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Farming Matters: This is a Bump in the Road

“All has changed. Changed utterly” (WB Yeats)

alec-rossI’ve an old friend I meet regularly – old in the sense that I’ve known him a long time, but also old in the sense that he’s seen a fair few summers. He’s as sharp and as engaged as ever, despite being well into his ninth decade. He was a Church of Scotland Minister his whole working life, and though long retired his mind is as sharp as ever. He’s got this uncanny ability to conjure up a phrase that fits with the times we live in. I asked him recently what he made of current events – the rise of Trump, the shift to the right, rampant neoliberalism, Brexit. He didn’t let me down.

“People always make the mistake of believing that the arc of human civilisation is constantly upward”, he said.

“Today’s world is a timely reminder that it isn’t. This is a bump in the road”.

This week once again proved just how right he is. And it’s one hell of bump. The level of political discourse is lower than I can ever remember. It feels like we’re in a desert of intellectual pessimism, a place where a serial groper can become the leader of the free world, where the notion that “we’ve had enough of experts” has entered the mainstream, and where a prospectus for leaving the European Union is written on the side of a bus.

Democracy is fragile. As I’ve argued in these pages before, the sense that the 2016 European referendum was democratically questionable is a palpable one. Sixteen and seventeen year olds were denied the vote, as were EU nationals living in the UK and expats who weren’t. There was no prospectus and never any suggestion of leaving the customs union, far less the single market. Indeed, staying within the ESM was a central pillar of the Leave campaign, yet our leaders are now pressing for the most damaging outcome imaginable, despite that being the wish of a tiny proportion of the population. It feels suspiciously like a coup.

The sense that due process was being blithely ignored has been heightened since the vote. Alarmingly, if the millionaire businesswoman Gina Miller hadn’t decided to challenge the triggering of Article 50 in the Supreme Court, it would not even have been debated in the Commons. For simply doing their job and making a legal (not political) judgement of Article 50, the judges were dubbed “Enemies of the People”. Opposition MPs who did what they are paid to do and ask questions were called “saboteurs”. It was hugely inflammatory language. Respect for due democratic process isn’t the only thing that’s been tossed onto the Brexit bonfire. For Scotland, the ongoing constitutional crisis starkly reveals a few home truths.

Firstly, the Supreme Court judgement ruled that there is no legal requirement for Westminster to consult with Holyrood, or any of the other devolved administrations, over Brexit. Indeed, by effectively ripping up the Sewell convention there is no need for them to consult us over anything. Any powers we currently enjoy are lent, not given, and have no permanence. Our parliament only exists for as long as they wish it to.

Secondly, the Barnett formula has been abolished. The billion pound dirty monies paid to the DUP for the dubious privilege of propping up a discredited government should have triggered nearly three times that amount to Scotland. It wouldn’t have been difficult to get – a unified position from the thirteen Scottish Tories that they wouldn’t support their Westminster bosses until the money was paid in full would have done the trick – but their loyalty is to their hard Brexit London bosses, not their constituents. The best thing we can say is that at least now we know where we stand.

Thirdly, lost amongst the Brexit permashambles has been the implications of the Great Reform Bill. As (or if – it’s far from a done deal we exit the EU) the GRB means two years of wrangling over constitutional minutiae as the Scottish and UK governments argue over what powers go where. For all the tedious narrative that the Scottish Government hasn’t been getting on with the day job, our economy grows four times as fast as the rUK while unemployment is lower and investment remains high. At the same time, the UK government is stretched to breaking point as every moment obsesses over Brexit. Scotland can ill-afford to similarly waste its energies fretting about minutiae – but if it does, don’t expect much discussion and health and education for a while – or farming, come to that.

So how did things come to such a sorry pass?

As always there’s never just the one factor. The short term answer is that Brexit was a series of unfortunate events. David Cameron’s fateful decision to call a vote had some logic. It was based on the likely outcome of a hung parliament in 2015, which would have allowed him to kick the manifesto pledge into the long grass. Even when he unexpectedly won an overall majority, he could have imposed a supermajority or similar caveat – but didn’t, before running a desperately poor campaign.

Brexit was essentially a Tory in-house squabble. But we’re picking up the tab.

But something more fundamental is happening here. The economist and broadcaster Paul Mason writes about global financial crises, which happen roughly every seventy years or so. Seventy years is, he thinks, also the timespan of society’s collective memory.

If catastrophic events occur within our lifetimes, we are less likely to repeat them. For example, the early Thatcher Governments had within it people who grew up during the war years and others, as well as Labour chancellor Dennis Healy, who saw active service. The father of the house, old Harold MacMillan, had even fought in the first. All of this must have informed their thinking, and they understood the logic in keeping close economic and political ties with your neighbours. Their actions anticipated the words of the great Irish humanitarian John Hume, who described the EU as “the greatest anti-war mechanism ever invented”. Today’s politicians fall outwith the seventy year timespan.

Where are today’s John Humes? Not in London, certainly.

Here’s a revealing story. When he was still Prime Minister, David Cameron appeared on the Letterman show during a trip to America. For a big of fun, he was asked a few questions about English history. Magna Carta, Battle of Hastings. That sort of thing. He didn’t have a clue. His sycophants in the media laughed it off, but I find the idea of a leader who doesn’t know the first thing about his own country’s history, and, worse, doesn’t care, terrifying. I had no time for Mrs Thatcher and the damage she did to Scotland. But I will say this – she was the Last of the Mohicans, the last great conviction politician. I see none of this with this current crop. I see David Cameron leaving the Commons for the final time, having nearly lost the Scottish referendum – and actually lost the European one – laughing whistling on his way to a six figure per night speaking career. It didn’t really matter to him. It never did.

When you live and work in the Westminster bubble, certain assumptions that the rest of us consider bonkers – HS2, nuclear weapons, billion pound bungs to climate change deniers, the stripping back of the state – seem perfectly normal. But it isn’t normal.

Theresa May has been called “enigmatic” by her biographer, but this seems unduly generous. What is called her inscrutability has now been revealed as a total lack of ideas. The cupboard is bare. More worryingly, the wilful failure to acknowledge the true gravity of our current situation is terrifying.

Here’s a frightening statistic for you – in May 2016, seasonal vacancies for fruit and vegetable workers in the UK stood at 143. Today it’s 1500. The threat of Brexit along with a culture of suspicion means they are staying at home – along with the 96% fewer EU nurses. The Bank of England Governor reports we’ll be worse off. Nearly half of the most skilled EU workers have already suggested they’ll be heading home within five years. Frankly, I can’t blame them.

And yet these are the people charged with the Brexit negotiations and, by extension, Scottish farming’s future. These are the people meeting a well drilled EU team that knows its processes chapter and verse, people who bluster in the halls of Westminster but who fold when met with the cold winds of reality.

I wouldn’t trust them to sort out my industry. Jesus, I wouldn’t ask them to sort out my dog license. Brexit won’t happen anyway. Public opinion has shifted. Negotiations are too complex. It is undeliverable. It’s clear that our leaders in London don’t give a damn about us.

So let’s then think if there might be another constitutional settlement that would deliver the safeguards for the Scottish Farming industry.

It might well be bumpy. But at least we’ll be at the wheel.

And I’ll meet you further on up the road.


Alec Ross is a regular contributor to The Orkney News 

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5 replies »

  1. Mr Ross should take heed that Lent is a religious period of 40 days prior to Easter and the powers that are devolved to Scotland were perchance loaned.

    Good news tonight though as Mr Gove, as I predicted, is saying to the farming community that the Brussels gravy train of subsidy is over and such monies that are available will “have to be earned.” Good news that and there are big bets on us having another Scottish Prime Minister in the form of the SOS for The Environment Food and Rural Affairs”.”The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” (attributed to Martin Luther King Jnr) and others before him and wonderfully adapted by Mr Ross. I wonder if Mr Gove would keep the First Minister on the naughty step if he was PM like Mrs May has done by downgrading access to Westminster to a route via Mr Mundell? Power struggle here and I see who is getting put on their place. Brilliant news even if you guys don’t publish it.

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    • Editor’s comment: the only responses we do not publish are ones which do not advance a discussion or are of an abusive/personal nature.

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      • Thank you for that. It was just that all I could read in the comments on Farming Matters (incidentally of course the name for a 2014/15 NFU/ FACE collaboration to teach students about why rich farmers can get richer just by owning land and doffing their CAP for payments), was a dialogue between Mr Ross and a Mr Bell who simply reinforced each other. It did look a little like back slapping with a nationalist twist. I didn’t think that would produce any discussion at all and stifled debate. I think you need a view from the other side about why farming matters. It does but it’s relationship to nationalism is only due to the proEU SNP vouching to protect the lucre coming in from Europe straight into the land owning farmers pockets. I don’t think a few misquoted literary references and the emotionally coloured rhetoric of Nationalism will do anything but harm. Mr Gove says Go-Green and you will still get the money so there is no danger unless Mr Gove perceives the payments as he did Boris Johnson in the last Tory leadership race and gets the knife out. Nationalism has already failed whatever you think about Brexit and Brexit is a much more significant and potential danger to the country than Nationalism could ever be. Nationalism is the nano to Brexit’s kilo…in metric terms.

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  2. Ermmmm……..well, I’m not Mr. Bell – I’m Mrs. Bell! Not that that matters in the whole scheme of things – but – well – I like things to be clear, if possible.
    I wrote the piece which I’ve appended to this, as a response in the ‘comments’ section of one of Alec Ross’ pieces recently. I don’t see the point in typing it all over again, so I’ll just copy it in.
    As I say here – I don’t blindly follow any group. I used to be a member of the Labour Party – until they became New Tory – who to vote for now? If I could answer that question, I’d be a popular person! I voted for Alistair Carmichael in the last election – because he works very hard for his constituents and is a good M.P. So, no, Mr Balfour-Mackie – I’m not SNP. I vote for the people who I think will work hardest for …the people – simple as that.
    What I’ll say to you Mr. Balfour-Mackie is…….be careful of making too many assumptions about folk you know next to nothing about. I try not to make assumptions about you – it would be presumptuous to do so, as I only read what you say in answer to Alec Ross’ articles.
    One thing I have noticed, though, and resisted commenting on until now – you always read his pieces – you appear to disagree with most of what he says, and appear to think he’s wrong about most things – yet you read, and respond to, his pieces. This is a good thing, as it does mean that you people are exchanging views and ….discussing.
    I recently read a piece by someone about his view of what happened at the Ness of Brodgar – I was so angry about this, that I would not choose to read anything else by this person. That’s my ‘fault’ – that’s me being limited. You do read Alec Ross’ pieces, and respond to them.

    Back-slapping? I don’t know Alec Ross – have never met the man. I know he sells animal feeds and supplements to farmers – that’s about all really – what I know of him is all from his articles in ‘The Orkney News’. I like how he writes, I do agree with much of what he says. Is that not allowed?
    Alec Ross will say what he has to say – folk will respond – including me, and you – that’s what freedom of speech and freedom of the press is about.
    By the by – I do know how much farming matters – I’m from farming family, both sides, for generations. It’s something which concerns me strongly – how farmers are dealt with these days- particularly by supermarkets. And what is there in farming today to encourage young folk to work the land? And then – where will our food come from?
    That’s a whole other discussion.
    Here’s my previous response to something similar – and then I’ll get out into the sunshine and get on with life – knowing that I don’t know everything about everything – which is a good thing to know.

    “I don’t read newspapers, as they are usually biased, badly written, or both of those things. That’s not a quote from a famous person, it’s just a quote from me – a person.
    The media, generally, is not to be trusted. That’s why I applaud a venture such as ‘The Orkney News’, which publishes differing views, as long those views are not expressed in an obviously offensive way.
    When reading ‘The Orkney News’, it’s clear that there is a ….let’s say positive inclination (!), towards Scottish independence – and why not, the editor is a Scot. As Mr Balfour-McKie says, to love your country is not bad thing. It’s how that love is expressed that sometimes becomes questionable.
    Yet, ‘The Orkney News ‘ does publish all views – it’s a good thing. And here we have an example of the kind of debate and exchange which can be the result of that.
    I’m not taking any sides here – who I agree with or don’t agree with doesn’t matter, one bit. I will say though, that a little light-heartedness, is often used to get across some very strong views/ideas. It can mean that a piece which would otherwise not be read, is read and thereby encourages thought, and the kind of exchange and interaction that has happened here.
    Alec Ross is writing of important things here – he knows he is. And how he is doing so, has worked.
    Whatever you think of what he’s saying, or even how he’s saying it, he does write well, he simply does.
    What is the quote about not agreeing with what a person has said, but defending to the last, their right to say it?
    Football? I don’t understand the whole business – each to their own.
    That’s my tuppenceworth.”

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    • If I might just venture to apologise for using the wrong title ie Mr for Mrs to Mrs Bell. That’s the only assumption I really made and I shall not do so again.

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