“Who dare mention the elephant?”
Three years or so ago, in the not-so-early hours of Friday September 19th, I was driving back to Lochans Mill from Dumfries. I’d been at the count for the independence Referendum, watching us getting horsed by Better Together and witnessing people cheering as they committed a monumental act of self-harm by becoming the first country in the history of the world to vote against itself and reject its own self-governance. It’s fair to assume I’d had better nights out.
I walked through the door just as my eldest was getting up for his breakfast. He knew. He didn’t have to ask. “I’m sorry, wee man”, I said. “I tried. I truly did”. I really beat myself up over it. I felt – feel – personally responsible for not persuading enough people not to throw away a future that wasn’t really ours to discard. We have a duty of care to the younger generation and those not yet born, an obligation to make their lives just a little better than ours. I’m a lucky man. I’ve worked in agriculture when it’s generally been good, live in a nice house with a lovely wife and two fine boys, and even get paid for going to Orkney a lot. I’ve been fortunate, blessed. Yet I fear that unfolding events mean that this upcoming generation may be the first in centuries for whom a life better that their parents will not be guaranteed.
Which brings me to Wednesday’s Agriscot, Scotland’s big farm business day out. For eight years, the company I represent has sponsored the event’s Young Business Skills award, a competition open to anyone in the industry under the age of twenty-five. I take no part in the judging process, but once again I was struck by the extraordinarily high standard of the four finalists. We take them, and others, out for dinner the night before the event, and it is always a privilege.
A fine young man by the name of Andrew McGregor (remember the name folks, he’s going places) won the title and the thousand pounds. Congratulations to him and the three students – Sarah Mowat (from Orkney), Kerry Cartwright and Lyndsey Allen. You won’t have heard the last of any of them. I absolutely guarantee it.
Tuesday night’s dinner was, as ever, an evening of laughter, daft stories, camaraderie and good discussion. And I’ve never heard the chairman, Aberdeenshire farmer and good friend Andrew Moir, better. Not for the first time I reflected that he is the Rab Butler of Scottish farming – the greatest leader we never had. But somebody once said that it’s not what you talk about that matters but what you leave out. It was only later when I reflected that we’d almost had an unspoken pact not to talk about the elephants in the dining room. Not once did anyone mention the B word. Brexit was left unsaid.
I wondered why this was so. Perhaps nobody wanted to spoil the night. Perhaps we’re all thoroughly fed up with hearing about it, or we’re in denial. Or maybe, alarmingly, it’s been with us for so long now that it’s lost its sting. Maybe omnishambles is the new normal.
But perhaps it’s more than that. I was looking at the list of seminars about post-Brexit opportunities and thinking: who are we kidding? Because if there’s a bigger elephant than Brexit it’s that we have precisely zero ownership over the process, that it is completely and utterly out of our control. It doesn’t matter how many Brexit surveys we fill in or how many seminars we attend. It doesn’t matter how many times we tell an uncaring UK government that our industry must be supported to at least current levels and our convergence monies must be paid. It doesn’t matter how loudly we tell them that our fruit farmers will pack up if they can’t get EU workers to pick our fruit, or how often we bang the drum for free movement of labour to allow our cows to be milked and our health service to function. It doesn’t matter how often we say that we’re facing a second clearances as rural businesses fold, or that our trusted Scottish brand, already being swamped under a sea of union flegs, will be a pawn in a post-Brexit trade deal with Donald Trump that will see the chlorinated chickens coming home to roost. They won’t care. And I don’t blame them.
I believe that sometimes the people who really make history are the ones you’ve never heard of. When the history of these extraordinary times gets written, we’ll recognise that the Rubicon, the point of no return – the Sliding Doors moment, if you like – was when the Supreme Court – with whom I have no quarrel – resolved not only that Article 50 should be passed under normal parliamentary procedure rather that as a fait accompli, but that the devolved administrations need not be legally consulted over this or any other matter. In other words, when Tony Blair compared Holyrood to a Parish Council, he was bang on the money. The one positive to take from the bouroch is this – we know where we stand. A parliament built on sand. Powers lent, not given. Our continuing existence as a Scottish democracy out of our hands. The house always wins. Power devolved is power retained. Eat your cereal.
With everything else that’s going on – sex scandals, sackings, a cabinet out of control, chaotic negotiations that make a no-deal Brexit inevitable, the Paradise Papers – they were never going to listen to us anyway. When you throw into the mix the fact that it’s legally fine for them to dismiss us then our demands for consultation and compromise are like my oft-stated desire for a dinner date with Scarlett Johannson. A fantasy, a delusion, a wish list. Although the difference is it’s a lot more fun thinking about the lovely Scarlett than it is thinking about Michael Gove.
So what I wanted to say to the young award finalists was akin to what I did say to my son on the nineteenth of September 2014. I’m sorry folks. I truly am. We should have done better by you and not been so utterly selfish in voting for a future that belongs to you, not us. And still we sit here, meekly capitulating and selling you out to people who despise you and whom you didn’t vote for. We should have known that voting No would be seen not as an indication of trust but as a betrayal of weakness and that Brexit would be used as the opportunity to grab back our hard won gains with a view to reintroducing direct rule. We should be declaring independence tomorrow morning and keeping ourselves in the single-market at the very least, but instead we’re pissing about organising seminars. By becoming the first country in the history of the world to vote against itself we have committed an epic act of self-harm and left you to try to mitigate it.
So where are we up to? We face perhaps the biggest political challenge since the Second World War. Shockingly, there is no-one in a position of power with the authority or the moral courage to begin to address both the existential and practical issues that are threatening to engulf us all. Increasingly, it is obvious that there is no-one with the clarity of thought to own up and admit what is now obvious. That the task is beyond us. Brexit cannot be done and must be reversed, and in that context Lord Kerr’s intervention from last week was welcome, as he repeated that there is would be absolutely no legal cost and only minimal political one should the Prime Minister simply take the Article 50 letter back and put it in the shredder. But, as it stands, the other option – no deal – is much more likely and the consequences for Ireland, for example, are unthinkable. But think we must.
Likewise, events have brought Scotland’s constitutional settlement, once again, front and centre. Like Brexit, only two polar opposite outcomes seem possible: direct rule, or deliverance from a Westminster engineered devolution settlement that was designed to undermine us from the very start. And that, of course, means independence. Ironically, then, the stramash over Brexit brings a surprising degree of clarity. And that at least is something.
Morality Over Money
It’s not my future but it belongs to my boys and young folk like the skills award finalists, and it falls on them to decide what that future looks like. And this is what they should say to political and farming leaders alike:
“Look, I love this industry but I’m not prepared to spend the rest of my life in a career where my future is decided at the whim of people whom I didn’t ask for and who don’t give a damn about me or my industry. You need to think about my future and I don’t see that future as one in which an already stretched Scottish Government is forced to mitigate against the madness that we overwhelmingly rejected, but one in which the industry is forever a priority, and in which our brand and our markets are secure. I’m damned if I’m going to be sold out as part of a post-Brexit Trump deal, brokered by people who value power over peace, self over side, morality over money. I’m damned if half the politicians in Scotland don’t recognise the sovereignty of the parliament they sit in. What the hell are they doing there? It’s not acceptable. It’s not within a million miles of being remotely acceptable. Call for Brexit to be reversed and, when they don’t and refuse us a second referendum, declare us independent anyway. This, and only this, delivers us the kind of future that we’d already be in the early stages of living in if you hadn’t been so bloody stupid three years ago. Fair’s fair. You’ve had a good kick of the ball. Time I had mine. Get it done.
Agriscot reminded me of what a wonderful industry I am privileged, every single day, to work in. It falls us – all of us – to ensure that Andrew and his friends continue to enjoy that same privilege – a privilege that all us, by extension, gratefully share.