O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us To see oursels as ithers see us! It wad frae mony a blunder free us, An’ foolish notion: What airs in dress an’ gait wad lea’e us, An’ ev’n devotion! Robert Burns, “To a Louse”
The great veteran sportswriter, Hugh McIlvanney, tells the story of a young boxer speaking to his wise old trainer. He’s about to fight a brash, cocksure opponent, a blowhard who’s been telling everybody how great he is. How he’s going to knock the young pugilist out in round one. How he’ll be taught a boxing lesson he’ll never forget. What are we going to do to shut him up, asks the young pretender? “Let’s put a pair of gloves on him”, says the sagacious coach. “That normally does the trick”.
In the run-up to the EU Referendum vote, David Davis and others were like that trash-talking boxer. They’ll beg us for a generous Brexit deal, he said. We’ll negotiate a new trade deal while leaving the old one. They need us more than we need them. But then they put the gloves on him.
For nearly a year now, Brexit supporters have had a completely isolated domestic debate about what they want, with a grossly inflated sense of entitlement and their ability to satisfy it. On Monday morning, their beliefs were confronted by cold, hard reality. The brexiteers were exposed as the spivs and charlatans they are.
Davis suggested that we’d hold simultaneous talks. Chief negotiator Michel Barnier told him talks would have to be sequential: you leave first, then we talk about a new deal. Davis immediately capitulated without asking for or gaining a single concession. Barnier won without raising by a glove. And this was the first round. Reality 1, fantasy 0.
The narrative on Brexit can seem slow, but this was the moment when leaving the EU stopped being an opportunity and officially became a desperate exercise in damage limitation. All the power – all of it – lies with the EU. The closer we get to the end of negotiations, the less leverage we will have. That is the reality. We have brought a switchblade to a gunfight.
From the position of someone working in the Scottish farming industry who campaigns for self-determination, here is my perspective.
We could do with some good news, so here’s some. Newly released figures show that the food and drink sector rose by another £123m in 2016. Tourism figures are up too. For all the negativity, Scotland was the only UK country to meet NHS waiting times targets. These uplifting stories are far from unconnected to our membership of the single market and our continuing commitment to the free movement of labour that our knowledge based economy demands.
Our priority must be to continue in this, either as full members of the EU or as members of EFTA with access to the ESM. There have, of course, been demands from unionist parties to take a second independence referendum off the table. I’d suggest we do precisely the opposite. Given how badly the Brexit negotiations will go, to shut off the exit lanes would be a monumental act of folly and self-harm and a betrayal of the EU citizens who trust in us to protect them from the continuing lunacy.
I’ve also been reflecting this past week on the sheer wrongheadedness of making the case for self-governance on things that events prove we can’t possibly predict. We call for a referendum at the end of a process that, as I now believe, will see us stay in the EU.
We also raised the spectre of a permanent Tory government. Ten weeks ago that seemed certain, but the Tories’ disastrous decision to call a snap vote means than, even as the Queen opens parliament, her government has no majority. Which means we’re trusting our Brexit negotiations to people who can’t even do a deal with ten DUP politicians.
Independence remains by a distance the best possible settlement for Scottish farmers and growers. Things change. Brexit may or may not happen. Labour could be in office by the Autumn. It might rain in Scotland. We can’t control these things and even if we could independence would still be the most desirable option. I’ll continue to make the case.
In the meantime, Wednesday saw the Queen’s Speech. You’ll remember that this was postponed last week because the Conservatives couldn’t agree terms with the DUP. It went ahead despite there being no deal with the DUP. Go figure. As farmers and growers we should be watching closely. Contained in the speech will be something that affects us all but which has been forgotten about during the Brexit Bourach – the Great Reform Bill, which is essentially a rewriting of EU legislation into UK law. This is hugely important for the industry. Here’s why.
In the run-up to the 2016 referendum, David Mundell and others repeatedly stating that in the event of Brexit, powers over farming and fishing would “naturally” be returned to devolved governments like Holyrood. That is certainly the way the 1998 Scotland Act reads, and it is the Scottish Government’s view. But ultimate power of arbitration lies in London, and they take a different view. This is down to a couple of reasons.
The Supreme Court judgement from earlier this year did more than just compel Westminster to debate the triggering of Article 50 properly – it also stated that devolved administrations need not be consulted over the process. This matters, because the Sewel convention states that any Act of Parliament that impinges on devolved competencies (and Brexit certainly does, and not just in farming) means that consultation should “normally” take place. But Brexit isn’t normal. You’ll have had your consultation. Now eat your cereal.
Scotland is being assured that more powers will be devolved to Holyrood but there is no certainty about this, let alone about the money. A bespoke funding system does not fit with the Tory Government’s vision of a UK single market. They will wish to repatriate these powers to Westminster and “Barnetise” farm support. In real terms, this means that our 17% share of EU funding more than halves. That’s at least £250m out of the Scottish economy post 2020. And, naturally, it’s places like Orkney, far from the centres of power, that suffer disproportionately.
There will, of course, be a team of Scottish negotiators from across the political spectrum. It occurs that we’ve just spent the last two months being shouted at by unionist parties to get on with the day job. Yet the Brexit and Great Reform Bill that they engineered means that our elected representatives will now spend much of the next two years immersed in constitutional minutiae. Don’t expect to hear too much about schools and hospitals for a while – or farming, for that matter.
Knowing all this, winning the case for and negotiating our departure from the UK looks a doddle by comparison. Which is why we will be independent soon. Like the boxers at the top of the page, we can choose to be champions, or settle for saying “I could’ve been a contender”.
Let’s get ready to rumble.
Alec Ross is a regular columnist with The Orkney News