“When people show you what they are, believe them the first time”. Maya Angelou.
If Dominic Cummings is to be believed – and while it admittedly remains a big “if” his testimony to this week’s select committee did have a ring of truth to it – then it appears that the UK government was seriously exploring a herd immunity response to Covid. Indeed, far from being some lunatic fringe idea, it appears that the Prime Minister was even being encouraged by his Cabinet Secretary to promote “chicken pox parties” as part of the strategy.
Certainly, this certainly squares with a Prime Minister who, at the start of the pandemic, talked of “taking it on the chin” and “allowing the virus, as it were, to move through the population”, whilst boasting of shaking hands with Covid patients and railing against the shutting of pubs and schools. And whilst he reluctantly introduced much stricter lockdown measures, recent revelations that he’d “rather see the bodies piled high in the streets” than introduce further restrictions strongly suggest that he and his government only ever rowed back from herd immunisation slightly, and with great reluctance. This wasn’t a divergence from policy. This was the policy. It’s what they are. Believe them the first time.
An old colleague of my father’s had a great maxim that applies here. “At times like this”, he would say, “prudent men distance themselves from the fan”. Michael Gove, loathe him or mildly dislike him, is a prudent man. Which is probably why we’ve seen neither hide nor hair from him recently as the brown stuff hits the cooling device and he prepares to take the top job when – if – the tsunami of revelations finally does for Johnson, although given that he’s miles ahead of the hapless Starmer despite (because?) of his appalling lack of competence, that’s far from certain.
Which brings me to the theme of today’s article.
The Cummings revelations – although hardly surprising to anyone paying attention (short version: guy sacked several times from newspapers for telling lies turns out to be a bit shit when it comes to dealing with a global pandemic – who knew?) have a parallel in my own industry: farming.
Let me explain my thinking.
It wasn’t that many months ago that we heard reports that the UK Government was giving a sympathetic ear to senior advisors briefing them that farming wasn’t that important, and that actually what ministers should be considering was a Singapore style model where you produce very little and simply import what you need as cheaply as possible, regardless of welfare standards. Wheeled out to face the highly understandable outrage, Michael Gove was asked to guarantee that food and welfare standards would be at least as good as now in the event of any future trade deals.
“There is no point in having high welfare and high environmental standards if you allow them to be cut from outside” he said.
“So this is a red line?”, he was asked. “Absolutely no dilution in our standards?”
“Absolutely”, he replied.
To paraphrase Groucho Marx, if we don’t like Michael Gove’s principles? Well, he has others.
Which brings us to the proposed post-Brexit Australian Trade Deal.
As National Farmers Union boss Martin Kennedy rightly points out, the various UK governments have already carried out consultations on the welfare standards that Gove described as a “red line”, yet Westminster appears to be entirely comfortable with a tariff-free deal with a country whose standards – chemicals harmful to bees and aquatic ecosystems, the use of paraquat, no review period whatsoever for pesticides – fall way short of our own. We can only conclude that, like herd immunity, the managed decline of domestic food production wasn’t just some harebrained fringe policy. It was the policy. And it seems it still is.
Apart from everything else, the unseemly rush towards a deal seems to be a case of answering a question – how can we get cheaper food? – that no-one is asking. Firstly, food isn’t actually that expensive: the proportion of our income that we spend on groceries would be unrecognisably small to our grandparents. And, secondly, Covid has concentrated our minds on issues like carbon footprinting, food miles and, crucially, welfare and provenance. Surveys suggest that people consider a few pence on a loaf of bread well worth it if it means our beef is hormone free, and we’re rightly asking quite how flying a hormone treated chicken halfway across the world squares with the rhetoric of a cleaner and more sustainable planet. The proposed deal also creates a worrying precedent: if one deal comes without limits and caveats, then so will all the others.
And the other point I’d make is this.
In 2015, when the vote on European membership was announced, the NFU for very practical and economic reasons, took a strong official stance to remain in the EU. For exactly the same reasons, I’d like the organisation and other stakeholders within Scotland’s farming industry to be equally as fulsome in its support for Scottish self-determination. Otherwise we will be spending the rest of our lives expressing our outrage at Boris Johnson and being roundly ignored. “They’re betraying the farmers”, we cry. But honestly – this is what they do. They did it to miners and shipbuilders. They clap the nurses and raise their pay by sweeties. They sold out the fishermen and the DUP without stopping for breath. You see a pattern here? You think farmers have protected status? Seriously, they don’t care about us. We’re honestly not even on their radar. Not even close.
It’s interesting, however, how the mood is shifting. In 2014, pro-independence voices like mine were championing the importance of agriculture to Scotland’s prosperity and getting largely nowhere. Today, those same arguments form the basis of an entire farming manifesto. Encouragingly, the Overton Window has shifted, for once, in a positive direction.
The Scottish Government’s blueprint is to grow our £18bn industry by forty percent by 2030. The crucial question to ask ourselves if this is more achievable within an independent Scotland with all the powers available to it or within a constitutional framework that has taken us out of trading platform of half a billion people committed to high welfare and robust traceability and aims to replace it with imported pork with added asthma drugs.
In the end, everybody needs three things and three things only. Food, water and energy. Serendipitously, Scotland is replete in all three and the primary role of those who deign to govern us is to ensure that everyone, without exception, has affordable and safe access to this vital holy trinity. After all, solve this and a lot of other problems disappear, virtually overnight.
And having decided that this is a good idea, we then ask if this is more achievable by our own fully empowered democracy or by an outsourced governance with an entirely alien political culture and worldview that we have roundly rejected for seventy-six years.
Self-governance, in farming and everywhere else, it the great enabler which is why we urgently need it. Not at some unspecified point in the future, but immediately.
It isn’t an either or. It isn’t independence or recovery. It’s independence for recovery.
Stay safe good people. I’ll meet you further on up the road.
Related article: What’s the beef with the Australian Free Trade Deal ?