“How wretched is the person who hangs on by the favours of the powerful” (Robert Burns)
Everyone, sometime, has a moment when you can just do nothing wrong. You’re on the golf course. You’re walking on air, hitting every fairway, flushing every iron. You seem to make every putt you look at and are genuinely astonished when you finally miss one from thirty feet. Or you’re making a speech at work and you’re absolutely on fire, completely in control of your subject. Or you nail the interview for the job you’ve always wanted, or charm the person you’ve always fancied but never quite had the bottle to ask out. You’re at the highest level you can be, the very best version of yourself. You are, as golfers say, in the zone. The trick is staying there.
The golf mind coach, Bob Rotella, challenges the received wisdom that in such a scenario we are somehow overachieving. We aren’t playing above ourselves: we’re just catching a glimpse of our full potential. Just imagine if we could operate at this level all the time. There’s no reason whatsoever why we can’t, he says. If we imagine the best outcome possible then there is nothing to prevent it happening. As Robert Kennedy noted, “Some people see things as they are and ask – why? I see things as they never were and ask – why not?”
All of which, and more, went through my mind as I visited the Scottish Parliament last week. I was up with an English couple (more of whom later) to meet MSPs and talk about sustainable farming. Essentially, both the couple and myself run businesses which market products based on microbiology and bio-nutrition, so essentially we’re looking at ways of making feeding systems more efficient, reducing methane and ammonia emissions and allowing us to become less dependent on agrochemicals and hydrocarbon based fertiliser – all key features in various reports from governments and colleges.
My colleagues were struck by the accessibility of our politicians. They didn’t say it in as many words, but I knew where they were coming from – this kind of meeting wouldn’t have happened in Westminster. I am very proud of our parliament. I am angry and saddened beyond words that we are seeing its powers diminished. Like the golfer who cannot miss, I couldn’t help but imagine Scotland’s potential if we had all of the powers, not just some of them. We’d be unstoppable. We’d be in the zone and we’d never come out of it.
So what is stopping us?
“It’s the economy, stupid”, said Bill Clinton, famously. It’s now received wisdom that because areas like the so-called deficit, pensions and the currency stopped us from getting over the line in 2014. But maybe it isn’t. Over dinner the night before the Parliament meeting, we inevitably got on to Brexit. My two English friends stated with commendable honesty that they’d voted to leave the EU and that regardless of the certain shrinking in the economy they’d gladly take economic pain over (perceived) rule from Brussels. And that’s the difference between England and Scotland. England always stands up for itself. I mean, the idea that England was ever under the yoke of Brussels is, of course, ludicrous. But here’s the thing – they perceived they were and did something about it. We, on the other hand, laboured under an actual democratic imbalance for three centuries and when presented with the opportunity to address it, didn’t. That is something that has always troubled me. Wha’s like us? Scotland the Brave? All Jock Thamson’s bairns? Gallus? Really? We were a bit feart. We boasted then cowered. We voted No.
That we became the first country in history to vote against itself in an epic act of selfishness and self-harm troubles me. I remember arguing at the time that a no vote would see us putting our hard won powers at risk. Instead of shiny new powers, we got EVEL and the power grab. We got Brexit. This is because we handed power back to people who are ideologically hardwired to retain as much power as possible. There is no point in complaining about this as it was always going to happen because a No vote was always going to be seen not as as a gesture of trust in Westminster but as a betrayal of weakness. That’s why we have a power grab. We need to be honest. The first step to dealing with a problem is admitting that there is one. If we want to get better, fairer, independent government, we must firstly take ownership of the worst decision Scotland ever made.
What else did we learn in Parliament last week? Firstly, that a Brexit that Scotland rejected is damaging Scotland already in many more ways than was anticipated. A colleague was up meeting MSPs. There are, literally, hundreds of organisations who don’t know where their funding is coming from after the 29th March. It could be September or even November before they know what their share – if any – of funding will be after the Brexit shakedown. This is what our parliament does. It mitigates, and then it mitigates some more. It is an extraordinarily poor use of Holyrood’s time, talents and energies and yet it’s all we can do with the limited and reducing powers that we have. And my wife runs a charity – for now. Brexit just got personal.
Here’s an interesting way to look at it. There are 35 Scottish MPs in the 650 seat British parliament. There are 60 British MSPs in the 129 seat Scottish Parliament. So the Scottish parliament comprises 46.51% UK representatives and 53.49% Scottish representatives while the UK parliament comprises 5.3% Scottish representatives and 94.7% UK representatives. In other words, nearly half the people in Holyrood are representing and defending the interests of a different legislative chamber (Westminster) than the one in whose legislative chamber they are paid – by us – to work in (Holyrood). In fact, the near-half of them spend most of their time undermining the place they’re working in to help the place they’d really rather belong to. Which is, when you think about it, absurd. And which also means that Britain always gets what Britain wants, and Scotland always has to go along with it, despite rejecting the UK consensus since – well – 1955. It isn’t an equal union and Scotland cannot thrive within it. Which is, of course, the whole point of the United Kingdom.
The simple rule of anything is that you can’t win if you don’t have the numbers. That’s not even a political point, just arithmetic. Unless numbers are now fake news as well.
There were moments during First Minister’s Questions which highlighted the suffocating limitations of the devolution settlement. At one point, someone asked about Universal Credit, echoing the Poll Tax, getting rolled out in Scotland. The First Minister got some serious grief from half the chamber for suggesting that the policy really ought to be devolved, which really confused my guests who immediately saw the unimpeachable logic of the argument.
Further proof of the need for more powers came later at a meeting with the Scottish Fiscal Commission. Here’s something you might not know: 48% of Scotland’s dairy farms are in my area, South West Scotland. Many of them employ Hungarians, Poles and Lithuanians. Very few of them earn close to the £30,000 per annum that Theresa May’s Government says they must earn to be allowed to work in the UK post-Brexit, so we could very soon see a labour shortage. And guess what? We can’t do anything about that either. Because immigration is reserved as well. Because all the important stuff is.
Apart from farming, right?
Well, yes and no. On Thursday, Cabinet Secretary Fergus Ewing, in an emotional address, announced that there would be a Scottish agricultural bill, separate to the one published by Westminster. The response from the British Conservatives in Scotland was as predictable as it was depressing, as they chose to see it as the Scottish Government furthering their independence agenda (they weren’t) instead of getting on with the day job (they were). It’s one thing telling a government to use the powers available to it. It’s quite another for a party to call for a government to hand over responsibility of a clearly devolved matter to a government we rejected. Power devolved really is power retained. There are I think two conclusions to be drawn. Firstly – and I can’t say this often enough – the power grab is happening in plain sight. And secondly, when MSPs oppose the settled powers of the very parliament that they work in, what is the point of them? And why are they still here?
In the end, it’s about self-belief. Bob Rotella, the mind coach from earlier, always says that, whatever the challenges and influencing factors, the one thing that unites us all is that we can – all of us – decide how we think. That’s true of people but it’s true of nations, too. It’s time to Scotland to imagine a future where we have every single power available to ask. To ask “why not?”. Time for Scotland the think large. And time to think for ourselves.
Let’s get into the zone. Let’s finish this. Let’s get this done.