A farming friend from Gloucestershire ‘phoned me last week. After years on meaning to do it, he said, and having heard such good reports about it as a showcase of Scotland’s hugely successful food and drink industry, this week he was flying up to the Royal Highland Show. He was delighted when I told him that he could simply fly to Edinburgh and walk round the corner into the showground.
Maybe it’s the happy legacy of running big events like the 2014 Commonwealth Games, but Scotland is good at this. A few years ago I was working on a trade stand at Agriscot (which, like the Highland, meets at Ingliston) and a pig farmer from Iceland came to see me – he’d flown in from Reykjavik that morning. On the tram, on the way out to the show, I was struck by the many different accents from people heading to Ingliston. The Scottish capital, it seems, was where the world was meeting for a celebration of Scottish food, drink and culture.
It must therefore have come as a bit of a shock to our many international visitors when they got off the plane only to find that they’d landed outside the Albert Hall on the Last Night of the Proms or, at the very least, a mass rally of the “Rangers” FC supporters club. The UK Govt had a stand and were handing out union flags and branded freebies to the public, while the food hall was bedecked with posters, all of which depicted Scottish scenes. All of them were – and it’s a much overused word – iconic Scottish symbols (the Kelpies, the river Clyde), but they all had a Union Flag and the words “Great Britain” on them.
Shetland cheese is now British cheese. Black pudding is now British first and Stornoway a distant second. And, as they might say in polite nearby Morningside, you’ll have had your Ayrshire tatties. I couldn’t get out of there fast enough.
In a sense, there’s nothing particularly new here. We’ve been bombarded with symbols of our Britishness for at least four years now, from folk baking cakes on the telly to royal weddings to blue British passports (made in France). Even Marks and Spencer whisky, shortbread teacakes and, most alarmingly, Robert Burns himself have been given the Great British Makeover.
But what we’re witnessing goes way beyond branding of produce, which isn’t entirely clear cut. The word I’m getting from the soft-fruit sector and some in beef production is that while the Scottish Brand works extremely well throughout the UK, discussions with supermarkets have led to calls for a more nuanced approach. For example, the saltire works brilliantly with the top-end beef cuts because people associate Scotland with quality, whilst the UK label may help sales for more commercial products the further south they go. Supermarkets are ultimately only interested in profit margin but they are keenly aware of the public mood. They wouldn’t be doing their jobs if they missed a sales opportunity and not tapping into the jingoistic, rule Britannia, empire 2.0 rhetoric.
That said, it doesn’t explain why the strawberries I bought in a nearby Tesco have “Fife” and their origin (fine), “UK” as their country (not fine – the UK isn’t a country) and are neatly wrapped in a British flag. And the rebranding of Scotland’s largest and most important shop window leads me to ask if the organisers ever stopped to think that such a decision might be seen as politically controversial.
It should also make all of us ask how comfortable we are with our taxes being spent by the Scottish Office to promote something that undermines the trusted brands that we’ve spent years trying to build. Gin is booming in Scotland, yet when the Scotland Office released a video promoting craft gin, is didn’t showcase Orkney or Wigtownshire – but Cheshire. We must only conclude that Scotland is being undermined from within.
So what is going on?
There are, I believe, a couple of things at play here, the first of which is a state-sponsored reinforcement of the message that we are too wee, poor and stupid to decide things for ourselves. The message on the posters was clear: you might be good at food and drink and engineering and innovation, but you couldn’t possibly do any this without the broad shoulders of your big neighbour to carry you. Know your place. Eat your cereal. We are in charge. Back in your box, Jock. We are all British, now.
As a tactic it’s hardly subtle, but I’m afraid it kind of works. A farmer at the show told me he was worried about the calibre of Scottish politician in an independent Scotland, and I thought: what? Have you ever listened to Boris Johnson? Gove? May? And you seriously think these clowns and spivs and charlatans would make a better fist of it than us, even if they gave a damn about us – which they don’t? The Scottish Cringe is in our DNA and it runs very, very, deep.
The second thing is that the rebranding of Scottish into British is part of the narrative that we must have this mythical UK internal single market where Scotland must not have any economic advantage over its neighbour, whilst conning the Scottish public into perceiving that we are already in the post-Brexit, post-devolution, fully re-colonised era.
And, thirdly, post-Brexit trade. Essentially, the US won’t do a post-Brexit trade deal unless the UK ditches the protections of its renowned food and drink brands and “diverges” from the exemplary welfare and hygiene standards and sees hormone treated beef and chlorinated chicken on our shelves. The result? You’ll have had your Scotch whisky.
This is actually what this power-grab is about – it’s impossible to make deals with America (or anywhere else for that matter) on food when farming is devolved to Scotland. It’s also impossible to sell healthcare to private US companies when Scotland has its own NHS. Therefore, devolution needs to be destroyed. And if that means the tearing up of the devolution settlement, the end of the Sewel Convention, an entire country’s wishes being ignored, powers being grabbed and the ending of the Scottish Brand, then that is what must happen. Because it is the will of the people.
The UK establishment has always hated devolution, so it always had a motive to roll it back. Brexit provides the opportunity, one that it will exploit fully by backing it up by spending your taxes on a propaganda campaign and rebrands everything you thought was Scottish (including the Kelpies) as British.
That it chose to launch it in the Scottish capital, during Scottish farming’s biggest week, is anything but coincidental. On the week when the Scottish Government launched its proposals for rural funding post-Brexit, here is my own suggestion.
For the sake of the industry – for the sake of Scotland – we must remove ourselves from the United Kingdom at the earliest possible opportunity.
You know what to do.