Farming Matters: Through the Looking Glass

“An organisation that has to threaten its members to stop them leaving is not a club but a protection racket.” (Jeremy Hunt, talking about the EU).

“Now is not the time” (Theresa May).

Alec RossThe great poet that was Lord Byron had a phrase he used about his hero Robert Burns. “The antithetical mind”, he called him. He meant that the key to Burns’ genius, ageless appeal and eternal relevance lay in his ability to look at things from a different perspective; to peer through the looking glass from the other side. It’s a trait never better illustrated than in the “Address to the Unco’ Guid”, which reminds us that our transgressions are part of our DNA – “to step aside is human”, he writes – and that rather than condemning folk for their “daffin’ sins” we should walk a mile in their shoes and consider what has brought them to act as they do.

“Then at the balance let’s be mute, 
We never can adjust it; 
What’s done we partly may compute, 
But know not what’s resisted.”

2014 was the year I heard a great example of an antithetical mind. I’d driven to  Airdrie to hear farmers, industry leaders and politicians make the case for independence. The farming arguments were as strong then as they are now – the very different nature of Scotland’s farming industry, its higher relative importance to the GDP, the fact that it supports 340,000 jobs, a food and drink industry that turns over eighteen billion a year. But, as often happened at meetings in 2014, the best points were made not by politicians but by people you’d never heard of.

A young lady – a farmer from the borders – framed the argument for independence in a way I’d never heard before and I’d never forget.

Here was the gist of her argument.

“Imagine the question posed the other way round” she said. “An independent nation is asked to decide whether to surrender its sovereignty to a larger union. It would be allowed a measure of autonomy, but key aspects of its governance would be handed to another nation. It would be used as a military base by the dominant power and tied to an economy over which it had no control.

It would have to be desperate. Only a nation in which the institutions of governance had collapsed or which had been ruined economically would contemplate this drastic step. Most nations faced even with such catastrophes choose to retain their independence – in fact, will fight to preserve it – rather than surrender to a dominant foreign power.

Imagine allowing that larger nation to run your economy. Imagine allowing it to decide which wars you were going to fight in. Imagine giving them your taxes and then begging for pocket money. Imagine getting ruled by governments you didn’t vote for and cannot vote out. Yes, we are voting to leave rather than to join, but what’s the difference? How is the argument altered by the fact that Scotland is considering whether to regain independence rather than whether to lose it? The answer is: there is absolutely no difference whatsoever”.

Presenting the argument this way changes the burden of proof. The question is no longer “should Scotland be independent” but is now “why on earth wouldn’t we?”. Now bring that into the context of Brexit and Scotland’s continuing journey towards independence, whether through a second referendum, or a Westminster election, or a Holyrood vote.

Let’s channel our antithetical selves for a minute and imagine that the EU Referendum had turned out rather differently. Imagine that Vote Leave hadn’t achieved its crucial two percent swing by means of a ten percent overspend; that we’d never heard of the Brexit bus, that David Cameron had actually tried a bit harder. Imagine it was 52:48 remain. Imagine that that result had been achieved by the remainers promising – by making a, ahem, “vow” – the euro-sceptic English public (and Brexit, make no mistake, is an English project) a further series of opt-outs and greater representation in Brussels. Now imagine if none of that was delivered and, actually, powers were taken from the British government in the name of European unity. Imagine the British Government told Brussels they were asking the voters again, as the deal they had been promised turned out to be a con and because this betrayal represented democratic effrontery on an epic scale. Then imagine if, with a Gallic shrug, the EU said “ce n’est pas le moment”.

Now is not the time.

There would, quite understandably, be the mother of all backlashes to this constitutional outrage. And yet the scenario describes, down to the last detail, the situation which currently faces the people of Scotland.

Tory conferenceWhich takes us, with heavy hearts, to this week’s Conservative Party conference, held in a building in Birmingham funded by the European Union. I’m not joking. That delicious irony, along with Theresa’s dancing (which, true to their flagship policy, was seriously lacking in any sort of freedom of movement) were two moments of light relief in a deeply depressing few days. Ruth Davidson, in a speech aimed clearly at the same hardline unionist / no surrender vote she cravenly pursues in Scotland, promised that Scotland would not be permitted an independence referendum until at least 2027 – and this just a week after Labour branch office manager Richard Leonard promised roughly the same thing.

This is deeply troubling on a number of levels. For one thing, Ruth Davidson is the leader of a defeated opposition party in a Holyrood that voted for right to request a section 30 order to hold a second independence referendum and for the Holyrood EU Withdrawal Bill which would see devolved EU powers returning to Edinburgh in the spirit of devolution – a bill whose legality is currently being considered by the Supreme Court. How strong, how precious is this union when one partner is dragging another through the court? And what kind a person votes against her own parliament? And her own country?

For make no mistake, when Ruth talks about 2027, she means for as long as the Tories are in office. Only they aren’t in office, as they hold only 23% of the seats in Edinburgh. In that context, the fact that the vast majority of the Scottish media spins this as an “independence is dead” story speaks volumes. But of course what Ruth really means is that there won’t be a referendum for as long as the Tories are in power in England. Which means that, given that Labour have ruled out a second vote as well, the chances of being granted another shot at independence by London ever again are precisely zero. And it also means that Scotland is not Ruth Davidson’s country. Britain is Ruth Davidson’s country.

What should alarm us all is how quickly the unionist position has hardened. Margaret Thatcher firmly believed that all that was needed to bring about Scottish self-determination  was for us to vote in a majority of pro-independence MPs at a general election. That in itself, she believed, was a mandate for independence – something those of us who wish to be free of the Westminster yoke should bear in mind if and when a snap general election is called soon. Indeed, every Prime Minister from Harold Wilson to David Cameron understood that the Union was a voluntary arrangement and that Scotland could leave any time of its choosing. Even as recently as 2016, Ruth Davidson, whilst not wanting another referendum, nonetheless described the blocking of it as constitutionally improper. Even Theresa May’s “now is not the time” soundbite was taken in good faith. Not now, maybe, but soon. But now we know that not only is now not the time. There will never, ever, be a time when Westminster allows another referendum.

So what has brought about this hardening of the unionist position? Clearly, a big part of the answer is Brexit – and how to pay for the hard version of it that they are clearly desperately trying to achieve in an act of nihilistic disaster capitalism. Brexit needs to be financed, and that’s why Scotland is crucial – the same reason Thatcher needed Scotland to break the miners, to de-industrialise the UK, to fight wars. Our job is to bankroll Brexit Britain. Without Scotland, Brexit is literally unaffordable. And that surely explains a lot. It explains a power grab that rolls back devolution and the Scotland Act. It gives context to the ripping up of Sewel and the beginning of the end of Barnett. Ruth’s 2027 will mark nearly a decade since the illegally won Brexit vote that Scotland didn’t want anything to do with and eight years since leaving the EU. That gives the establishment plenty time to achieve the dream double whammy of doing what it always did – stealing Scotland of its resources to pay for its own vanity projects – whilst making Scotland so impoverished, not only financially but also culturally and, crucially, spiritually. They said in 2014 we were too poor to be independent. We weren’t. But being asset stripped for a decade changes things. By 2027 we genuinely wouldn’t be able to be independent. We’d be broken. And broke.

But I think the biggest reason for this establishment assault on Scottish democracy is that the 2014 referendum scared them to death. I genuinely believe that their sole purpose since 2014 – having come so close to losing – is to make sure that independence never, ever, happens. It’s what they do. Actually, it’s all they do. It explains EVEL. It explains Brexit. There’s a great line that the blogger Paul Kavanagh uses in which he imagines The Scotsman headline the day after we reclaim our independence: “Blow for Sturgeon as SNP loses its raisin d’etre”. But you put in the words “Davidson” and “Unionist” and the line works even better. Without the Yes movement, Ruth Davidson has no purpose. None of them do.

So what is to be done?

What we must remember is that neither Ruth nor anyone else can take independence off the table. Only the people of Scotland can do that, and we have a triple locked mandate – a Westminster majority, a Holyrood majority and a section thirty order – that means we can call a second referendum whenever we want. But however energised the Yes movement is, we need our government to be bold. With the SNP conference starting this weekend, we need our government to be both honest and brave. Honest enough to say what is clear and in plain sight – that we will never be granted a second referendum by an establishment whose sole duty is to belittle and impoverish Scotland. And brave enough to admit this and to say that what really needs to happen is a second referendum within the lifespan of the current Scottish Parliament (because the section 30 mandate runs out in 2021), or making a likely UK snap election a plebiscite election a de facto referendum – or simply walking.

In 2014, we became the first country to vote against ourselves. Voting No was never going to be viewed as an article of faith but as a betrayal of weakness. We invited the British establishment to punish us for our impudence. It’s therefore no surprise that the last two weeks – indeed these last four years – have been nothing short of the all-out assault on Scottish democracy that we effectively invited upon ourselves on September 18th 2014 in an epic act of self-harm.

Robert Burns once wrote:

“I have often said to myself what are the boasted advantages which my country reaps from a certain Union that counterbalance the annihilation of her Independence, and even her very name!”

Scotland is at a crossroads and desperately needs bold thinking, moral courage and antithetical minds. This week’s SNP conference in Glasgow would be as good a place to start as any.

Burns image


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6 replies »

  1. Re. the Conservative Party Conference…..I was watching the News when Mike came home from work, and turned the sound off to greet him. While the sound was off, Boris came on. I said to Mike “What’s he on about now?” But, I didn’t need to put the sound on to know the kind of speech which was being given. Even without sound, you can tell when someone is giving a speech, and they mean it – you can just tell. Equally even without the sound, you can tell when it’s bluster. Though, maybe, it’s easier to tell, without the sound. All the usual signs are there – the gestures, the grimaces, the dramatic sweeping of hair away from impassioned brow etc. etc. We’ve seen it before, and I wonder that people fall for it again, and again, but they do. They’ll get the impression that Boris knows what’s what, that Boris knows what he thinks, that Boris is strong (!!!!) and all that jazz.
    Theresa May always looks terrified – she looks like she’s not in control, and she knows it. She mostly looks like she doesn’t really know what’s going on, and she’d much rather be at home, doing a crossword puzzle.
    My big hope re Brexit was that she would give up. I thought she might just have enough and either do a big turn-around, (which is, just about, possible) or resign. If she resigned, I hoped that we might then get someone who would take the opportunity to step away from it all, step away from the mess and confusion, step away from the edge. But….if Mrs May did resign, would we get Boris in charge? I fear we would, as people do fall for all that guff, time and time again, and the kind of performance he put on at the Conservative Conference, has echoes of many other people who took that kind of stance, when countries were at a low ebb, and got into power on the back of it. The public want someone strong, and if they can’t get that, they want someone who appears to be strong.
    I hadn’t looked from that angle, until I saw Boris gesticulating, in silence, on my television. I put my own sound-track to it, which was mainly – just flobbely noises. Looking at things from a different angle, can be a revelation.
    I am now, genuinely worried.

  2. Scotland’s position is now a matter of self respect. I so agree with this article that time is running out for Scotland to take charge of her own destiny and her rightful place in the world. After 2014 Scots must surely see that Westminster does not represent their best interests;quite the contrary as Brexit has evolved. Time to dúmp party polítics and stand up for yourselves. Self respect.

  3. Hi Fiona,

    To see article in ‘New Yorker’ copied below and at this link:…

    “Daily Comment

    Theresa May and Boris Johnson’s Bewildering Brexit Bash

    By Amy Davidson SorkinOctober 2, 2018

    As Britain braces for an untidy break with the European Union, its embattled Prime Minister, Theresa May, announced plans for a celebration of reëmergence.Photograph by Christopher Furlong / Getty If you don’t have a plan, why not have a party? That is as good an explanation as any for Prime Minister Theresa May’s announcement, on Sunday, at the Conservative Party’s annual conference, in Birmingham, that there would be a Festival of Great Britain and Northern Ireland come 2022. It would cost about a hundred and twenty million pounds. The model is the 1951 Festival of Britain, which celebrated the U.K.’s emergence from the Second World War, as the damage from the Blitz and other battles was cleared away. The 2022 edition, in contrast, is being planned amid the rubble of various Brexit schemes, and in the face of austerity (there has been a spate of reports about a growing number of children arriving at school hungry) brought on not by war but by political choice. The Brexit Fest would be held a few months before a possible general-election date, suggesting another wild idea: the notion that this festival, at this moment, could be a political boon rather than a boondoggle.

    At the Festival of Britain, in 1951, there was a Dome of Discovery, on the Thames, and a metal tower called the Skylon. At the Conservative Party conference this week, there are “Chuck Chequers” buttons on the lapels of various Tories. This is a reference to a blueprint for an orderly exit that May drew up at Chequers, the Prime Minister’s country residence, this summer, which the hard-line Brexiteers thought gave up too much to the European Union. If May went up to European leaders and spoke more firmly, they maintain, she could get far better terms—more of the good things associated with free trade and without the obligations that they don’t like—while some members of her government continue to furiously defend the plan. In that sense, the “Chuck Chequers” fight represents a fantasy within a fantasy, since the Europeans themselves have already chucked Chequers. May had been all but summarily dismissed at a meeting of leaders in Salzburg last month and told, in no uncertain terms, that Britain was asking for too much.

    And, instead of a Skylon tower, the Tories have a careening Boris Johnson, the former Foreign Secretary and careless Brexiteer, who, in a speech to a packed hall at the Conference on Tuesday, said that he thought the “authors of Chequers” might be prosecutable under a fourteenth-century law. (The precise legal basis was a bit vague.) He followed that with a bit about how European leaders were only pretending not to like May’s plan, in furtherance of a scheme to parade Britain, “in manacles” through the streets of Brussels, “like Caratacus,” a reference to a Roman-era British chieftain, which came across as a pushy reminder that everyone is supposed to be charmed by Johnson’s schoolboyish erudition, for some reason. “Chuck Chequers!” Johnson cried, as he waved, or, rather, wiggled, his fist in the air. Boris’s own plan, apparently, is for Boris to be Prime Minister.

    The time for nonsense has, one might have thought, passed. Because of treaty measures that Britain triggered, it is on a path to leave the European Union in March, 2019. If there is no deal on how that’s done, Britain will abruptly become, in effect, a legal stranger to the European Union on that date. Unlike other countries that were never in the E.U., it may not have any framework for, say, getting pharmaceuticals approved for import or deciding what people from what countries get to cross the border on what terms. There are already worries about everything from insulin shortages to rolling blackouts across Northern Ireland, if there are no rules for transmitting the European power on which it depends, to British planes not being cleared to land in Europe. The British Micawber-like faith that something is bound to turn up may not be serving the country well.

    Johnson has no monopoly on Brexit-themed heedlessness. Jeremy Hunt, his successor as Foreign Secretary, in the course of complaining that the E.U. was not being very helpful about Brexit, offered what he may have imagined was a cutting historical parallel: “It was the Soviet Union that stopped people leaving.” Predictably, there were quick, angry responses from those who remembered life under Soviet rule, including the Estonian Ambassador to Britain, who called the comparison “insulting.” (Meanwhile, Nigel Farage, the former leader of the nationalist-populist-rightist U.K. Independence Party, said that Hunt was “using my language,” the BBC reported.) And Dominic Raab, the Secretary for Brexit, used his conference speech to complain that all European leaders had had to offer at Salzburg was “jibes.” They were the ones who needed to “get serious” about Brexit, Raab said.

    In this, he was echoing May’s argument, after Salzburg, that, if the Europeans didn’t like her plan, they should come up with their own—the metaphor that her ministers keep repeating is that the ball is in Europe’s court. Europe doesn’t seem to think so, as politicians and diplomats from President Emmanuel Macron, of France, to Michel Barnier, the E.U.’s chief negotiator on Brexit, have made clear. May, who will address the Tory conference on Wednesday, needs a new move.

    The E.U. side is waiting, in particular, for the May government to say something rational about the trickiest Brexit problem: Ireland. The issue is an obvious one. Brexit means a hard, or at least hard-ish, border around Britain. But the lack of a hard border between the Republic of Ireland (which is part of the E.U.) and Northern Ireland (which won’t be, after Brexit) has been integral to peace on the island, not to mention to the way that many people there live their lives. The issue is complicated by coalition politics and by treaty obligations, including the terms of the Good Friday peace accords, and the Chequers plan only elided the dilemma. The E.U. has suggested what amounts to a special status for Northern Ireland, effectively drawing the Brexit border in the middle of the Irish Sea. In an angry statement after Salzburg, May said that the Europeans were asking her to “break up my country.” It was, she said, “something I will never agree to—indeed, in my judgment, it is something no British Prime Minister would ever agree to.”

    So where does the border go? This question is on the long list of issues that might have been thought through more clearly before the Brexit referendum, and it is rightly enraging to many Irish that they are, as they have been too often in their history, simultaneously an afterthought and a point of intractable stubbornness for the British.

    VIDEO FROM THE NEW YORKER Lies and Truth in the Era of Trump

    Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, emphasized in a speech in Freiburg, on Monday, that the fears about a no-plan Brexit, large and small, weren’t idle, and brought up another: “What’s going to happen to the two hundred and fifty thousand dogs and cats that leave the European continent every year?” Juncker said, according to the Guardian. Pets, until now, have also enjoyed a measure of free movement; post-Brexit, they may be facing quarantine. “If you want to go to Brittany for eight days for vacation then maybe you need to leave the dog or the cat at home, but maybe you’ll just stay home altogether.” Maybe, instead, they can take a trip to the Festival of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and wonder what went wrong.”

    Alba gu Braith

    Charlie G

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