Some years ago, I discovered the concept now known as the Overton Window, a term derived from its late, great originator, Joseph P. Overton. In essence, Overton claimed that an idea’s political viability and chance of success depends largely on whether it falls within the range of ideas currently tolerated in public discourse. Any concept outside the window will therefore, by definition, probably fail.
The window can help us enormously in our efforts to understand what is happening in the current political landscape. For example, there was almost universal press hostility towards Jeremy Corbyn during last year’s snap election when he suggested eminently sensible things like a 50% top-rate of tax and the re-nationalisation of the railways, even when the concepts were polling well amongst voters. And yet, broadly speaking, his manifesto was similar to that published by Tony Blair in 1997 – and his was roundly praised and even seen as centre-right.
The contrast with the reaction to Corbyn couldn’t have been greater: you’d think Leon Trotsky himself had just walked into the room. What has happened in those twenty years? The window has moved sharply to the right, that’s what – to the extent that even sensible proposals such as progressive taxation, the removal of Trident and even a soft-Brexit fall outwith the window of discourse. It’s increasingly difficult to find the answers, or even to ask the questions, when the parameters of debate are so suffocatingly narrow.
All of which went through my mind last Wednesday when standing in the sweltering heat in the impossibly beautiful Ayrshire countryside as a visitor to Scotsheep, an enormous trade and livestock event that brought people from as far away as Ireland, Aberdeenshire, Yorkshire and yes – Orkney. There had been some debate in the farming press about the suitability of the venue given its remoteness, but then that is a relative term. When you live in Stranraer, Ballantrae is the very definition of centrality. In any case, it was nice, for once, to attend an event and be able to get home for my tea. The place was mobbed and brought to mind the celestial voices whispering to Kevin Costner in “Field of Dreams”. If you build it, they will come.
The mood was upbeat, the beer was flowing and the craic was good; but presumably that was also a fair description of the atmosphere on the Titanic as she left Southampton. But when finally somebody mentioned the iceberg, the words came from an unlikely source. Normally such an upbeat and positive speaker, Quality Meat Scotland chief Jim McClaren’s message could not have been starker.
He outlined a “doomsday scenario” for the sheep industry . Loss of markets to major trading partners. Unrestricted imports from other countries. Michael Gove had, he said, already written off the sheep industry as a bargaining chip in negotiations for future trade deals. The Scottish sheep sector’s reliance on export market – mainly to Europe – could not be underestimated, as only 10% of Scottish produced lamb stays in Scotland. 700,000 lambs per annum need access to Europe through the single market, otherwise we’d be facing tariffs of over 50%. You could have heard a pin drop. Virtually nobody had talked about Brexit until Jim got to his feet.
There may be reasons for this. Perhaps we were just glad to be out of the grip of winter and just wanted a day out and a few pints in the beautiful Ayrshire countryside. And that’s perfectly understandable. But we need to think about this. If Gove has indeed already written us off (and Jim is right – he has) then it’s clearly impossible to achieve a vibrant and sustainable industry from within the grasp of the dead hand of Westminster, and yet much of the industry still believes in the union with a touching naivety that we cannot afford.
For a group famous for its reserve and natural conservatism, Scotland’s farmers are about to take one hell of a gamble. Because that’s what staying in the UK represents. Meanwhile, unlike last time, Yes represents the safe option. But the question is this – as far as Scottish farming is concerned, is independence within the Overton window? Is it even on the agenda? I fear it is not – but it absolutely needs to be if we’re to stand a chance as it represents, by a distance, our best hope.
We need our farming leaders to lead from the front, to decide what the industry should look like and then take an objective look at what kind of constitutional settlement will best deliver that. At the moment, it’s abundantly clear that a sort of Brexit – and we didn’t vote for any sort of Brexit whatsoever, remember – will leave us far worse off than we currently are. The only possible conclusion we can reach is that we need to be an independent country before Brexit happens, because this has moved way beyond party politics and into the realms of an existential crisis which forces us, finally, to ask some searching questions. Do we want a farming industry? And who shall speak for Scotland?
A note on this: stay focussed.
The first – the only – objective is to win our independence. Because independence isn’t about whether we use the pound or the euro. It isn’t about whether we are to be a monarchy or a republic. It isn’t about whether we look north to The Nordic democracies or south to New Zealand for our model. It’s about being in a position to determine these things and so much more. It’s about being able stay within the single market and maintain and enhance our industry’s hard-won reputation for excellence and choosing to have nothing to do with a government we didn’t vote for selling it on the cheap for a trade deal with Donald Trump that will see our brands diluted with chlorinated chicken and hormone treated beef and “whiskey” from Nebraska.
In short, staying within the existing parameters is a cast-iron guarantee that the future situation will be measurably worse than the one we find ourselves in right now. We can ill-afford the luxury of thinking that if we ask Michael Gove nicely he’ll look after us. Frankly, that’s the stuff of fantasy. It isn’t remotely good enough if, years from now, we say “ach, we did our best” if we failed to look outside the Overton window and presented ourselves with an option – self-governance – that guaranteed the future of rural Scotland. Not to do so now would amount to a dereliction of duty.
Another thing that struck me whilst walking around a farm in the impossibly beautiful Ayrshire countryside. We are getting old. We don’t have the right to give away a future that isn’t ours just because we don’t like that Nicola Sturgeon. Even those of us who aren’t convinced of the merits of independence – and, frankly, I don’t know what else I can say to you – need to recognise that it now, at the very least, represents the least worst option. Time to get over ourselves, as our Irish visitors might say.
We need our industry to state what has been obvious for some time, and not just since Brexit. That it was obvious that we were barely on their radar long before that when the convergence uplift monies were pilfered. That it’s quite absurd to think we can have any sort of a sustainable and vibrant industry within a current constitutional settlement that is seeing devolution ruthlessly rolled back by an establishment for whom the closing of Holyrood itself is a concept alarmingly close to the mainstream. The end of Scotland? Make no mistake, that subject is firmly in Overton’s famous portal.
So here are a few things I’d like to see happen. Firstly, while the industry leaders are right to look at contingencies in the event of the Doomsday scenario that Jim so chillingly outlined – and he didn’t even touch on the difficulties created by a lack of foreign workers in the event of a hard Brexit – we need to put independence into the mainstream agenda that it now occupies in wider Scottish society and present it as the sensible, desirable, safe option that it clearly is. The first – the only – responsibility of any industry leader is the continued existence and wellbeing of that industry. If the achievement of that requires an independent Scotland – and it does – then that is what must be demanded.
Secondly, we need to get on the front foot and, for what it’s worth, here are the key messages I’d be focusing on.
The broken vow.
Independence supporters are always being scolded about not respecting the result of 2014. The argument is now more bogus than ever. We face an entirely new set of circumstances than four years. Every single promise made by a panicked establishment – shipyard contracts, the safeguarding of HMRC jobs, and, erm, guaranteed membership of the EU – has been broken. The No vote of 2014 made on the condition that promises were kept, and the people who should respect referendum results aren’t the people who lose them, but the people who win them. That they have demonstrably failed to do so means that we are entitled to ask the question again. In any case, a concept that Scotland did vote for – devolution – is being rapaciously undermined. Respect is a two-way street.
The Power Grab
Failing to deliver the enshrinement of the Scottish Parliament in law was only the beginning. The Supreme Court ruling means that Westminster can now, legally, do whatever it wishes to us. The Sewel convention has been discarded and It is the beginning of the end for the Barnett Formula. Westminster has now stated that even a flat-out rejection by Holyrood of the Withdrawal Bill will be taken as consent. The desire to make deals with America, China and Australia means that farming will be held by Westminster, and because devolution makes trade deals much more difficult then it must be destroyed, hence the attempts to roll back the 1998 Scotland Act. The message is clear – if we choose to stay as part of the UK we will no longer have a Parliament. The only way to protect the powers of the Scottish parliament is to vote for independence. The overwhelming majority of Scots like their parliament so this is fertile ground for us.
In the 2014 referendum, EU nationals were shamefully targeted by Better Together and told that they wouldn’t be allowed to stay in Scotland in the event of a Yes vote. It was a lie, of course, but it worked a treat and seventy percent of Scotland’s Poles voted to remain. Brexit changes everything and an EU National in a newly independent Scotland knows he or she will be welcomed for as long as they like. Continuing membership of an increasingly xenophobic Britain means an uncertain future. And, the recent Growth Commission report makes it clear it actually wants an enlightened immigration policy which grows Scotland’s population and helps its economy, which is of course great news for our farmers in the soft fruit and dairy sectors who rely so much on the new Scots. Frankly, it’s a no-brainer.
This was our biggest failing last time out. I still think that there would have been an immediate currency union in the event of a Yes vote, but promising it without first negotiating it with the other side was, in hindsight, a desperately poor negotiating position. Today is different – everybody knows we can continue to use the pound and that there will a separate Scottish currency in due course. It really doesn’t have to be that big a deal. And, on a related matter, everybody now knows pensions will be safe.
Finally, I’m less concerned about timing than most – the picture as outlined above isn’t likely to change so we can ask the question whenever we fancy doing so. My gut feeling is that there will be some sort of a process this Autumn, and if Theresa May says Now is not the Time, then we just decide it is. Even if the unionists fail to recognise the inevitable Yes vote, it will nonetheless be there and cannot be ignored. Remember, the EU vote wasn’t legally binding either, but it happened and immediately became a political imperative. Exactly the same thing will happen when we vote for independence.
There is another option of course. Boris Johnson says there won’t be a general election in the Autumn, so there’s a good chance there will be one. If there is, we make it a plebiscite election: in other words, we get every pro-independence party to fight the election on a single ticket. If we win more than half the seats in Scotland (and we will) then we simply declare ourselves independent – just as the Tory spiritual leader, Margaret Thatcher herself, had suggested we do.
Either way, we avoid the doomsday scenario so starkly laid out in a Ballantrae marquee last week. Scotsheep 2018 was a wonderful showcase of everything that is good within our industry. We have the people, the know-how, the products, the brands, the hard-won reputation for quality. There are no limits to what we can achieve, but the key to achieving it, in farming as in everywhere, is an independent Scotland, and that is the key that unlocks everything.
Now is the time. You know what to do.