Farming Matters: Fake News and January Blues

“Cruden Bay Man Dies After Short Illness” (apocryphal Press & Journal headline. The man in question was Charlie Chaplain, who owned a house there)

Alec RossAbout three and a half years ago, in the long run-up to the First independence referendum, I took part in a meeting with pro-Independence group Farming for Yes, for whom I remain an active member. Top of the agenda that day was how we might make inroads into the apparently overwhelmingly unionist farming vote. We were realistic enough to know that we weren’t going to win a majority of the farmers, but we also knew that there simply weren’t enough farmers in Scotland to decide the outcome either way, and that by narrowing the gap we could help get Yes over the line.

To that end, we held public meetings, delivered leaflets, ‘phoned undecided friends and neighbours and wrote letters to the papers. But we were also heartily fed-up with the avalanche of No Thanks banners in fields, and as Wigtownshire eventually voted most strongly against independence I tended to see more banners than most. So the decision was taken that we would each find at least one fellow pro-independence farmer and ask them to put a banner in the most visible part of their land.

So I immediately ‘phoned an obvious candidate, a long-time and strongly nationalist friend. I’d already decided it was a no-brainer. I’d ask him as a courtesy, take it round to the farm, put it in the front field and then we’d go for a pint. Simple. Only that’s not what happened.

Yes sign

A big Yes sign with supporter

He listened to my pitch, and then there was a long silence. “I’ll pop round and see you”, he said. When he arrived, he explained his predicament. Like many farmers, he both owned and rented land. At the time, his business was expanding and he needed to rent some more from a wealthy landlord, a man who hated Scottish nationalism in general and Alex Salmond in particular, so any whiff of separatist sedition would have scuppered the deal. My friend knew that he could have one of my banners or he could have a place to out-winter his cattle. But he couldn’t have both. So I kept my banner and he kept his quiet and rented some ground. And then he voted Yes.

I thought about that exchange again this week in light of the news. At the time, the straightforward way in which my friend stated his belief that the No campaign was driven by the greed and self-interest of the privileged and their desire to hold onto it at any cost rather shook me at the time. They will do anything – anything – to stop it, he said. He was ahead of the curve, but events have revealed much more.

Earlier this week someone with the anti-independence movement Scotland in Union leaked extremely sensitive information to a pro-Independence blogger, information which included the names of their benefactors and the level of their support. Many of those supporters must have been mightily annoyed, especially the many who apparently kept their donations exactly a pound below £7500 – the amount below which the donor may legally remain anonymous.

Scotland in UnionWhat the donor list shows is that the anti-independence movement is funded by a small minority of powerful, well-connected, rich people who have the least to gain from self-determination and, in their minds at least, the most to lose. A movement further removed from a grassroots campaign is difficult to imagine. The wealthy and the privileged are backing a cause that will retain for them all of that wealth and all of that privilege. And this is important, as it scotches the myth that their support for No is all about creating a better society for all. It isn’t. It’s entirely about self-interest. It always was.

Alec and familyI’m in this for the long haul. There are many reasons why I’m still doing this, but, jings, money isn’t one of them. Just as well: none of us are making a penny out of this. For those of us who actually do give a damn and who do wish for a more socially just, equal, vibrant, newly independent Scotland, this (along with the other leaked email that exposed an equally small and equally rootless group of anti-independence letter writers) has been a good week.

For one thing, it’s significant to remember that Scotland in Union was formed in the immediate aftermath of the first independence referendum with the specific aim of preventing the calling of a second one which it will lose to Yes by a sizeable margin. Its aims have been reflected, since the autumn of 2014, in a mainstream unionist political narrative whose only aim has been the suppression of democracy. The last general election was fought by the unionist parties in Scotland solely on the basis of refusing the right to call the second vote that Holyrood had already voted for.

Brexit race to the bottomBrexit, another movement bankrolled by wealthy self-interest, gives legitimacy to a narrative that, from the Supreme Court judgement on article 50 to the ending of Barnett after the DUP bung to the rolling back of Scottish farming powers (did anyone ask Michael Gove about this today at the Oxford Farming Conference? No, thought not), could lead to the end of the Scottish Parliament and presents a threat to Scottish democracy itself.

But such intellectual pessimism can only take you so far. “Youse have hud yer vote” wins you a few seats in Scotland, but if there’s no political substance behind the bluster you’re soon rumbled. Which is why the Tories are now languishing in third place in the polls. There’s only one political bloc that is obsessed with independence, and it isn’t the nationalists. We are, to borrow a phrase, too busy getting on with the day job.

The Scotland in Union leak should also make us ask questions about our media. Given that the leak must have come from the inside, why has the Scottish media not considered that a story whilst continually reporting minor nationalist rifts as major schisms? And why does it keep saying Scotland doesn’t want another referendum (it, narrowly, does) or that young Scots prefer Corbyn to Nicola Sturgeon (they, overwhelmingly, do not)?

money-1067130_960_720Answer? Follow the money. Who owns the papers? When you think about it, it’s extraordinary that roughly 50% of the population support independence but less than 5% of its papers do. That is a print media not fit for purpose owned by people who have no interest in us apart from the continuation of a status quo that suits their aims. But then balanced reporting isn’t its purpose.

This week has confirmed that the mainstream Scottish media is very much part of the ongoing campaign to remind us how wee, poor and stupid we are. Actually, it didn’t just start this week. Last summer, a BBC headline read, a few days after Scotland’s Leigh Griffiths came within a few seconds of delivering a famous victory against England at Hampden, the headline read “Scotland remain lowest ranked British Nation in FIFA rankings”. Which was technically true, although perhaps a fairer headline might have been “Scotland close in on top Twenty ranking behind improving Northern Ireland and Wales while England tread water”. God, I want independence for many reasons, but not least amongst these is to see if my prediction comes true and The Scotsman headline the day after the vote is: “Blow for Sturgeon as SNP loses raison d’etre”.

New Year, same old. When you’re in the car a lot, as I am, the radio is a constant companion. But I’m getting a bit fed up with him. The last two days have seen Radio Scotland ramp up the “SNP bad” rhetoric to an almost absurd degree. The baby box is getting a real kicking, despite the fact that it’s so far proven to be both popular, costs significantly less and is significantly more useful than David Mundell, whose anti-Scotland office has increased spending by over 500% this year.

David Mundells expenses

But it’s the reporting on the NHS that should alarm us the most. The headline figure is that only 83% of A&E cases were seen within four hours, falling short of the stated 95% target. But, as always, that’s only part of the story. Leaving aside that overall, approval ratings for the Scottish NHS are higher than they’ve been since the devolution vote in 1997, and that by any sensible benchmark they’re higher than any other part of the UK, there has recently seen a 20% rise in admissions, a situation worsened by a greater complexity of cases (which means people need their hospital beds for longer) and a flu virus that has not only seen much of Scotland under the weather but also a higher than normal percentage of NHS falling victim to lurgy, so there are fewer people to deal with the higher admissions. Now, the Scottish NHS is stretched, and it isn’t perfect (although, from my family’s perspective, it’s pretty good). But all of this points to a service that, under unusually high pressure, performed commendably well. That’s the real story.

NHS_Scotland.svgToday’s John Beattie show led with this “story”. “We’re not here to compare”, he said. But why not? It might be because the BBC in Scotland tends to follow London’s example, and it led with an “NHS crisis” story: maybe BBC Scotland didn’t want to be left behind. But I think the real reason is that in the NHS, as in every other policy area and by any sensible benchmark, and without having anything close to full powers, Scotland outperforms Westminster. Which, awkwardly, doesn’t fit the too wee, poor and stupid narrative. Incidentally, I see the former world number one, fellow independence campaigner and future President of an independent Scottish Republic, Andy Murray, is flying home from tonight to get his troublesome hips fixed. Word of advice, big man. Sell that big house in Surrey and move back to Scotland. The waiting times are shorter.

Seriously, though. A couple of years ago, I made a point about the importance of devolving televised media. It was actually an original pillar of the ‘99 devolution settlement, until Labour removed it at the last minute. They knew that if you control the media then you control the unionist agenda, and the unionist project. Every time I come to Orkney I love listening to the local radio station with local voices viewing the world through the prism of local concerns. It’s what Scotland should do, before and after independence. There’s nothing parochial about that: it’s normal, healthy, outward-looking: like self- determination itself.

The First Minister failed to get my memo this week, so we are not yet independent. The leaked Scotland in Union database makes clear the choice that Scotland now faces. Side over self. Morality over money. A place where there is such a thing as society. In a month in which I travel to Kirkwall for a Burns Supper, Scotland in Union is also holding a “Robbie” Burns Supper (whatever that is). A ticket will set you back £45. Having seen their balance sheets, you find yourself asking why. But it is to the Bard that I leave today’s final words:

““Alas! Have I often said to myself, what are all the boasted advantages which my Country reaps from a certain Union, that can counterbalance the annihilation of her Independence…or even her very name!”

It’s coming yet, for a’ that.

Burns image

Alec Ross is a regular contributor to The Orkney News

11 replies »

  1. Tremendously illuminating article from the farming prospective. I too believe that the rich and comfortably well off do not want independence for Scotland due to selfishness, greed and self preservation. Well done to Alec Ross for highlighting this and also that our NHS is one of our jewels in the Scottish crown.

  2. Excellent stuff again, Alec. Well-balanced and well written. I particularly like your Scotsman headline prediction. See you at the Burns Supper – I’ll be playing fiddle but we can get past that!

  3. A Guid New Year Alex and well done another great article. Interestingly I listened to some ‘Pro-Brexit’ farmers in Oxfordshire being interviewed on their reactions to Gove’s ‘wishful thinking’ promises post EU and they were almost enthusiastic over them. Now Alex you are a well travelled farmer and you know like me Oxfordshire is hardly farming on the margins. Tories like Gove, Fox et al live in some sort of Empire2 bubble where after the EU we are all about to enter a land of ‘milk and honey’. I don’t know how old you are Alex but I do remember the state of this country in the late 60’s, three day weeks, strikes every other day, interest rates at 15%+, known as the ‘sick-man of Europe’ at the time when Heath and Co. were begging de Gaulle to let us into the EEC. The Tories also seem to forget that the cheap import of food in the 30’s, led to farmers going bankrupt and near starvation during WW2.

    My own fear which I think is much akin to yours is that we’re heading back there. Keep-up the good work and keep pumping out these informative articles.

    • Thanks Charles. What worries me is that even those many farmers who voted remain (and I think the farming vote was narrower than the 62:38 in the whole of Scotland) have largely accepted the result and say we just have to get on with it. The problem with that is that “we” don’t own the Brexit project, and all the bluster about a post-Brexit power bonanza has gone silent, as has any pretence that relevant Brussels powers (like farming) would go directly back to Holyrood. This to me is the crux of the problem, in farming as in the wider constitutional question. We can ask all we want but it’s totally out of our hands. The solution – Independence – is obvious, but the political leanings of much of Scotland’s farmers make calls for that solution unlikely, so we’ll end up with something worse than what we now have, regardless of how good Mike Russell is. Discussion pages like this are full of the kind of historical perspective that is completely lacking from the Goves of this world.

      • Thanks Alec, as you say Independence is the only solution. If may denies INDY2 then the Rhodesia route might be the best option otherwise it could end in a blood-bath.

  4. 1) Re. the bit about your friend and the ‘Yes’ banner – that’s the trouble with being a tenant farmer, always has been. But – what can a person do? “The rich get rich, and the poor get children.” Money goes to money.
    2) One of our neighbours recently went to the A&E of our local hospital, and was seen within 4 minutes. And a good thing too, as it was serious. I know it’s Orkney and there are less folk here than in a lot of places, but…still…who can say that’s not very good indeed?
    3) “The Tories also seem to forget that the cheap import of food in the 30’s, led to farmers going bankrupt and near starvation during WW2.”
    Unfortunately, people forget. They think the cheap imports are great, until the cheap imports stop happening. They also usually fail to look at the other ‘costs’ of those cheap imports. Considering what a dozy lot we are, it’s surprising that humans have done so well as a species. We’re supposed to learn from what has happened previously.
    Somehow, we survive though. Nil Desperandum.

    • You’re right. The key point for me is that approval ratings for the NHS in Scotland are extremely high. To be fair to Radio Scotland, there was a medical economist on today who gave a very objective account of the economics of health provision. Essentially, the Tory policy is to follow a US system, so creeping privatisation and money leaving the system and going to shareholders and private equity. This isn’t the case in Scotland but our funding is threatened as our block grant through Barnet drops as total available monies decrease. The key point for me was this though: it’s perfectly possible to have a functioning health service. It’s also possible to have a rubbish one. Both these outcomes are political, not economic, decisions.

  5. Dear Mr Ross
    Thank you very much for your thoughts and opinions that you kindly put to print. As a Scot who has lived in Australia for the past 18 or so years, even though I nor any of my family still at home are involved in any way with Farming, I find your writing to be accurate, concise and relevant to persons from all spheres of society.
    Please do continue to provide your interpretation of the o going situation and hopefully I may get the chance to thank you in person when I return to a free and independent Scotland. In the near future.

    • Certainly will David. See my comments to Bernie (above). I’d add that, actually, everything is a political choice. Austerity, for example.

      Hopefully see you in a newly independent Scotland in the Autumn of next year. Regards.

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