“We fight when we they ask us. We boast – then we cower. We beg for a piece of what’s already ours” (The Proclaimers, “Cap in Hand”)
Curling might not be much of an Orkney pursuit, but it’s something of a Stranraer obsession and that definitely includes me. Early last week – on the second of January – I was playing in a thing called the County Cup, which is something of a local derby between the two neighbouring provinces, Rhins o’ Galloway and The Machars. The games are always a good mix of healthy rivalry, competitive curling and, whatever the result, a dram or two afterwards. It’s like a Hogmanay celebration rudely interrupted by a sporting contest. It’s like going to a party and a game of curling breaking out.
Curling in these parts has always been the farmers’ game of choice. My father still talks about the “big snaw” of 1963, when hard frost and deep snow restricted farming activity to the feeding of livestock, and everyone then foregathered on the Loch Connell ice and curled until it was too dark to play. Then they came back the next day and did it again. And again. In fact, they did it for as long as the ice was “hauding” (safe to walk on), and it held for three weeks. The thaw, when it came, must have felt like a bereavement.
There’s less in the way of outdoor curling nowadays – although we played a couple of bonspiels in 2010 – but the indoor game remains as popular as ever. The social aspect of curling remains strong, too, and last week was no different. Inevitably, when we’d dissected the game to death and moved onto a second round, the conversation moved onto wider affairs. One of the company asked how I was feeling about the coming year in the light of the Brexit uncertainty.
“Look lads”, I said. “Despite what you may have read or heard about me, I take quite a realistic view of these things. Time is a great healer and people now realise they’ve been sold a pup, that they were lied to, that there isn’t £350m a week for the NHS. They’re watching an inept government wait nine months before triggering Article 50 and then another three fighting a completely unnecessary general election on the premise of giving them something they already had – a mandate – and then nearly losing it completely.
Not that I think any sort of majority gives them any kind of a mandate for the kind of controlled suicide that they’re now foisting on us, particularly when Scotland voted to remain and especially when the whole referendum process excluded millions of stakeholders from the franchise and is therefore in my opinion democratically illegitimate. In any case, the referendum was advisory only and Article 50 can be reversed at any point – the author of the article says so. And, if it isn’t, we still don’t have to leave because Scotland has a triple-locked mandate to decide to stay in through a second independence referendum that we will win by a street. So, yeah: despite everything, I’m feeling pretty good. I fancy our chances. Drink, anyone?”
Well, he did ask.
I don’t believe I have ever witnessed a group of people sober up quite so quickly. They looked at me for signs that I might have been joking and, detecting none, one of the group replied. He took his time, carefully choosing his words and enunciating them slowly and deliberately in the manner of someone trying his hardest to reason with someone who was, clearly and self-evidently, mental.
“Come on Alec”, he said. “How many whiskies have you had? We’re leaving. It’s been decided. Stop remoaning. You’re not helping things. We just have to get on with it”.
“Have you been paying attention?” I asked. “You must surely be appalled by the way the negotiations are being handled. Davis is a complete joke. He’s even been caught lying about the impact assessments – farming included – that don’t exist. How can we trust these guys to deliver any sort of decent settlement for the industry? Particularly when, post-Supreme Court judgement, they legally don’t have to even consider us? When Sewell is no longer and powers are being taken from us and held in Westminster, probably forever?”
He shook his head in pity. “It’s like a game of poker”, he said. “You don’t show your hand”.
I was getting a little agitated by now. “That’s because we don’t have a hand to show! Barnier has a straight flush. A full house. And what have we got? Mrs Bun the Baker’s wife!”
I decided, wisely, to call a taxi.
Having calmed down, a few things came to mind. You know the parable of the boiling frog? The premise is that if a frog is put suddenly into boiling water, it will jump out, but if the frog is put in tepid water which is then brought to a boil slowly, it will not perceive the danger and will be cooked to death. The story is often used as a metaphor for the inability or unwillingness of people to react to or be aware of threats that arise gradually.
We are that frog. The dissolution of Scottish powers the removal of competencies – and the eventual end of Scottish democracy itself – is happening in increments, like a game of Jenga at a Hogmanay party. Take David Mundell (please), who seems to be in charge of the dial on the hob. At least he’s now found something to do. His is an example of how to normalise a hard Brexit in several easy stages.
In stage one, his gaffer, Theresa May, pledged not to trigger Article 50 until consensus was reached with all the UK nations. And, with no consensus reached, triggered it anyway.
In stage two, Mundell assured us that there existed a Scotland-specific Brexit assessment. It didn’t. He is a liar.
In stage three, he promised a power bonanza. But the EU withdrawal bill offers not a single new power. Indeed, it removes a chunk of them in a naked power grab. His job is to weaken and enfeeble Scotland. He cannot be trusted.
Finally, this week’s stage four saw Mundell pledging amendments to the EU bill before it left the Commons – and then “missing” the deadline completely, which means our future will be decided in a chamber in which, due to the SNP’s admirable stance of not sitting in the democratic outrage that is the Lords, Scotland – or at least those representatives of Scotland who actually give a damn – we have precisely zero influence. How’s that for taking back control?
Meanwhile, the frog looks a bit sleepy.
But while we wait for the pot to boil, let’s consider this. As an industry, have we had a “good” war? It seems we all had a good laugh at the towns and counties of England – the Grimsbys, the Cornwalls – who voted overwhelmingly to leave the EU and then insisted that the UK government at least match the EU funding they’d benefitted from up to this point. “Hell mend ye”, seemed to be the refrain.
A couple of things give me pause here. Firstly, while the people of England, as elsewhere, were sold Brexit on a false premise, they did, rightly or wrongly, believe they were being oppressed by a legislature that they didn’t vote for. So they voted them out. Now, I think they were wrong but I admire the English for doing what history shows they have always done – and stand up for themselves. The argument that Scotland was being held back by an unelected Westminster was, for me, a much stronger case in 2014. But we choked. We bottled it. We had them on toast and we meekly handed the power back. All of it. And England didn’t. So we should haud our wheesht. That moral high ground we think we occupy? It feels a bit shoogly right now.
So, to return to the question: how goes the war?
To see ourselves as others see us.
The English regions got a pasting for railing against a political bloc that they hate (although they can’t quite remember why) and then demanding that the self same political group get them at least as good a deal as the decent one that they’d just engineered their departure from, before blaming them again when such a deal proves impossible.
But that’s precisely what the industry seems to be doing. It’s not scaremongering to say that 80,000 jobs will be lost or that the average household will be two thousand pounds worse off after a hard Brexit. It’s hardly scaremongering to point out that a halving of Scotland’s direct payments, the incremental loss of our brand or the increasing difficulties that labour restrictions will bring to our soft fruit and dairy sectors in particular will be hugely detrimental to Scotland. It beggars belief that we could honestly believe that Michael Gove gives a monkeys about us, or that we wouldn’t be better off being served by a cabinet secretary in Holyrood who understands the relative importance of Agriculture to Scotland’s GDP in relation to rUK, and hopefully very soon that cabinet secretary will serve us as an independent country within the European single market. And yet we voted in the Tories in sufficient numbers to allow May to cobble together a coalition of chaos through bribery. From the jaws of victory, we snatched defeat. It was like being at Hampden Park, only without the laughs.
We voted overwhelmingly, as an industry, No to independence. I’m not entirely sure why, but a common thread seems to be that Alex Salmond was a bit of a dick. But our continuing adherence to Tory neoliberalism will hurt us. We’ll be out of Europe and out of the single market and the customs union. We won’t have people to milk our cows and pick our fruit. #keepscotlandthebrand will have been drowned under a Tsunami of Union flegs and we’d have mightily pissed off, but we were too busy watching the royal wedding. This is what the Romans meant by “bread and circuses”.
And then we’ll ask – what’s the SNP doing about this? Something must be done.
Scottish farming is not only a useful prism through which to view the Brexit Omnibouroch, but also provides a stunning example of the limits of devolution. Here’s how.
Blaming an imperfect but otherwise perfectly competent Scottish Government for failures, perceived or otherwise, when it isn’t allowed all the economic and political levers, is akin to removing the wings from a wasp and then castigating it for its lack of flight. This is the unionist project. Make it as hard as possible for Scotland. Use Brexit as a power grab. Run us down to the point where we can never, ever, go for independence again. It’s a project that keeps David Mundell in gainful employment.
Brexit, for farmers, has gone from promises of the automatic returning of all devolved competencies from Westminster to Holyrood – including farming – to a power-grab. The Supreme Court judgement means that Scotland, legally and constitutionally, is irrelevant. The snap election brought twelve new Tories who would “stand up for Scotland” but who are instead lobby fodder who voted gleefully and unquestionably for EU withdrawal (despite representing strong remain constituencies) and who voted against any amendments that would have halted the rolling back of the devolution settlement.
They have even reneged on promises to challenge the Bill before it leaves for the House of Lords. So our future has gone from being decided by elected people we didn’t vote for to being determined by unelected people that nobody voted for. It’s called taking back control. Still, I take solace in the fact that my MP, Alister Jack (Con) is pressing ahead with his plans to get us to pay (twice) for a muckle new yacht for her majesty, a sister ship perhaps for that aircraft carrier that doesn’t have any aircraft to carry. Always good to hear that your MP is getting on with the day job.
So we must surely have reached the point where we must ask: what is the point of Holyrood? If it indeed still exists in any meaningful form after a hard Brexit, you can guarantee that Ruth Davidson, or whichever unionist is leading the opposition, will be castigating the government for not doing enough to mitigate the effects on Scottish farmers and growers of a Brexit that they had helped to bring about and, indeed, deliberately failed to soften at every single turn.
This week’s tsunami of bad news about the Scottish NHS deliberately deflects us from the fact that, despite a real term block grant cut of £2.9bn over the last ten years, Scotland outperforms the rest of the UK by any sensible benchmark, in this and any other devolved competency – farming included. But for how long can this go on when funding continues to be cut and when we have very limited fiscal powers? And it must surely lead us to ask an existential question – what sort of parliament, what kind of Scotland, do we want? Do we want a parliament that spends much of its time, a lot of its energies and a chunk of its money mitigating against things – Brexit, austerity, the bedroom tax, the rape clause – that we didn’t vote for? Or do we, rather, aspire to a parliament that decides its own spending priorities and proactively pursues on an agenda that is ours – not Westminster’s?
For Scottish farmers, it should be absolutely clear that any deal negotiated by Michael Gove and Westminster leaves us in a worse place than we are now. That’s not scaremongering, that’s just the reality. So what I’d really like the Scottish Government – and our farming leaders – to do is to confront us with a few overdue home truths.
To say something like:
“Look lads – we have to be honest with you here. We’re getting nowhere with these clowns. The powers we have are going to London, not Edinburgh. They aren’t going to cut us a deal. They openly despise us anyway. Best case scenario is half your current support payment, and that’s if DEFRA can squeeze any money at all out of the Treasury which now controls the budget and will have a lot less money as the economy shrinks after Brexit, which it will. They’d sacrifice us for a trade deal with Trump without looking back. The chlorinated chickens will be home to roost, followed closely by the hormone treated cattle. Although at least they’ll be glowing so they’ll be easier to check on a winter’s night. So basically we’re screwed unless we go it alone. You’ve told us what you want the industry to look like and we’re telling you right here, right now, that we cannot deliver it within the current constitutional framework. Even if you hate the idea of independence, it’s your least worst option and you need to get over yourselves. We can’t afford not to back it. So I’ll be calling Bute House on Monday morning and lobbying the First Minister for a new plebiscite. Not at the end of the Brexit negotiations, but now. Right. Now.
You need to back me on this, or I walk away and you can find yourself a new team. It’s up to you. Well?”
We can stay as a part of the UK or we can have a viable and sustainable farming industry. But this week confirms that we cannot have both.
Time to leave, people. The frog is coming to the boil.
Alec Ross is a regular contributor to The Orkney News