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