of survival of the unfittest.
Then there’s the issue of free movement. Rural Scotland has an ageing population (the average farmer is 58 – if you don’t believe me take a walk into Hatston Mart in Kirkwall of a Monday. Where are the young folk?). We have a knowledge based economy and a flatlining census, so immigration is critical. Not just the fifteen thousand migrant workers needed to pick fruit annually, but skilled people to work on our increasingly modern dairy units. People who, incidentally, raise families here and keep our rural schools going. It’s hard in this corner getting folk to work in our care homes, schools and hospitals, yet EU workers are now going home or have stopped coming in the first place – and Brexit hasn’t even happened yet. And we have a Prime Minister who refuses to guarantee them their rights of residency, even though it’s a prerequisite to beginning the Brexit talks. Which of course can’t happen because we’re holding an election that she said she would never call. It’s an unconscionable state of affairs. It breaks your heart.
And although you never read this in the papers (thank goodness for online media) or hear it from leaders who waste time talking about stuff that has already been decided in Holyrood (a fresh vote on independence) or areas that are irrelevant because they are devolved competencies (health, education), we could be facing a rural crisis that will demand major intervention by a Scottish Government whose budgets have been further slashed and whose competencies have been weakened by a Brexit power grab. Frankly, I’m worried.
June 8th and beyond is about what we want our industry to look like. Wherever you’re reading this today, in Orkney or beyond, you need to ask your candidates hard questions. Ask them about funding post 2020. Ask them when your Convergence monies are coming, three years after they reached London. Ask them how they propose to fill the skills gap after free movement disappears and about continuing access to the single market. Ask them how they expect you to survive under tariffs and WTO rules. Ask them if they will ensure that powers over farming will be naturally repatriated to Scotland, as they promised last summer.
Ask all of this and more. Because nobody else will ask on your behalf.
And if you don’t get the answers you need? Then we must consider, once more, a different constitutional arrangement that would empower us as an industry and as a society to create a sustainable agricultural model for the ages that will benefit us all.
The stakes are high. But the prize is great. Let’s get this done.
Alec Ross is a regular columnist with The Orkney News and every Friday writes “Farming Matters”