By Alec Ross
A couple of years back, I went to the Wigtown Book Festival to hear Scotland’s First Minister in conversation with the novelist Damian Barr about the books that had influenced her worldview. It was a long and eclectic mix, including Alice Walker’s The Color Purple and Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song. It ranged from Colson Whitehead’s book on Slavery in America, The Underground Railroad, to biographies of Eleanor Roosevelt and (perhaps surprisingly) Margaret Thatcher.
I got the impression that Nicola Sturgeon, consummate professional that she is, had read her audience as well as any of her chosen books. This was a book festival, not a political rally. She stuck to the brief. But good speakers, like good writers, have the knack of letting people know what they think without feeling the need to state it explicitly. They trust their audience to work it out for themselves, and the message is much resonant because of it.
The moment came when she was talking about how enlightened political choices made after the war made it possible for a bright, hard working girl from an ordinary background to pursue her dream of going to university. She made the point that if one generation made it possible to do that, it wasn’t within the gift of her, or indeed any politician, to deny those following us the same opportunities. She didn’t mention the former leader of the Scottish Conservatives, who was also appearing at the festival, by name. She’s too smart. She didn’t have to. The absence of a name gave more power to her reasoning.
That wee exchange came very much to mind this week when I watched Home Secretary Priti Patel announce the UK Government’s new immigration plans. Her Ugandan parents came to the UK in the 1960s as the result of Idi Amin expelling the country’s Asian community. They worked hard, set up a successful shop business and raised a family, including a daughter who now holds one of the great offices of state. Whatever ones political views, this is at a very human level a success story.
But Ms Patel admits herself that, under her controversial new immigration plans, her parents would never have reached England. She is doing what the First Minister rightly claims shouldn’t be within the gift of any politician to do: denying the same rights to future generations that our parents and grandparents took for granted: an enlightened policy of free movement underpinned by human rights legislation and respect for the unalienable rights of individuals. Her government’s policy of economic and social isolation is the very antithesis of taking back control.
This was the week I discovered that I didn’t actually possess any skills. It’s official. I checked my accounts and I took less than £25,600 – the new threshold – out of the business during the last financial year. I’m pretty sure that most of my farmers didn’t either, so all that stuff that they do – lambing, calving, growing, harvesting, budgets, marketing, HR, accounts, record keeping, cashflow management – doesn’t count as skills. Sorry guys.
“Unskilled”. It’s a dreadfully, bureaucratic and insulting way to describe such dedicated men and women. ‘Low paid’ yes, sometimes scandalously so, but skilled in so many ways that few of us could begin to emulate.
You see, I’ve long believed that there is no such thing as an unskilled job because every job needs a specific skill-set. Yet under UK Govt new rules, anyone earning less than £25.6k is an unskilled worker.
So I looked this up.
NHS starting salaries:
Care assistant £17.6k
Occupational therapist £24.2k
The UK Government erroneously presumes that what is high-paid is high-skill and what is low-paid is low-skill. Boris Johnson, a highly paid chancer with no discernible talent whatsoever, proves the opposite. Like universal credit, this is the type of policy that could only be invented by people who, because of their privilege, couldn’t possibly perceive what it is to struggle – or even just hold down a normal job. Being governed by a monied elite leads to bad government.
The policy is particularly devastating for Scotland’s tourism, agricultural production and food and drink sectors where thousands of highly skilled people don’t meet the pay threshold.
As ever, Scotland’s specific demographics means it will suffer disproportionately from a policy it doesn’t agree with foisted on it by a party it has rejected since 1955. It looks suspiciously like a scorched earth campaign.
And the reality is that until Scotland becomes entirely self-governing, there is absolutely nothing we can do about any of this. Which is why we must become so at the earliest opportunity.
I’d make a couple of observations.
Firstly, that the UK government could easily have devolved immigration policy to Holyrood and didn’t should surprise no-one. One of the key recommendations of the Smith Commission after the 2014 independence referendum was that, where possible, devolved administrations should have a greater say over non-reserved policy. That David Cameron then sent an unelected peer to Brussels to discuss Scotland’s fishing future should have, along with EVEL, provided a clue that power devolved is power retained. The recent sidelining of Scotland over the NHS vote simply confirms that, so the imposition of a deeply damaging immigration policy is the natural next step towards what this insular and xenophobic cult really wants – the complete rolling back of the devolution settlement.
Secondly, this is a big moment for the British Nationalist parties in Scotland. The new Conservative leader Jackson Carlaw promised he wouldn’t be slow in telling Mr Johnson if UK policy diverged from his own. He wasn’t exactly slow in shouting about the temporary closure of a muckle big bridge. How he reacts to a policy which he knows will have a much more profoundly damaging impact on Scotland than a windy day in Fife will tell you everything about how serious he is. A week into the job and it already feels like a defining moment, not least when his core voters – like farmers who rely on the free movement of labour that this policy ends – are already deserting in their droves.
And, thirdly, while it’s obvious that Scotland, now more than ever, needs to complete its journey to the normality of independence to escape this deeply damaging version of the future, we need to ask the question: when does being canny tip over into meek submission? Because it’s quite obvious that for all the Scottish Government’s talk about London’s refusal to grant a Section 30 order and allow a second plebiscite being untenable, it’s increasing obvious that is, frankly, isn’t.
An excellent compromise document outlining a specific Scottish response to our answer to the Europe question (“Scotland’s Place in Europe”)? Unread. Now is not the time. A request for a Scotland specific immigration system that better serves our markedly different demographics? Sorry, we’re taking back control. A role for Nicola Sturgeon in the Glasgow climate summit? Over my dead body, said Johnson, while calling her “that bloody Wee Jimmy Krankie woman”.
When even the most reasonable requests for compromise are gleefully ignored, continuing to ask for permission to decide our future from a system that exists precisely to deny such a choice is not only the very definition of madness but also profoundly demeaning. We need to look at other options.
I would support a legal challenge on referendum powers. Even if we lost, we’d be no worse off and we’d be seen to be on the front foot instead of being handwringing supplicant. And history tells us that the jackets of leaders of movements that take their broad support for granted are on some very shoogly nails indeed.
The vote in 2014 consigned us to continued governance by an alien political culture in which the abhorrent immigration policy is just the latest, gruesome manifestation. This week feels like a tipping point. A policy that will be hugely damaging to Scotland, and not just economically. Classifying people as “unskilled” simply because they earn a lot less than you should remind us of that conceit that we like to think ourselves as a people who judge folk not by the size of their wallet but the depth of their humanity.
The primary responsibility of any leader is the continuing wellbeing of the people she serves. In the coming days, we can grumble and meekly acquiesce or we can say “enough is enough. Not in my name”.
Whatever our response, the next few weeks and months will tell us a great deal about ourselves.
You know what to do.