“The people have spoken. The b******s” (Dick Tuck, US political consultant).
After a fascinating week that saw me, variously, go to Cornwall to visit the sheep and deer farm of fellow farming columnists Matt and Pip Smith, and have dinner at Lands End, I returned to Lochans and caught up with the week’s news. Reading Wednesday’s Herald, the following paragraph caught my eye.
“Let us hope that Scotland’s farmers will add their voices to the growing nationwide clamour for a re-think on the calamitous course that the UK now seems to be pursuing.”
It would have been an important enough read on its own merits, but it was written by a certain Struan Stevenson, a senior Tory and respected ex-MEP. Given that he is a member of the party now leading the pursuit of the hardest Brexit possible, and given that he is also a successful ex-farmer and presumably knows what he is talking about, it is a significant intervention and comes less than a week after Vince Cable floated the idea of staying in Europe on the Marr Show. I said in this column a few weeks back that I’d be putting £100 on the UK staying in the EU. I’m upping my stake.
His intervention comes amid open speculation that some of Theresa May’s cabinet are looking for a way to reverse last year’s Leave vote as the sheer economic, social and cultural damage it will wreak becomes increasingly clear. Old habits die hard, though. In a subsequent interview with Good Morning Scotland, Struan Stevenson criticised the SNP for not doing enough. They should, he said, be doing much more to ensure Scotland’s continuing place in the European Single Market (ESM), as well as guaranteeing matching if not greater financial support for its farmers post-2020. You could, of course, drive a tractor through the flaws in this argument.
Firstly, Scotland has led the way in seeking compromise, publishing a series of sensible proposals in the exhaustive “Scotland’s Place in Europe”, although, naturally, Theresa May didn’t bother reading it (which is a point worth remembering when she talks about seeking consensus from other parties).
Secondly, it was his own party who created this bouroch by promising a totally unnecessary EU referendum on the premise of something that wasn’t supposed to happen – an overall Tory majority in the 2015 General Election.
And, thirdly, it is now clear that farming and fishing powers post-Brexit aren’t coming anywhere near Scotland, as repatriated competencies don’t fit with the UK single market narrative. That means a halving of direct support, and perhaps an eventual end to food subsidies. It would be wholly wrong and highly irresponsible for the Scottish Government to promise something – a similar level of support post 2020 – that is not within its remit to deliver for as long as the current devolution settlement remains.
This week’s intervention matters. By demanding action that isn’t constitutionally possible, Mr Stevenson is pushing at the boundaries of devolved powers. Without even realising it, he is doing my job for me and making a compelling argument, not only for greater powers for our farmers and growers but for Scottish independence itself.
Leaving aside Stevenson’s unarguable claims that Brexit means cheap imports and calamitous farm gate prices for Scotland’s producers, it has become increasingly clear that the legitimacy of the narrow leave vote last summer is fast losing its credibility. Many Expat Britons weren’t permitted the vote. Sixteen and seventeen year olds weren’t allowed to vote. EU nationals, despite paying their taxes and contributing fully to the life of the country they’d honoured us by calling home, were disenfranchised.
In the run-up to the vote, MPs were repeatedly advised that the result would be advisory in nature only, hence the absence of a supermajority clause or a similar caveat. Of those that actually got to vote, the only manifesto they got was the one written on the side of a bus.
What all that means is that the narrow leave vote represents 26% of the British population. For all the talk of respecting democracy, the wilful disregard of due process was staggering. It’s chilling to think that if it had not been for Gina Miller’s legal challenge, and the subsequent Supreme Court ruling, the triggering of Article 50 would not even have been debated in parliament.
So because of the nature of the referendum, the restricted franchise and the fact that only 37% of that electorate voted to leave – not to mention all the well-documented distortions, falsehoods and false promises of the Leave campaign – it is constitutionally improper. As far as any rational, dispassionate discussion of the matter goes, it is an open and shut case: there is no mandate for Brexit.
Even if this were not the case, we must always have the right to ask the question again. A free society must allow its people to challenge what doesn’t seem right – a case in point being the proposed legal challenge to the Tory / DUP bung. Just as no parliament can bind its successors, no generation can either. The claim that the 2016 referendum is irreversible is nonsense.
From a Scottish point of view, however, this is what we know. Scotland voted remain. Every region within Scotland voted to remain. The First Minister continues to champion remain. Kezia Dugdale wanted to remain. Willie Rennie’s LibDems want to remain. Ironically, given her Damascene conversion to a hard Brexit, Ruth Davidson argued, passionately and eloquently, to remain (before joining the hard Brexiteers). The Prime Minister championed remain. For Scotland to be pulled out of Europe in these circumstances would constitute a democratic outrage.
And now this. Struan Stevenson, a well respected ex-Tory MEP and ex-farmer, has explained in coldly analytical terms why the UK Govt should abandon Brexit. His party has thirteen MPs in Scotland. Will they follow him? Given the wafer-thin majority of the UK government they are arguably the most influential group of MPs in Scottish political history. The constituents that elected them voted to remain and they must reflect those wishes by calling on the Prime Minister to keep Scotland in the ESM at the very least.
Having failed to push for the £2.9m of Barnett consequentials due to Scotland after the DUP bribe, Brexit now sets up another test. How they fare will tell us if their loyalty is to their people or their party.
Yet it’s not just them. Scotland has 59 MPs from across the political spectrum. Mr Stevenson’s timely and welcome intervention provides all of them with an opportunity to protect the interests of everyone from calamity. Not just in Scotland, but throughout these islands. Brexit poses an existential threat to Scottish farming, and Mr Stevenson’s intervention is welcome. It falls on us all, in farming and elsewhere, to ensure those elected to represent us heed his timely warning.
Time is short. Let’s get to work.
Alec Ross writes a weekly Farming Matters column in The Orkney News