Some years ago I used to visit an old farmer called Sam McColm in the Parish of Drummore, at the south end of the Rhins peninsula on which I live. He grew fantastic epicure tatties and had a renowned herd of dairy cows, so he knew how to farm. But the reason I loved visiting him was his passion for history. The depth of his knowledge was truly extraordinary.
He told me, for example, that the reason the Wallaces came to be in the South West of Scotland was that they were fleeing persecution from the English Crown, which was far from satisfied with catching and hanging William Wallace, and wanted his extended family to meet the same fate. Not surprisingly, they ran to the most remote places they could find. Places like Drummore, for example, where their descendants survive them.
He was just the most incredibly interesting man.
“Have you ever noticed how big the farmhouses are in the South Rhins?”, he asked me one day.
I allowed that, yes, they were quite impressive.
He drew reflectively on his pipe. “That’s because of the Franco-Prussian War“, he said.
I’d known Sam long enough not to swayed by this seemingly fanciful leap of logic, and sure enough he explained. The bloody conflict of 1870-71 between the French Empire and the North German Confederation, which led to the Third French Republic and the German Empire, also saw the destruction of some of Europe’s better cereal ground. Seeing an opportunity, South Rhins farmers ploughed up vast acres of land and planted wheat, barley and oats wherever they could, helping to feed a struggling European population – and becoming very rich whilst doing so. It left them with a sizeable tax bill. Or, it would have done if they hadn’t capitalised a chunk of the money by building big farmhouses to live in.
When I first starting this column, I wrote a similar tale about how another seismic event in a faraway land – the Laki Volcano of 1783 – curtailed both the lifespan and the farming enterprises of a certain Robert Burns, whilst causing a spike in his creative output that saw him emerge as Scotland’s most vital poet. Geoffrey Parker, in his superb book “Global Crisis”, makes a compelling case that the unusually high incidence of war and catastrophe in the seventeenth century was due to the climate change that caused things like crop failure. Desperate people do desperate things, he argues, and the looting and violence in New Orleans floods of 2005 prove that far from a narrative of constant progress, the veneer of civilisation is gossamer thin.
It suggests several things. Nothing happens in a vacuum and all actions have consequences. But sometimes it takes decades to discover what these consequences are.
For Laki (or the Franco-Prussian War) read Brexit.
For all the chaos, charting what has happened so far is relatively straightforward and can essentially be told through a Tory prism. David Cameron, a Remainer, saw the opportunity to kill off the UKIP vote by promising a EU referendum in the event of a Tory majority in 2015, whilst simultaneously ending EU membership as an issue within his party. Every poll suggested a hung parliament that would have allowed him – legitimately – to kick it into the long grass. Yet a poor Labour campaign and the SNP Tsunami saw him compelled to trigger a referendum that he then lost. Then he resigned, and was succeeded by a fellow Remainer who then became a hard Brexiteer – Theresa May. Ruth Davidson then followed suit.
Last year’s Brexit vote shook Europe to its core and represents the biggest challenge to our food security since the Second World War.
I know farmers who voted to leave the EU. I don’t understand them, but it happened. I get how they are vexed by the bureaucracy, real and (mostly) imagined. But given the scale of the ambition, the reach of the project, how could it possibly be otherwise?
Scotland has gained from its EU membership. Our beaches are cleaner. Our air is purer. Our food is produced to the highest standards, and that breeds consumer confidence and attracts a marketplace premium.
This was the week when the chlorinated chickens came home to roost, with the hormone fed cattle following them. The double whammy of leaving the ESM and a Trump trade deal leaves Scotland at the mercy of cheap imports from countries with lower welfare and safety standards. And, of course, the £16 billion pounds that the Scottish food and drink industry contributes to the economy depends hugely on the very free movement of labour that the UK government has today ruled out post 2019.
It is now increasingly clear that, given the relative importance of farming to Scotland’s prosperity; given our higher dependence on free movement of labour; and given how our predominantly less favoured area status, we must stay within the single market at the very least. This isn’t politics, but self-preservation in the face of an existential threat.
The question for me is what constitutional arrangement best equips us to face this. And it isn’t one that includes Michael Gove. Although, to be fair, opinion on Michael is divided. Unless you happened to read the farming journal I got this week which described him as impressive, before describing David Mundell as ‘listening’ and reported that Ruth Davidson would ensure Orkney farming would thrive, whilst battering the Scottish Government despite it doing what DEFRA failed to do in 06/07 – stand up for farmers when the IT went wrong.
Opinion on Michael Gove probably divides into two camps. The first one probably sees him as an unprincipled spiv and chancer who stabbed his pal Boris in the back and who saw Brexit as a golden opportunity to further his career regardless of the carnage he would leave behind. The second camp considers this view far too generous in its assessment.
The truth is that we cannot trust our farming future to such people.
I was at Stranraer Show on Wednesday. It was the kind of uniformly grey morning that brought to mind the late Bob Crampsey’s description of the old Hampden Park. “It looked”, he said, “the same in colour as it did in black and white“. But Billy Connolly is right. If you don’t like the Scottish weather, wait fifteen minutes. And there’s no bad weather. Just the wrong clothes.
Not completely out of character, and entirely planned, I met a farmer friend in a quieter than normal beer tent. We enjoyed the usual banter – and, when you get to this stage in life, nothing is out of bounds. And then he asked my companion – an MSP – why the Scottish Government wasn’t committing more subsidies towards renewables. The obvious answer, of course, is because it cannot. Because the power to do so is reserved to Westminster – along with all the important, grown-up stuff that we cannot be trusted with.
The conversation taught me three things.
Firstly, never assume that just because you think about politics all the time everybody else will. They don’t, and I envy them.
Secondly, I abhor the cynicism of political leaders – like Ruth Davidson criticising the Scottish NHS on the basis of a report that was nothing to do with the Scottish NHS – exploiting this confusion for political gain. It won’t do.
But thirdly, my dear and learned friend, by demanding something that cannot possibly be delivered by the existing constitutional settlement, demonstrates the narrow limits of devolution. He did, in fact, articulate an inarguably case for Scottish Independence itself.
Alec Ross is a regular contributor to The Orkney News