“Now Tom said, “Mom, wherever there’s a cop beating a guy, Wherever a hungry newborn baby cries. Where there’s a fight against the blood and hatred in the air, Look for me, Mom, I’ll be there. Wherever somebody’s fighting for a place to stand, Or a decent job or a helping hand, Wherever somebody’s struggling to be free: Look in their eyes, Ma, and you’ll see me”.
Bruce Springsteen, “The Ghost of Tom Joad”
In the week during which a Liberal Democrat East Dunbartonshire MP called for a statue of Margaret Thatcher to be built in Scotland, commentators weren’t slow in pointing out that memorials to the Iron Lady whose policies devastated our communities already litter our country. We were hardly the only ones affected, of course, but the fact that, then as now, it was brought about by an administration we didn’t vote for and whose policies and philosophy were alien to Scottish opinion made it even worse.
As the blogger Paul Kavanagh notes, the memorials are everywhere, from the empty Ravenscraig fields to the silent urban riverbanks, to the old folk in houses who don’t see their grandchildren very often because their children, facing diminishing job prospects, left these shores. Thatcher famously said that there was no such thing as society, and sold off the Britain she said she loved, destroying it from the inside and starting a process that reaches its logical endgame in the greed-is-good, isolationist, xenophobic shell that is Brexit Britain, a faded irrelevance that everybody hates, that tragically attempts to reclaim former glories through the armed forces, royal weddings and carrots grown in Auchtermuchty bedecked in Union flegs. Curiously, in contrast to today’s hard-Brexiteers, Thatcher believed in frictionless borders and that a majority of Scottish pro-self-determination MPs in Westminster was in itself a mandate for independence, a movement that she inadvertently kick-started and which whose desire for self-governance will soon come to pass. So perhaps a statue isn’t so daft. As Kavanagh says, the day after the independence vote it will give us something to tear down.
I’ve written before about the dangers of wilful, collective amnesia. The Thatcher Governments, for all their faults and for all their misgivings about Europe, wouldn’t have dreamt about leaving what was then the EEC – because many of them remembered the war, and some had seen action. They knew what real austerity looked like and would have understood what the Great Irish Humanitarian John Hume meant when he described the EU as the greatest anti-war mechanism ever invented. And our memories are getting shorter. It’s terrifying to hear politicians – like MP Kate Hoey – shamefully dismissing the Good Friday Agreement as not fit for purpose. And this from a politician whose party, Labour, did so much to bring about a fragile peace to a troubled land. We must now accept that, when it comes to achieving the Brexit abyss, nothing is off the table and everything is expendable. And if the end of peace in Ireland is considered a price worth paying, then don’t kid yourself preserving a sustainable farming industry will be on the agenda. It won’t be on the radar. It won’t even be close.
It’s also quite obvious that very few people under forty – including many of our MPs – remember the Thatcher years. The co-ordinated establishment assault on the Orgreave miners and media cover-up that was a chilling pre-curser to the Hillsborough tragedy five years later; the wilful destruction of an industry that needed billions of pounds of oil revenues to pay for the reparations (and the word is deliberate – this was a war against the “enemy within”. Thatcher was, above all else, a class warrior); the military adventure of The Falklands to shore up support.
These things happened a quarter of a century before my children were born. They view these events as ancient history, stories as archived as the ones about the war were to me when I was small. Many of today’s leaders don’t remember any of this. Most of them don’t seem to care. Move on from Thatcher, says Ruth Davidson. But the wilful failure of her and others to remember means that the events of the policies of the 1980s are likely to be repeated – and it’s happening already. We see it in the demands from the hard-Brexiteers, the Rees-Moggs, Stephen Kerrs and Alister Jacks of this world – calling for the hardest Brexit available, despite the dismal warnings of the impact papers.
There is a significant and influential chunk of the UK government already occupying a right-wing ideology that even Margaret Thatcher wouldn’t have countenanced. It’s madness, an ideologically driven neoliberalism on stilts that a Brexit Scotland rejected makes possible. Brexit allows them the chance to finish what Thatcher started, and it shouldn’t surprise us. Destroying things is what they do. If shipbuilding, why not farming? The whole point of the Union project is to prevent any economic activity that benefits Scotland and increases our ability to be independent and gives us confidence to run our own country. The unionisation of Angus strawberries, in this context, is no accident. Nothing ever is.
Yesterday, the Beast from the East having retreated (although it didn’t make it to me. Stranraer 1, Beast 0), I was visiting an organic dairy farmer in Mauchline who was producing a specialised milk to supply directly to the coffee houses of Scotland. He talked passionately about the new “holistic farming” programme he was about to embark on, and about his involvement with the Scottish Parliament and upcoming trip to address the Labour Party conference. He works the same fields once farmed by a certain Robert Burns, by the way. Creativity must be in the Ayrshire water.
Listening to a dreadful Prime Minister’s Questions on the way down the Ayrshire coast, it struck me again that the gap between the vibrant, creative, forward-thinking people in the industry and wider community and the intellectually pessimistic people of Westminster who deign to lead us has never been greater. They say we get the government we deserve. They are wrong. We didn’t vote for Brexit. We didn’t vote for a rolling back of the devolution settlement or a hard border in Ireland. We didn’t vote for any of this. We wish no part of it.
Towards the end of PMQs, British Conservative MP Kirstene Hair got to her feet. With growing incredulity, I listened as she berated the SNP and lobbied the Prime Minister to recompense the MoD staff “affected” by recent tax rises in Scotland. Given that 70% of the population will pay the same or less tax and the rest will see a very modest increase that they can well afford, it was a curious subject to tackle – particular when the vast majority of service personnel pay is within that 70% bracket. So the only people that gain are the high earners, which in essence sums up the entire Tory philosophy.
But the real question is: what on earth has it got to do with you? This is an issue devolved to Scotland, just as your other hobby horse – the Scottish Government’s broadband performance – is reserved to Westminster. And we don’t have time to deal with the uncomfortable issue of you pursuing a hard-Brexit whilst representing a constituency heavily reliant on seasonal labour but have failed to fully press the case for a seasonal pass that would allow your farmers’ businesses to continue functioning, so we’ll let that pass for now.
What this suggests to me is that the Conservatives are undermining Scottish Democracy and are already acting as if direct rule has been re-introduced. The devolution settlement states that an area was devolved unless specifically reserved. Donald Dewar, to his eternal credit, faced down Tony Blair on this and won. That eerie, deep rumbling you hear is the late First Minister birlin’ in his grave.
So where, this Friday, are we up to? In a sense, a lot has happened and nothing has happened. A leaked Whitehall document proves that Westminster knows that what they are doing amounts to a power grab. Of the 111 Brussels powers that should be repatriated to Edinburgh, there is agreement over 86 of them. An alarming amount of the remaining twenty-five – farm support, fertiliser regulations, GMO marketing, animal health, traceability, food standards and labelling – are agricultural in nature. For an industry so crucial to the economic health and well-being of Scotland, this is utterly unacceptable as well as constitutionally outrageous. Quite rightly, the Scottish Government, like its Welsh equivalent, isn’t budging. After all, we voted to remain.
Meanwhile, the EU has understandably lost its patience over the UK’s approach to Ireland. “Speak to us about trade deals when – and only when – you fix the border”, is the message. It’s obvious what the EU27 are doing. They could envisage the UK Gov blaming them for an Irish border, so they’ve basically said “No more negotiations until YOU come up with a solution”. Their bluff has been well and truly called.
If these two issues aren’t resolved soon – and it’s difficult to see how they could be – then we’re looking at a constitutional crisis the scale of which we’ve never seen. Technically, the UK government doesn’t legally need to get consent from the devolved governments, but it’s a hugely important convention. But a UK government wouldn’t countenance a piecemeal repatriation of EU powers – so why should Scotland?
We will very shortly be reaching a point where there is no agreement on these fundamental issues. The Scottish Government withholds its consent for the withdrawal and Westminster Government tells us we’re leaving anyway. Which will leave us with a very easy choice about which of the two unions – the EU or the UK – will best serve our interests. Or neither, if we fancy. That’s the beauty of it – we can do whatever we want.
Everything that has happened this week brings Independence a little closer. For those who suffered through the years of Margaret Thatcher, a Scotland free of her ethos will be a fitting memorial in ways that a statue could never, ever, be.