“The vanity of each generation”, writes the brilliant Andrew o’ Hagan in his essay ‘Scotland Your Scotland’, “is to believe that we are living in the greatest period of history. Each generation imagines it is germinating a brand new world, that the times are glorious, that their period is the most interesting ever to occur, that earthly progress would turn around now for a thousand years and their names would be written on water. The Romans believed it, and their civilisation is now a heap of lovely ruins and a dead language”.
There’s nothing like a bit of height to lend a bit of perspective, and the Norfolk Fens flatlands offer plenty of that. Yesterday, I was seven floors up, on the roof of a Norfolk feed mill, looking towards the stunning Ely cathedral that dominated both the view and the discussion. In the distance stood the massive factory of British Sugar, which I’d visited with colleagues the previous day. Beet grows well on the rich, dark Fen peatlands, and British Sugar buys just about all of it. Just occasionally, however, their suppliers will harvest a bit of the prehistoric tree that isn’t yet peat soil. It is millions of years old and unimaginably hard. A Norfolk farmer told me about the time he hit a piece of buried, prehistoric timber when working his fields. It wasn’t a fair fight. Jurassic wood 1, modern reversible plough 0.
In terms of history, the building I was standing on couldn’t have held a candle to that of the land surrounding it. And yet it its concrete walls held an equally fascinating story. Built in 1948 at the start of the Cold War, it was one of half a dozen mills built to ensure food security in the event of a Soviet invasion or – God forbid – a nuclear attack.
From the top of the building I could see massive anaerobic digesters, built to run on maize and cereals that might otherwise feed people. Immediately in front of me they were building three thousand new homes for London commuters on some of the best land I have ever seen.
When I was growing up, the farming news was all about wine lakes and butter mountains. Billy Connolly used to say that it was a disgrace that we had such mountains but weren’t allowed to ski down them.
But, like the German sense of humour, food security is no laughing matter. It’s easy to walk through a supermarket and believe that everything is replete with food, that we live in a world of milk and honey. But today we may measure food supplies in weeks rather than months. Last week’s KFC cock-up – (“chicken fast food giant runs out of chicken” falls into the “you had one job”) category – led to much online hilarity, but it provided a timely reminder of how short our supply chains actually are. It is said that the world is only seven missed meals away from catastrophe.
So looking over the beautiful Norfolk fenlands it was impossible to escape the irony. I was standing on mill built to ensure food security in a post-war, politically unstable world. And yet everything I looked at – the AD plants, the houses and solar panels built on grade one land – suggested that we’d forgotten a fundamental truth.
If we have food, water and energy we have no need to invade anyone. You add free, frictionless, border and tariff-free trade into the mix and you have what the great Irish humanitarian John Hume called “the greatest anti-war mechanism ever invented”. I prefer to call it the European Union.
Followers of this column will know by now that I believe that things go in cycles of approximately seventy years. That’s roughly the cycle of financial crises, for example. But it also seems to be the length of time that humanity remembers why it did things. It explains why we haven’t learned that war is folly. It may also explain the self-harm and controlled suicide that is Brexit.
When Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979, just about all of her cabinet – and all of her opposition – had lived through the war. Several, including Denis Healey, had fought in it. Even Harold MacMillan was still about – and he’d seen service in the Great War. For all their faults, these were people who had experienced the genuine austerity of a starving post-war continent. Like the Bevanites who founded the NHS, they put aside narrow political advantage to protect a fundamental human need – food.
Food security is perhaps chief amongst the responsibilities of our politicians. My trip south this week reminds me that the post- war politicians understood this. Today’s politicians – the Rees-Moggs, the Borises, the David Davises – have wilfully forgotten the lessons of history and gleefully threaten our food and drink industry on the altar of a right-wing, xenophobic, isolationist neoliberalism that Scotland wishes to be no part of.
And, all the time, there is a co-ordinated briefing against a Good Friday Agreement that is now, apparently, not fit for purpose. A fragile Irish peace is being threatened. But Brexit must mean Brexit. Even it means the return of the gun. Even if it’s been predicated on a narrow result achieved by lying during a referendum that was only ever advisory in nature. That lacked democratic legitimacy and whose franchise was as deliberately narrow as it is possible to imagine. I may have to re-think the seventy year theory, by the way. The Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998. Today, our politicians seem to have forgotten why. Twenty is the new seventy.
Which, belatedly, brings us to the letter sent this week (and leaked, obviously) to the Prime Minister Teresa May by sixty-two back bench Tories – including, I’m ashamed to say, my own MP Alister Jack. Essentially, they want as hard a Brexit as possible.
This is hugely significant. For one thing, it is now clear that Ruth Davidson has no influence within the Scottish Tories whatsoever. She is essentially what Johann Lamont described her role as Scottish Labour leader – a branch office manager.
In the 2016 European Referendum, Scotland voted, by a margin of nearly two to one, to remain. The First Minister Championed remain. The then Scottish Labour leader, Kezia Dugdale wanted to remain. Willie Rennie’s Libdems wanted to remain. Ironically, given her Damascene conversion to a hard Brexit, Ruth Davidson argued, passionately and eloquently, to remain. The Prime Minister at the time, David Cameron, championed remain, as did the present Prime Minister Theresa May.
All of which makes the increasingly rapid lurch of the UK government baffling. If leaders across the political spectrum thought that membership of the EU was a good idea less than two years ago, what has changed? The European Union is broadly the same institution as it was twenty months ago. Explaining their volte-face away as the democratic will of the people won’t wash.
Allow me to present some further facts. Firstly, the Leave prospectus, such as it was, was never about the hard-Brexit now being called for by an increasingly large right-wing of the Conservative Party, and yet that now looks a possibility. Secondly, Scotland voted to remain by a sizeable margin and if we are indeed a valued member of the United Kingdom then our wish to remain within the single market at the very least should be accommodated within any Brexit settlement.
The last few weeks have seen the publication (and leaking) of a number of reports that outline the deeply damaging economic impact of Brexit, even in the event of a “soft” one. The reports suggest that the impact will he hardest felt in remote rural areas like Stranraer. The effect of a hard Brexit on our farmers and growers will be devastating.
If our elected leaders cannot stand up for us during the greatest political crisis in two generations, then when can they? If not now, when? If an elected MP does not stand up for his constituents, then what, exactly, is the point of him?
This week saw the leaked letter to the Prime Minister from a group of 62 Tory MPs calling for precisely the sort of hard Brexit that we now know will wreak havoc in Scotland’s rural communities. A signatory to that letter was Alister Jack MP.
For those of us who follow these things, it wasn’t a total surprise. Viewers of Prime Minister’s Questions have pointed out that Mr Jack can often be seen sitting cosily alongside arch-Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg. More revealingly, perhaps, our MP failed to vote for a recent Withdrawal Bill amendment that would have gone some way to protecting the 1997 devolution settlement. It seems that some referendum results are to be respected more than others.
But Mr Jack’s public support for the hardline European Reform Group represents a new low. For what it’s worth, my own view is that Mr Jack’s support for a cliff-edge withdrawal is part of broader narrative of repatriation of powers, the end of Barnett, the undermining of devolution and the pursuit of a hard-Brexit that even sees threatening the fragile peace in Ireland as a price worth paying if the prize is an isolationist, regressive utopia.
Once again, my MP has failed me on the big questions. At a time of crisis, leaders have a choice. They can stand up and represent the people they represent and whose futures depend on them thinking of them first, last and always. Or they can put narrow party ideology first, even when all the evidence tells them it will devastate the lives of their own people. They can choose to put people over party. They can value morality over money. They can elect to put ideology to one side and do the right thing.
Alister Jack and others didn’t need to think about these things for long. This week he chose to put the Brexit project above the well-being of people. The best we can say about this disgraceful decision is this: at least now we know where we stand.
And we also now know that we can have Brexit or we can have a devolution settlement – but we can’t have both. So you know what to do.
I’ll meet you further on up the road.
Alec Ross is a regular contributor to The Orkney News