Farming Matters: The Devil in the Detail

“The price of liberty is eternal vigilance” (Thomas Jefferson)

“It ain’t cool to not know what you’re talking about” (Barack Obama).

Alec RossAs it’s Friday, and because I need cheering up, and because I like jokes and wordplay, and, well, because I can, allow me to indulge myself by sharing a daft wee apocryphal story

One day in class, a teacher is telling her pupils about the many differences in the languages of the world. “In English”, she says, “a double negative forms a positive – as in ‘I didn’t do nothing’. In some languages, like Russian, a double negative stays as a negative. But in no language in the world does a double positive create a negative”. To which the wee boy at the back of the classroom says: “Aye. Right”

The Scottish language is replete with words and phrases that defy translation. “Dreich” means infinitely more than “a bit wet” and can be equally usefully deployed to describe a speech or a game of football. I’ve delivered several of the former and witnessed countless of the latter that match the description. Similarly, “gallus” is infinitely deeper in meaning than “confident” or “cocky”. “Thrawn”, my all-time favourite, is intransigence on stilts. It doesn’t mean “stubborn”. “Stubborn” is refusing to take your cod liver oil. “Thrawn” is agreeing to take your cod liver oil and then refusing to go to the toilet.

But for the purposes of this week, “Aye, right” has been my phrase of choice. I’ve found it to be a very handy response when politicians tell you things are going swimmingly when everybody knows we’re being sold a pup. I said it when apologists for failed branch office manager Kezia Dugdale described her decision to sign up for a reality TV show for three weeks as an opportunity to deliver her political message to a wider audience.

Aye. Right.

Here’s a different slant. What about the notion that if you’re a sitting MSP being paid £61,000 by the Scottish taxpayer you might actually stay and do your job and not take three weeks off to eat crocodile nuts? I’m struck, incidentally, by the relative absence of criticism of this, particularly in comparison to the faux (and actual) outrage to Alex Salmond – who remember doesn’t represent anyone and therefore isn’t costing us a penny – starting his own show on RT.

There’s similarly zero negativity about Colonel Ruth Davidson’s decision to represent her constituents by baking a cake on the telly, but that’s probably because the people who actually run the country – big business and the media – have decided she will be the next Prime Minister, which explains why she was never held to account over ballot-box fraud, bigotry and sectarianism in her own party or her naked politicisation of Poppy Scotland. It further explains why she was never asked about the resignation of a Moray councillor who described his colleagues as “right-wing extremists”. Story buried. Move on. Eat your cereal. Nothing to see here.

Aye. Right.

So it’s been a pretty awkward week for people who earn their crust telling the Scottish Government to get on with the day job, particularly when it has been doing precisely that – doing boring things like saving hundreds of BiFab jobs, on the same week we learned that over a thousand European Medicine Council and financial sector jobs in London would be lost as a direct result of the Brexit vote. Frankly, watching my own country’s government being told to get on with the day job would be just about tolerable if the people saying it were even remotely competent at doing theirs.

I’m genuinely scunnered – another useful Scottish word – at being told I hate my English neighbours (and I don’t, I like them very much) by Scottish people who clearly loathe their own country. It gars me greet.

So what have we learned this week?

Quite a lot. Behind the chancellor’s lame jokes and sophistry, the budget told us that the deficit would not be eliminated until 2031, sixteen years after George Osbourne’s original forecast.

StrawWe also learned that growth would be below 2% in every forecast year for first time in modern history. This confirms what I’ve long suspected and talked about in this column before – my boys are part of the first generation in centuries whose future isn’t guaranteed to be better than their parents.

And we learned that annual pay isn’t due to return to its pre-crash peak until 2025, and that wage growth is at its lowest since the Napoleonic Wars.

And we learned that VAT on Scotland’s police and emergency services is being scrapped, but that there will be no £140m refund. We also learned that it could have been, but that it wasn’t because of pure spite.

We learned that broadband could have been delivered if the Secretary of State for Scotland had done what is – or should be – his job, and delivered reserved policies in Scotland. Instead, he chose to lie over both issues and it leads me to ask again – what is David Mundell actually for?

And what is the point of twelve new Conservative MPs when they are gifted the chance – over the DUP bung – to secure £2.9bn for Scotland and side with their party against their people?

This is what happens when you vote No and vote for a political class that was always going to view that vote not as an article of good faith but as a sign of weakness. This is our brave new world. This is Better Together.

In truth, though, I don’t blame the Mundells and Davidsons of this world for constantly belittling and undermining Scotland. That is, after all, their raison d’etre. It’s just that it doesn’t seem unreasonable to ask them to be held to the same level of scrutiny and accountability as the people who do actually give a damn about us.

Back in the day job, life is not without its challenges. The weather has a distinctly 1985 feel about it, although even that year belatedly saw the respite that has yet to arrive in 2017. As my brother quipped with typical dark humour yesterday “normally I just ignore the weather and just get on with it, but yesterday was the day when it stopped being funny”. He told me about three farmers in Ayrshire who didn’t even manage a first cut of silage and are selling the cows in what is very much a buyers’ market.

Of course, in the gilded halls of Westminster and in the cosy Chatham House think tanks, the mood music is of course that we should become more efficient. But that’s difficult when even the most efficient remote hill farm would not be profitable without its single farm payment – and God knows what that might look like after March 2019.

It’s also difficult when straw is trading at prices approaching £200 / tonne, and silage at £50 / tonne. A dairy farmer told me yesterday that at £45 / tonne for forage, it’s simply not possible to be profitable – so do the maths. The worry is that we could see a lot of cattle having to be turned out to grass by as early as January as feed supplies run short. In short, these are challenging times.

aberdeen-angusBut do you know what? We’re good at this. The industry adapts. I have the privilege of working, every day, with people who are right on the top of their game, who know and understand their businesses to the nth degree. They’re people who know their profit margins, or how much milk they can produce from forage. Beef finishers who know to the smallest decimal point the daily liveweight gain of their growing and fattening cattle, arable farmers who know precisely the cost of their production. Or grassland farmers who can tell you at any moment how many kilos of dry matter per kilogram their paddocks are yielding.

They’d, rightly, expect the same standard from me. We’d expect precision from your doctor or your dentist. And you’d certainly demand it from your airline pilot. A phrase you never want to hear is “the plane is now beginning its descent and will shortly be landing quite near to Glasgow Airport”. I’m with Bob Monkhouse on this one, by the way. I want to be like my grandfather and die quietly in my sleep, not like his passengers who were trying desperately to wake him up.

My point is this. We expect this type of attention to detail of ourselves and just about everyone we interact with. So while the rest of us immerse ourselves in detail, why can’t our politicians?

It didn’t used to be like this. Margaret Thatcher, famously, read every paper in her red box. The late Robin Cook’s attention to detail made him a vital critic in the run-up to Iraq. Tam Dalyell was the same during the Falklands conflict.

But our leaders aren’t doing this anymore. Their lack of basic knowledge is startling and they aren’t close to being in charge of their brief. They seem to have distilled policy down to half a page of bullet points, and it’s hurting us in ways great and small.

There are countless examples, but here is just one.

Angus MP Kirstene Hair tweeted this week about Scottish Government failures on broadband, only to be reminded that this was a reserved issue. I don’t think she was, like Mundell, being dishonest. It’s worse than that. I honestly think genuinely she didn’t know because she’d never bothered to find out.

It scares me that we have politicians at every level who genuinely aren’t interested in detail. A tweet about broadband by a paper candidate is at the lower end, for sure, but what if we’re talking about a foreign secretary who makes an off-the-cuff remark about the reasons for a British woman being in Iran and quite probably condemns her to another five years in jail? How frightening would it be if it then transpired that it wasn’t so much that the minister in question wasn’t so much badly briefed but couldn’t be bothered to find out the most basic of facts? And what if he then failed to resign, far less apologise?

brexit-imageAnd what, come to that, if this was the dangerously lackadaisical approach of these same people to the negotiations over the greatest challenge to the United Kingdom since the Second World War? And yet the Brexit project is being led – if that is the word – by people who haven’t done their homework, and who therefore haven’t figured out that, for example, that an increasingly likely hard Brexit means we can’t fly our planes to Europe or America. They won’t have bothered to find out that by voting to leave the Customs Union they’ll have all but guaranteed a hard Irish border, or that “no-deal” in 2019 means leaving the European Food Standards Agency, which has given the EU some of the highest welfare and traceability standards in the world, whilst carrying out invaluable research on GMOs and pesticides.

The only way any of this makes sense is if the Brexit project is in fact another Iraq or another Austerity policy – an exercise in disaster capitalism that is portrayed as a means to save us money (£350m for the NHS?) but is in fact a way for rich people to get even richer whilst undermining public services and getting us to pay for it, all the time removing themselves from an EU that was about to start asking awkward questions about their tax affairs. And it probably is.

Here’s what happens now.

Very shortly, Scotland will told it will be very much part of a no-deal Brexit that it overwhelmingly rejected.

The Scottish Parliament will refuse to give its assent.

Westminster will point out that this is a reserved matter and remind us that, legally, we don’t even need to be consulted and that we are leaving.

This will lead us to the endgame of the greatest constitutional crisis in our history and we will immediately enact section 30 and a second, and final, Scottish independence referendum.

We will be told that we are too wee, too poor, too stupid, that the oil will run out and that we won’t have a currency and that we won’t be allowed to watch Strictly. We’ll be told that ships won’t be built on the Clyde and HMRC jobs will be lost in East Kilbride and we’ll become an irrelevant backwater. We’ll be told we’re a precious family of nations with a shared history, that we should lead, not leave. That we are, today and for all eternity, Better Together.

And we will look south. And we shall think to ourselves:

Aye. Right


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9 replies »

  1. Another great article, I look forward to reading Farming Matters every week, keep up the great work.

  2. I was talking with someone, yesterday, who likes to read ‘The Orkney News’ – thinks it’s an all round GOOD THING, as it provides what he referred to as “A different voice”. I completely agree with him – not only a different voice, but many different voices. I asked did he read your articles, Alec, and…he doesn’t! He thought it was just about farming, and therefore, didn’t really catch his interest. So, I told him that – yes, your starting point is farming, but, of course farming – FOOD – affects do much in our daily life, and what’s happening in the wider world, affects farming. I advised him to try reading your articles. I think he’ll like to do so, as he’s a thinking man, with a sense of humour.

    And so, to the content of this particular piece – “Aye, right.” It depends on how it’s said, doesn’t it? A good story.
    Lazy dog-owner – “I think giving my dog an electric shock when it disobeys me, is a good idea.”
    Me – “Aye. Right.”
    Definitely a case of when a double positive becomes a negative.
    And on that subject – am I right in thinking that the Westminster Government’s edict that animals (and remember, humans are animals, highly evolved animals, but still animals, when it comes down to it) cannot feel, is directly linked to the fact that Britain will be ” leaving the European Food Standards Agency, which has given the EU some of the highest welfare and traceability standards in the world….”.
    As an addition to one of my own pieces of writing, I pointed out that , whilst the Westminster government is stating that animals do not, cannot, feel, the Holyrood government is bring in restrictions on the use of electric shock ‘training’ collars for dogs, and I ask the reader, “Which of these governing bodies would you prefer to be aligned with?”
    Aye Right.

  3. Excellent. You covered many areas succinctly, with humour and nailed it.
    I will be sharing.

  4. Hi Alec,
    I am grateful to my much better half for pointing me to your article.
    A fine combination of humour while accurately addressing a very disturbing series of radicle changes in our “United Kingdom.” Impotent is sadly the way most folks feel.
    Great work well done.

    Iain Gordon (ex Stranraer)

    • Iain, what a pleasure to hear from you – so glad you enjoyed the article. I find that farming provides a very useful prism through which to view the unfolding omnishambles. Thanks for your kind words – and for supporting the paper. Oh, and tell your significantly better other I was asking for her…AR.

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