Farming Matters: The Narrow Leave Vote is Fast Losing its Credibility

“The people have spoken. The b******s” (Dick Tuck, US political consultant).

alec-rossAfter 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

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6 replies »

  1. Hi Alec,

    You could have mentioned history threatening to repeat itself vis-a-vis cheap food imports post leaving the EU. During the 30’s the Tory Government pursued a policy which read like this, “Why grow and produce our own when we can import cheap food from here, there and everywhere.” A policy that almost caused us being starved to death in 1941 as one refrigerated food ship after another were sent to the bottom of the Atlantic. Now Alec correct me if I’m wrong but as food shortages happened throughout Europe between 1939 – 45 and was the reason for the original Common Market’s drive to be food self sufficient in the early years.

  2. Mr Ross should learn there is no role for the SNP in abrogation or cancellation of a national exit from the EU. They are a minority in Edinburgh, London and the rest of the country, as most of Scotland, baulks at their numbskull Indyref99-come single policy agenda. It’s a joke but I hope you all enjoy the thought that Nationalism has a place in Europe as it’s evident that the Federalists know better. Ask any German.

  3. Did you see Grayson Perry’s programme about the process which led to his ‘Matching Pair’ of vases? If not, you might like to watch it, if it’s repeated.
    It had a very heartening end, too.

    On a slightly different note – I feel something similar about what might happen when Tesco decide we’re not worth bothering with, and the Tesco lorries stop crossing the Pentland Firth, and meanwhile – local suppliers and consumers have become far too reliant on a very un-trustworthy organization which puts profit before people, every time. And I’m not fooled by their ‘charitable’ efforts – it’s a drop in the ocean to them – beer and circuses.

  4. Ooops – it should be “bread and circuses” – I should check my quotes before I post them. I tend to think beer and circuses covers it well, though – as in – flim-flam – triumph of the superficial over real substance.

  5. The following is part of an article I wrote earlier this week ( in response to another call for politicians to overturn the EU vote.

    Henry McLeish calls on the Scottish Parliament, the Scottish Government and the First Minister to “ruthlessly pursue” the “derailing” and eventual “defeat” of Brexit. That is precisely what they cannot do, and must not attempt. There is no mandate. The people of England and Wales voted to quit the EU. However much that may have been an “act of intense self-harm”, Scotland has absolutely no right to dispute that choice. Our political leaders and institutions must respect the democratic will of those people just as we demand that their political leaders and institutions respect ours. How could it possibly be otherwise?

    When we talk about “sides” here we are talking about two mutually exclusive, incompatible and irreconcilable positions. The UK Government is absolutely committed to taking the entire UK out of the EU. The only position available to the Scottish Government is that Scotland must remain in the EU. There is no compromise. There is no fudge. Talk of ‘hard Brexit’ and ‘soft Brexit’ is meaningless distraction. Talk of ‘jobs-first Brexit’ is just inane sloganeering. What we have here is as clear-cut and ‘pure’ a conflict of interest as one is ever likely to find in the generally murky and shifting world of politics.

    There is no settlement short of Scotland retaining its existing relationship with the EU – according to the wishes of the Scottish electorate – which will satisfy me. Nor should it satisfy anyone who upholds the principles of democracy – regardless of which party they represent.

    The choice is between Holyrood and Westminster. Between Scotland’s inclusive, progressive, democratic political culture and narrow, exclusive, imperious British nationalism. Between the people of Scotland and the ruling elites of the British state.

    Whose side are you on?

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