There’s a line in the film All The President’s Men which goes something like “the shock headline of today will be in paragraph four tomorrow, because something even more shocking will have happened”.
In this column six weeks ago, I wrote the following:
“Three years ago, Scotland voted No after being told that all sorts of horrendous things were going to happen if we voted Yes. Our currency would be worthless. We’d lose the Triple A credit rating. There would be a rise in right wing extremism. Ships wouldn’t get built on the Clyde. Tax office jobs in East Kilbride would be lost. Austerity would get worse. The economy would take a hit that it might never recover from. Scotland would be ripped out of the European Union and isolated from the rest of the world. Scotland would have no voice or influence in any international body and would be unable to have any influence on UK government policy either. The United Kingdom would be a smaller and diminished place that had become the laughing stock of the world.
Wait, haud on…”
Things have got considerably worse in the last six weeks. Indeed, they’ve deteriorated alarmingly in the last six days. The UK ministers are so out of control and the Prime Minister so powerless that Monday’s cabinet meeting was cancelled. The Tories’ largest donor may well have been funding the party through millions from his offshore accounts held under the non-dom status that he supposedly no longer had. The international development secretary has been offering UK monies to the Israeli army during a series of meetings which her boss knew nothing about, effectively creating her own bespoke foreign policy, and then lying about the foreign secretary knowing about the meetings in advance.
Incredibly, this wasn’t even the worst thing to happen this week. The said Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnston, claimed – wrongly – that a British citizen in Iran had been teaching journalists, which under Iranian law probably gets her another five years in jail. He has failed to properly apologise, or resign. And yet, at the time of writing, both ministers are still in a job.
Still, at least the Brexit negotiations are going well.
Within the last few months, the idea of a hard Brexit that threatens amongst other things the devolution settlement and the Good Friday Agreement has gone from being unthinkable to the most likely – and, for some cabinet members, desirable – outcome. Without an agreement on a divorce settlement and with the UK backtracking on citizens’ rights, trade talks cannot start before March 2018 at the earliest, so the chances of agreeing a deal by the Autumn deadline are precisely zero.
Even if this wasn’t so, talks are further hamstrung because EU officials simply can’t work out what the official UK government position is – most probably there isn’t one. There are so many consequences to this doomsday scenario that we simply don’t have the time, but here’s a couple.
Firstly, you won’t be flying to Europe next Christmas because we’ll no longer be part of the aviation treaty, and it’s thought that reverting to the old one could be tricky and negotiating a new one will take two years.
Secondly, while it would be possible to take temporary refuge in EFTA, off- the-shelf EEA agreement excludes agriculture. Which means full World Trade Organisation Tariffs and serious doubts over the legality of paying agricultural subsidies.
On top of all this, it seems that the government wasn’t being entirely open about the fifty-eight Brexit impact studies that the Commons has now voted to see. Well, by “not entirely open” I mean they appear to have been making it up, which shouldn’t surprise us as winging it is their modus operandi. Looks like another dodgy dossier. Never mind fake news: this is a fake government.
There is, of course, a solution. Last week I caused a minor stushie by calling for Brexit to be halted, but let’s look at it another way. Imagine if the question were reversed.
What do I mean?
During the Scottish Independence Referendum, a fellow Farming for Yesser posed the question: what if Scotland were already an independent country? What if a bigger neighbour then asked us to cede 85% of our sovereignty? What if they asked us to send all of our taxes to them, and they’d decide how to spend them on our behalf? What if they told us they’d be putting nuclear weapons in a loch near our biggest city? We’d have to be desperate.
Use the same logic for Brexit. What if we were outside the EU and in decline, and Brussels offered us the deal we now have? We’ve bitten their hand off. The only sensible thing to do is to reverse the Article 50 process.
And, on top of all of this, last week saw the publication of a document written by the influential think-tank Chatham House that called for the scrapping of farm subsidies and a move towards a New-Zealand agricultural model. It warned many smaller farms would probably fold but said the scale of job losses could be “exaggerated” and the savings could be used to retrain people. To be fair, the report predicts livestock farming, which makes up most of the Scottish sector, would be particularly vulnerable in this scenario with rural upland communities “likely to suffer the most commercially”. Well, haud me back. It’s just a pity there wasn’t money already available to support farmers either in or out of Europe and our public services that would alleviate the need to remove support.
Only there would be, if only there was the political will. Which brings us to the Paradise Papers.
Even with something this serious, it’s fascinating how the media (owned by some of the same people who appear on the leaked documents) report it. They’ve always been clever with euphemisms. While other countries have “weapons of mass destruction”, we are British so therefore we have a nice type of nuclear arsenal called a “deterrent”. What used to be called “social security” – rightly, as we’re all just a few bad decisions away from needing support – is now called “benefits”, as if this was something for nothing, something undeserved. People talk of a “tax burden”, when it is actually privilege of living in a functioning democracy. The scandal goes right to the very top, but the headlines read “Queen caught up in tax scandal”, as if it was a genuine mistake and not a deliberate attempt to avoid paying income on what is, after all, our money. You may as well write “Ronnie Biggs caught up in train theft incident”.
I’ve believed for sometime – long before this scandal – that the very rich – the Lord Ashcrofts of this world – aren’t above the law, exactly. It’s just that they’re above the bespoke law that they’ve designed for themselves with the express purpose of keeping as much of the finite amount of money in the world to themselves by making the rest of us pay as much as possible. Waving a flag, or wearing a poppy in some kind of grotesque virtue signal – as these folk do – doesn’t make you a patriot – but contributing your fair share certainly does.
I have a particular gripe with the Starbucks of this world who allow the rest of us to fund the universities and colleges that provide them with the skilled people that they haven’t paid a penny towards, or deliver their goods on the roads that they haven’t contributed to. The £120bn of uncollected taxes outstrips benefit fraud by a hundred-fold, yet newspapers owned by tax-avoiding hypocrites like The Daily Mail’s Paul Dacre blame failing services on immigrants, the unemployed and the EU. The money leaves the economy and the rest of pick up the tab. So this week’s journalism is long overdue. This stuff matters – wealthy tax avoiders aren’t playing the system. They made the system. It is the system. No wonder the Leave campaign was funded so heavily by dark money from the kind of people who were about to lose out from new EU powers that would have curtailed their avarice.
In short, we live in a society – endorsed by the monarchy and those in government – in which the financial mechanism in operation is designed to impoverish the many and enrich and empower the few.
And it is an issue for Scotland, too. The 2016 SNP manifesto pledged to clamp down on companies taking part in Tax Avoidance, yet two accountancy firms in Scotland given contracts by the Scottish Government – Deloitte and PwC – both helped design accountancy models for Blackstone that allowed them to pay minimal tax on its purchase and income from Glasgow’s St Enoch Centre. We may not be independent quite yet, but we need to act like the modern and ethical self-governing country that we will soon become.
There is some good news, however. We in Scotland are lucky. We have a lifeboat. Time to haul away
I’ll be in Edinburgh for the big farming event – Agriscot – next week. I’m on Stand 44, so come in for a blether.
Whatever your political views, get #KeepScotlandTheBrand trending. It isn’t about constitutional matters, it’s about jobs and the economy. Scotland’s food and drink sector is worth £16bn to our economy and the Scottish brand is an internationally recognised and trusted gold standard of quality.