Last week I attended a Grassland event in Warwickshire, and took part in a seminar in which farmers and industry leaders discussed the uncertain state of farming and what might be done to ensure a sustainable future. Not for the first time, I was struck by the talent and deep knowledge of the people within our industry. They say we get the government we deserve, but not for the first time I was keenly aware of the disconnect between the needs and aspirations of the industry and the capacity of our political leaders to deliver them. The ability to think big lessens, it seems, the closer to governments we get. I left for home in pensive mood.
It was a long and slow journey back to the Lochans, but I finally reached Dumfries and started to count the number of Tory blue “Vote Alister Jack – No to Indyref2” signs on the road to Stranraer. Yes, I really was that bored. There’s sixteen, by the way. There’s also a couple in the field next to my house. And before you ask: no, they’re not mine.
A few things occurred to me. Reading the excellent General Election coverage in my local paper, I noticed that the Conservative candidate urges us to “use this General Election to send a strong message to Nicola Sturgeon to drop her obsession with independence, to focus on the day job…”
If you ask me, if you’ve taken the time to erect sixteen “no indyref2” signs along the A75, when you effectively run a council election as a de-facto vote on self-determination and when your campaign literature talks of nothing else but independence, you’re in a desperately poor position to lecture people about being obsessed.
I’m interested in politics, but even I would struggle to name a flagship Tory policy. So I really want to ask the Tories: you’re against independence. I get that. But what are you actually *for*? Is there anything else, or is the cupboard bare? Why are you talking about something – a second vote – that has already been passed by the Scottish Parliament? Or do you, like some of your colleagues, not recognise the sovereignty of Holyrood? There will be a vote sometime in the future. In the meantime, do you have anything else you wish to talk about? Because your obsession with independence makes you more akin to a single issue pressure group than a serious candidate for political office.
Let’s clear something up. It’s only the Alister Jacks of this world who are talking about a second referendum. If the political movement of which he’s a member had delivered the “vow” of home rule or near federalism then I wouldn’t be writing this. Ok, actually I might have been. But nobody would have been reading it, or listening to me, because something close to the settled will of the Scottish people would have been achieved. Some people blame the downturn in the economy on the possibility of a second independence referendum. That’s like, suggests the Herald’s Iain MacWhirter, blaming the ambulance for causing alarm by turning up at car crash.
Secondly, every single poll suggests that Scotland – at some point – wants a second vote, and certainly when the outcome of the Brexit negotiations becomes clearer by Autumn 2018. Furthermore, a majority of Scots believe that their country’s place in the Single Market is a matter for Holyrood, not London, to decide.
Thirdly, have they not been paying attention? The SNP has been in government as both minority and majority for ten years. There is a pro-Independence majority in Edinburgh. The SNP won the council elections and increased their number of seats. They returned 56 out of 59 MPs in 2015 (including my own constituency). There will inevitably be a few Tory gains next week, successes which will be hailed as a massive victory by the press but which will in fact be the equivalent of scoring two injury time goals when you are already eight nil down and the fans have already left the ground. But how many mandates do we need? Another resounding victory on June 8th means not just a justification for a vote but looks very close to a Declaration of Independence itself.
One final word on this subject – I don’t want to share his party’s obsession with independence and I need to get on with my day job (although I’m thinking of re-training as a sign-maker. I’d make a fortune). Actually, it’s a plea on behalf of everyone, on both sides, who took part in the discourse on Scotland’s future three years ago (and continue to make their case). Stop calling it divisive. It wasn’t, and I know – I was there. OK, so somebody threw an egg at Jim Murphy. That was it. That was as divisive as it got. Sure, the discourse got a bit tasty at times. But so what? That’s healthy, surely. It showed we cared. Reminded us we were still alive. Calling it divisive is, I think, a slur on the good people on both sides who argued their case, for the most part, passionately and respectfully. Please desist.
One final thing. Respect works two ways or it isn’t respect at all. We are constantly being told to respect the result of the 2014 referendum, to which I say this. Was the “vow” respected? Where is the PM’s respect for the 2015 election result, or for the fixed term parliament act of 2011? Where is the respect for a Scotland who voted to remain in the EU and those who voted out but were promised continuing membership of the Single Market and the Customs Union? Respect must work both ways.
It does occur to me that Conservatives waste a lot of time and energy talking about something that is wholly irrelevant to this or any other General Election. Voters would be better served those who seek our vote put some thought to the following questions.
1. Will you recognise that, in common with every region in Scotland, this area voted to remain in the EU, and that if elected you will make every effort to ensure a specific deal that would see a Brexit settlement that would reflect the specific needs of your constituents, and which would reject the hard Brexit favoured by your party?
2. Are you comfortable that your leader in Scotland, Ruth Davidson, has failed to make a single representation on our behalf since last summer’s vote, despite arguing strongly and admirably to remain? Why does she now want to chase us over a cliff? What has changed?
3. Will you ensure that agricultural funding post 2020 will equal, if not better, current levels, whilst ensuring that farmers in this region finally receive their convergence uplift monies in full?
4. Given our remoteness, ageing population and our knowledge based economy, will you ensure that Orkney and Shetland continue to benefit from the free movement of labour that is vital to our prosperity?
5. Will you ensure that all powers over agriculture and fishing are returned to Scotland post-Brexit, as your colleague David Mundell promised?
6. Will you vote with the UK government for a hard Brexit, even if is it can be demonstrably proven that it will be to the detriment of people in Orkney and Shetland?
7. Why are you talking about devolved issues like health and education when we are about to vote in a General, not a Scottish, election? Don’t you think this is confusing for voters? Or are you doing this deliberately?
8. Given that a Tory government in Westminster has cut police numbers in England and Wales by 20,000, while the Scottish Government has increased by 1000, is there any credibility left in your party’s claim to be the party of law and order?
9. What is your position on a second independence referendum? It’s time you finally came off the fence and clarified your stance. Maybe you could advertise it publicly. A few field signs, maybe? Just a thought.
Ok, maybe not number nine.
Scotland will be independent at some point in the future, as even Unionist commentators acknowledge. Some, of course, will never be convinced about self-determination and may vote, when the day comes, to take their place in Brexit Britain, as is their democratic privilege. But all of that has precisely zero relevance in the context of June 8th. It is, rather, these more immediate topics that will be of interest to voters in Orkney and Shetland as they consider who to support next week, and it is these questions that Unionists -and all of our candidates – must address. And fast.
Alec Ross is a weekly contributor to The Orkney News with his column Farming Matters