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.
So far, so very interesting. But what am I driving at?
For all that Woodrow Wilson’s worldview could be – to put it mildly – “challenging” to modern sensibilities, he took as read something that seems to have been discarded by today’s equivalents: the belief that the first priority of any leader is the safety and security of the people he/she serves, and that every decision, large or small, is informed by that principle.
That the Westminster Government – in its failure to lockdown as early as possible, in its failure to protect people in care, in its shambolic failure to secure PPE, in its shelving of a report stating our lack of preparedness to tackle a near-inevitable pandemic, in its prioritising on Brexit over peoples health, in its criminally irresponsible decision to absent itself from an EU scheme to bulk buy ventilators because it wouldn’t chime with the core vote, with its dangerously ambiguous advice (stay alert?), in its unseemly rush to get people back to work when it’s clearly dangerous – has failed its people during the Covid crisis has been well documented. There will be one hell of a reckoning.
But in the midst of the carnage, they are failing to protect us in other ways. Other stuff is happening – like the new UK Agriculture Bill that is going through the Westminster Parliament right now.
On Wednesday, MPs were voting on an amendment from the honourable member for Tiverton and Honinton, Neil Parish, which very sensibly stated that food and welfare standards of imports post-Brexit would not be allowed to be lower than they currently are. In other words, chlorinated chicken would not be permitted, and neither would hormone treated beef. The idea was that safeguards hard won over the decades wouldn’t be traded away on the cheap to secure a deal with Donald John Trump.
A no-brainer, you’d think, and one that MPs representing constituencies that rely heavily on farming – Alister Jack in Dumfries and Galloway, for example, or his predecessor in the Westminster’s Man in Scotland role, David Mundell in the Borders – would happily endorse. Apart from anything else, it would pretty much ensure their re-election as they’d be supporting the people who represent their core vote – farmers.
So they voted against it, obviously. All of them. The entire block of Conservative British Nationalists in Scotland. John Lamont, of Berwick Roxburgh and Selkirk; Andrew Bowie of Aberdeenshire and Kincardine; Douglas Ross of Moray; David Duguid of Banff and Buchan, as well as the aforementioned Jack and Mundell. Not all of their colleagues voted against it – the author of the amendment is himself a Conservative, and he and twenty-one colleagues (including the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak) voted for the very sensible amendment. It’s just that none of them represent a Scottish constituency. We’ve reached a sorry pass indeed, when a Chancellor from Yorkshire is more concerned for the future of farmers and the wider public in Dumfries and Galloway than the Cabinet Minister who supposedly represents them.
It’s worth noting, incidentally, that the vote happened on the same day that another story emerged but may have been missed amongst the ongoing Covid crisis (which is proving most useful for burying bad news): the admission of what anybody paying attention would have realised from the start – there will be border checks in Northern Ireland after Brexit. Apart from the fact that this shows the London Government had been negotiating with the EU in bad faith throughout the Brexit process, it’s obvious that it increases the possibility of a return of sectarian violence. When it comes to failing to protect the lives of the people they represent, add that one to the growing list.
And I’ve had it with the “will of the people, Get Brexit Done” brigade. Calling for an extension as we deal with a pandemic wouldn’t just be sensible. With polls suggesting 77% of voters supporting such a move, it would be popular too – even amongst leave voters. The idea of simply not leaving at all shouldn’t be dismissed either.
Because – if you’re a Brexiteer – is this what you voted for? Did you vote for GMO foods, hormone-injected meat, chlorine-washed meat products, for no origin of country labelling, for decades of environmental standards and hard fought for employee protections to be brushed aside in favour of corporatism? Really? But then Brexit was never about leaving the bureaucracy and constraints of the EU – it was about deregulation. Brexit was never about sovereignty – it was about entrenching the political elite into greater levels of power. Brexit was never about immigration – it was about using a scapegoat to consolidate an ideology. It is happening in plain sight, as the disgrace that was Wednesday’s vote makes horrifyingly clear.
So we need to be vigilant. It isn’t just their handling of Covid that needs to be held to account.
One day all this will pass. One of the things that I’ve enjoyed over these last few months is the countless discussions I’ve had with folk about the kind of society we’d like to live in once we’re through to the other side of this. But I’m also aware that this week proves that that Scotland isn’t achievable while we are governed by people who put ideology and their own enrichment over the safety of food and the health of a country. People for whom not even the worst health crisis for a century could make them think than food standards should at least be maintained. People for whom, when it comes to Brexit, no price is too high when it comes to making the people pay for it.
We can build a better Scotland or we can stay in a constitutional arrangement that is actively harmful to us. But we cannot do both. Which is why, as we come through Covid, we must reclaim our independence by whatever means available at the earliest possible opportunity.
Keep safe everybody. I’ll meet you further on up the road
This Bill has now completed all its stages in the House of Commons.
This Bill will now go to the House of Lords for consideration.