“We boast, then we cower” (The Proclaimers)
“Ireland had a far more fraught and aggressive struggle for independence. They did not have oil and they don’t even have a fishing fleet, they’ve got second rate whiskey and tweed and finally, grudgingly, they achieved a penurious and grudging acceptance without the EU, with a currency that was tied to the pound, and they immediately fell into a vicious civil war and then a depression. The new Eire had precious little goodwill from London or the continent. The republic will be a hundred years old in eight years and if they had a referendum and were asked, “look, you’ve had a century of this, wouldn’t you rather come back and be part of the UK again”, do you imagine there would be a single vote for Yes? Because, whatever happens, it’s always better to be yourself….and if you have a vote, how will you be able to turn to your grandchildren and say: ‘well, I did have a chance to right an old wrong, but actually I couldn’t be bothered. I was a bit scared”. (AA Gill)
“I didn’t go to university so I just had to use my brains” (Bill Shankly)
Regular readers of this column will be now familiar with my flights of fancy and tangential lurches, but I may be about to raise the bar further. Bear with me, people, please.
A few years ago, the Canadian / Spanish writer and Life of Pi author Jann Martel was listening to the radio. He was listening to an interview with his country’s Prime Minister, Steven Harper, during which the leader admitted – or boasted – that he’d never read a book in his life and wasn’t about about to start now as he was too busy governing Canada to be bothered with childish indulgences like reading. Martel was horrified, and responded by sending the premier two books, every week, for a year – not that he ever got a letter of thanks. By way of contrast, he also sent the occasional novel to Barack Obama who would, classy guy that he is, respond with a letter of appreciation and, often, his thoughts on the themes of the book.
Now, Martel makes clear that it’s entirely up to anyone what they wish to read, even if they want to read nothing whatsoever. However, if you’re elected to serve the people then the rules are different, because how can you possibly do the job when you haven’t bothered in the slightest to learn about the very world you presume to influence? Luckily, we have in Scotland that rare and most precious of things. In Nicola Sturgeon we are led by a politician who devours books, who considers them a harbour in the political tempest, a window to a deeper understanding of what it means to exist as a human being. Jann Martel won’t be sending any novels to Bute house anytime soon.
Ok, where am I going with this?
My starting point is that I agree with Jann Martel but would go further. Yes, it’s desirable and of fundamental importance for our leaders to be informed and educated, but, from the other side of the looking glass, it’s criminally dangerous and an existential crisis if they aren’t. “I freely admit”, said new Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Karen Bradley, “that when I started this job, I didn’t understand some of the deep-seated and deep-rooted issues that there are in Northern Ireland. I didn’t understand things like when elections are fought, for example, in Northern Ireland – people who are nationalists don’t vote for unionist parties and vice versa.”
I don’t know about you, but if I were ever offered – God forbid – the job as Northern Ireland secretary, I’d shut myself in the house, lock the doors and spend the week with a crate of Guinness and a copy of the Good Friday Agreement, and not venture into the light until I’d fully devoured both of those things. I’d quickly recognise that the fragile peace in Ireland is based on a consent agenda that a hard Brexit utterly shreds and I’d make sure that I’d immediately see that not only that Brexit means a hard border but that a hard border is entirely the point of a Brexit driven almost entirely by the immigration question. And I’d recognise that if retaining an invisible border and a lasting peace meant Northern Ireland leaving the UK then that would be a price well worth paying. Full stop. End of story.
At what point did it become ok to not know what you were talking about? I’ve written before about the seventy year theory, that being the normal gap between global financial crises and also the lifespan of folk memory. It would explain why, for example, we are seeing a surge to the right only a couple or three generations after the Second World War. It also would explain much of the often wilful misunderstanding of the hardliners over the permabouroch that is Brexit. I was only eight when Thatcher came to power, but all of her cabinet would have remembered the war. In Her Majesty’s opposition, people like Denis Healy had seen active service, while Harold MacMillan was still an MP – and he’d fought at the Somme. This was a government I detested, but give them their due: they knew their stuff, chapter and verse. For all that there were grumbles about the EEC (as it was then) the idea that the UK would leave would be seen for what it is – a dangerous, self-defeating, post-imperialist fantasy and economic suicide. They understood instinctively the essential truism coined by the great Irish humanitarian John Hume: that closer unity with our European friends is the greatest anti-war mechanism that was ever conceived.
So if there’s books to be delivered may I suggest that we send them not to Bute House but by first class to Mrs T May, 10 Downing St, London. And the first book I’d be sending is a biography of the fascinating figure that is the American President Woodrow Wilson. And here’s why.
In 1917, President Woodrow Wilson made a speech to Congress in which he made a compelling case for America’s entry into the Great War. This was significant in itself, but doubly so given that he’d been re-elected to the Oval Office by a wide margin only twenty months earlier on a specifically anti-war, isolationist ticket. There is much about Woodrow Wilson that is to be shunned – he was an ardent segregationist, for example – but it is admirable that he noted that circumstances had changed and so must he. By the time he made his speech, the Lusitania had been sunk and Germany had made it clear that no merchant ship servicing the UK or continental Europe would be safe from U-boat attack. Wilson understood what we seem to have forgotten: that politics is a process, not an event, and that leaders have a moral duty to adapt their policies for the greater good when there’s a material change in circumstances, and to recognise that they have a responsibility to adapt accordingly.
Wilson knew that he was making the case for war to a country that had recently expressed its democratic wish to plough a lone furrow in isolation from the bitter conflicts of the Old World their recent ancestors had left behind. He also knew that by calling for America’s intervention he was effectively signing the death warrant of thousands of his fellow citizens. And he knew that he had to put the interests of the country first and ignore the possible damage to his own political reputation. But he also knew that he was right – and both houses agreed with him. In the end, the vote wasn’t even close.
And what would we ask Mrs May to take from her reading? I think that should be obvious. 2018 ought to be her Woodrow Wilson moment. For all the talk of uncertainty, Brexit is actually crystal clear. It’s going to be dreadful. So she should do the only sensible thing available to her and simply call it off. And it’s not as if it’s a difficult argument to make. The franchise, which excluded sixteen and seventeen year olds, EU migrants and some expats, was as narrow as it could conceivably get and therefore the result was about as far away from the will of the people as it is possible to imagine. It was based on mendacity, dodgy data and a lie on the side of a bus. And here’s the clincher: it was wholly illegal.
Fergus McCann, the Scots-Canadian businessman who built the modern Celtic Football Club, used to say that leaders are essentially custodians whose primary – indeed only – responsibility to the organisations they lead is the continuing wellbeing of that organisation. Period. That’s the maxim that should underpin and inform Mrs May in everything she says and everything she does (and it’s something that the learned Nicola Sturgeon is very strong on – she sees herself as Scottish leader first, party leader second). It should deeply inform the decisions of all who deign to lead us – including those in the farming industry.
Last week the Scottish National Farmers Union’s policy chief, Jonnie Hall, told Westminster’s Scottish Affairs Committee that a “no-deal” Brexit was the “biggest fear” of the farming, food and drink sectors, warning that this would be “highly damaging” because of tariff impositions and customs delays for perishable food. No argument there, but eyebrows were raised when he urged Mrs May’s opponents to put aside party politics and get behind the Chequers Plan which he saw as imperfect but workable.
I don’t quite know where to start with this. Firstly, Scotland has taken the initiative on Brexit from the get-go, outlining a series of compromise suggestions in its paper “Scotland’s Place in Europe” that would deliver the (debatable) democratic will of the UK whilst respecting the Scotland Act, the devolution settlement and the Good Friday Agreement. These were, of course, ignored, but not by me. If you’re good enough to read this article then the least I can do is afford you the courtesy of doing my homework, and what strikes me is how refreshing non-party political the papers are. The overriding principle is not what is good for a party, but what is best for Scotland – and it is clearly staying within the ESM and the Customs Union, at the very least.
Secondly – and this is increasingly forgotten – we don’t want to leave at all. Think about it. We voted to remain by a margin of nearly two to one. We narrowly voted against our self-governance in 2014 largely because staying in the EU was important to us, only to be lumbered with a catastrophe that was caused by a turf war between people who we didn’t vote for, can’t vote out and who clearly despise us. If there is to be a “people’s vote”, we’ll vote to remain by another landslide which means we’ll be in the ludicrous position of effectively voting to remain three times in four years – and very possibly still being pulled out. Anybody feeling loved yet? Are we still better together? And how precious, pray, is our family of nations when one member of the family is effectively dragging another through the Supreme Court?
A running theme of this column is that farming provides an excellent prism through which to view the wider constitutional questions, and never has that been truer than this past week. The farming industry’s position echoes that of the depressingly still prevalent view that we must always be pulled down by the Westminster consensus, even if it fundamentally differs from our own. And what kind of a country is it when it’s primary role is simply to mitigate stuff – bedroom taxes, Brexit damage, austerity – that its people have utterly rejected? And for how long and how successfully can that parliament mitigate for when it has increasingly less money because of cuts in a budget it doesn’t control and because the Barnett Formula is dying on the altar of a deal with the DUP and a pile of dark money? Stands Scotland where it did? And it begs the fundamental question: given that the Supreme Court will surely rule this Autumn that powers are lent, not given, and that given that even the power to mitigate may soon be gone forever: is Scotland really a country at all?
For three centuries we’ve been conditioned by our media through propaganda that we pay for that we are better together. That the best Scotland deserves is the least worst option, that we should leave the big issues to the people who know best: the Borises, the Jacobs. But that time is coming to an end and we must stop seeing things through the prism of the Disunited Kingdom and instead see them from our own perspective. Fifty years ago, Robert Kennedy noted that some people see things as they are and ask “why?”. Instead, he said, we must see things as they have never been and ask “why not?”
I wrote the following words nearly a year ago. They are surely at least as relevant today.
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 must recognise the essential truth and embrace the deep wisdom of a long dead, underrated president. The well-being of the industry – the prosperity of Scotland – is the only consideration. The rest is noise.
This ought to be Scottish farming’s Woodrow Wilson moment. It falls on all of us to ensure that it is Scotland’s, too.