Nothing illustrates the desperate state of UK and Scottish politics than this weeks wrangle about the place of the fishing communities in the Brexit negotiations. The story is simple, and the reactions have largely been simplistic.
The simple story is that UK fisheries were handed over to the EU when we joined in 1973. One of the great advantages of Brexit was to be that we would ‘take back control’ of our own, now sadly depleted, fishing waters. We were promised that on the date of leaving in March 2019 we would also be leaving the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP). This week it was announced that this would not happen during the transitional period of 21 months. Cue outrage amongst some Tory MPs and cries of betrayal from the SNP.
There is a history to this. When Britain joined the EEC, Britain’s fishermen, then a large and flourishing industry, were promised both that the British government had protected their interests and that the Common Fisheries Policy would change in order to protect access to British fishing grounds. It was one of the most bare faced lies ever told by a British Prime Minister (Heath). The fisheries minister even had the gall to stand up and tell parliament; “It is clear that we retain full jurisdiction of the whole of our coastal waters up to 12 miles” – when precisely the opposite was the case.
Then as now, Scottish fishing constituency MPs argued strongly against the French, Spanish and Dutch fleets being given ‘equal’ access to UK waters. Then as now, the government, procrastinated, made empty promises and prepared to bargain away one of our great industries. The fishermen and fishing communities were quite simply expendable. The richest fishing grounds in the world were given away. Incidentally the Norwegians had more fight and they refused to back down without major concessions – but even these could not prevent the Norwegian people voting no in a referendum asking should Norway join the EU. A referendum that the British people were never given.
Today there is no doubt that the EU Commissioners are playing hardball and that they want to protect their own industrial fishing fleets. The UK government were never going to make fishing which only accounts for about 60,000 jobs as a sticking point. So the deal was agreed. But the real concern is not so much with the 21-month transitional period but what happens afterwards. The corporate EU will deal with the corporate UK and I suspect that a City passport (for financial services) will be considered of far more value than the fishermen of Moray. That is the way of the world and to put it bluntly, I don’t trust Phillip Hammond, Theresa May or any of the Tory grandees to deliver. If the choice is between a Brexit trade deal and no deal, then the fishermen will be sacrificed – for the common (corporate!) good.
So far, so predictable. There is every possibility that the 1973 Heath betrayal of the fishermen will be followed by the 2019 May betrayal. It’s enough to make one angry enough to vote SNP.
And the SNP know that. Having been built up in the early years in the fishing constituencies on an anti EU and anti CFP stance, they have suffered recently as their stance has changed, losing many of their core voters in these areas. Perhaps they don’t need them anymore – as the Central Belt seats are now far more significant for them, nevertheless it has hurt to feel the backlash. So they could hardly contain their glee when the news came out about remaining in the CFP.
The propaganda machine went into full swing. The National (The SNP’s version of Pravda) roared its mock outrage. The First Minister said ‘I telt you so’. Questions were asked in parliament.
The Scottish Parliament
“The Tories have sold out the Scottish fishing industry once again” said the Scottish Government cabinet secretary, with a solemn face which could barely disguise his glee. He continued “We will be in the CFP not as a partner at the table, but at best, consulted with…we will be in the CFP as rule takers rather than rule makers.” “The interests of the Scottish fishing industry have been given so little consideration by the UK government”. “The SNP have always opposed the CFP” “We have nothing to regret or apologise for”. The (self) righteous anger was palpable.
The only trouble is that the SNP anger on this is at best manufactured and at worst, one of the grossest examples of political hypocrisy you will ever see. Why? Because despite what the Cabinet Secretary said, the SNP policy is far worse than that of the UK governments.
It is not opposed to the CFP. The SNP policy is to belong to the EU and to the Single Market. It is not possible to belong to the EU and not be a member of the ‘Common’ fisheries policy. The clue is in the word ‘Common’. You can’t pick and choose which parts of the Common market you want to belong to. You can’t say to the French, we want access to your beef markets, but you can’t have access to our fish.
The Scottish Government have this rather naïve, and if it were not so serious, almost touching faith in the EU and their own abilities to influence it. The UK, a far larger nation was a ‘rule maker’ and wasn’t able to make any substantial changes. Why do they think the small nation of Scotland will be able to do any better? Do they really believe their own propaganda about the EU as the nirvana of progressiveness desperate to be led by the most progressive wee nation in the world? Is there any history of the EU actually listening to small nations who go against the interests of the bigger ones? Try asking the Greeks!
Rather than the SNP being opposed to the CFP in practice (the words are easy the reality is different) this is their policy – “We will continue to demand the scrapping or fundamental reform of the CFP and Scottish control of fisheries”. But ‘demanding’ is not a policy. It’s like a wee child demanding whatever they want. They are not going to get it. The fact is that the SNP policy is to belong to the EU and the Single Market and that means belonging to the CFP as long as the fishing industries of France, Spain and the Netherlands want it. To say ‘we demand the scrapping or fundamental reform’ is meaningless virtue signalling for the voters back home and has no basis in the real politic of the EU.
The obvious contradiction between demanding that we be in the EU and demanding that we be out of the CFP, should fool no-one. But, such is the cult like following that the SNP EU unionists have, that few are prepared to question. In fact when I have brought this subject up in the past, the cult followers have immediately jumped in and told me that Scottish fishermen are to blame for their own demise, and that the CFP is about a good, sustainable, eco-friendly fishing policy. These are of course people who know nothing about the fishing industry but still they know better than the fishermen. The simplistic narrative they follow is clear. The EU is good. We love EU (as the National keeps telling us). To leave the EU would be disastrous. Westminster is bad. Anything Westminster does must be bad. Anything the EU does must be good. Hence the CFP is good. I have a sneaking suspicion that if it were Juncker who had ordered the massacre of the babies in Bethlehem, our EU apologists would have found a way to justify it!
The (double) Betrayal
But of course the Scottish Government and the SNP leadership are not as foolish as some of their online supporters (although they need to be aware of what happens when you stir up people’s hopes by creating this fervent and unrealistic kind of nationalism). They know that the CFP has been a disaster for Scottish fishermen, and they know in their heart of hearts, that their wish list for a reformed or non-existent CFP will remain just a wish list. But that will not stop the rhetoric of ‘Tory betrayal’.
It’s a deeply cynical approach. If push comes to shove the Scottish Government will as easily barter away the interests of the Scottish fishermen, as the Westminster – indeed that is their stated policy (or it is the inevitable consequence of their stated policy). They too see the interests of Scotland’s fishermen as expendable. Glasgow matters more than Buckie. The golden prize for them is EU membership without which, in their eyes, Scotland is doomed. A few fishing jobs don’t matter compared with the largesse that the EU offers the Central Belt bureaucrats.
But it is even worse than that. One of the reasons that the EU are able to play hardball (apart from the fact that the powers that be, the EU Commission, don’t have to worry about such pesky things as elections and electorates), is because of the weakness of May’s government and the hope that somehow Brexit might be overturned – or be such a ‘soft’ Brexit that it won’t really make any difference. The EU will continue to take our money and make our rules (with the added advantage of us having no say at all – compared to the minimal say we had before). The SNP are part of an alliance of Tories, Big Business, Lib-Dems and Blairites who are fighting to stop Brexit. To their shame, as Joanna Cherry admitted this week, they want to overturn a democratic vote in a referendum (a precedent by the way which would kill off the prospect of Scottish independence forever). By so doing they are weakening the UK government and making it much more likely that they will sell out Scotland’s fishermen. The Labour party spokesman in the Scottish parliament was spot on when he pointed out that the fishermen were being used by both the UK and the Scottish Parliament as a political football. The SNP are demanding that the Westminster Government hand over all Scottish fishing waters to them; whilst they are also demanding that we go back into the EU and hand all fishing powers back to Brussels! It’s the very definition of a sell-out!
All in all it is as depressing a display of political opportunism, hypocrisy and cynicism as we have seen for a long time.
Is there any hope? There are some MPs and MSPs who seem genuinely prepared to stand against their own parties and governments and speak up for the fishermen. Sadly none of these will be in the SNP because, no matter what they think, they are not allowed to say it or act upon it. Every single SNP politician has signed a promise never to go against any party policy. The SNP has gone from being one of the craziest and loosest political parties in the Western world (in terms of partly discipline) to now being one of the most authoritarian. Party HQ says jump and SNP politicians only ask ‘How high?”. Unless there is some kind of significant rebellion it is unlikely that any SNP politician will do anything other than repeat the mantras handed down from on high.
The UK Parliament
Perhaps Theresa May, David Davies and Phil Hammond will have the strength and will to stand up to the EU bullying and in 2020 refuse to accept the inevitable EU demands for some kind of continuation of the CFP? But if I were a gambling man, I wouldn’t bet a penny on that – never mind my shirt. If Glasgow v’s Buckie is not a real contest, London v’s Buckie is worse.
I am impressed however with John Lamont, Douglas Ross and Jacob Rees-Mogg – Tory MPs who have stuck with their principles and openly criticised in the strongest possible terms their own government. Lamont said there was no positive spin to put on the transitional agreement; Ross said it was like being asked to ‘drink a cup of sick’, and Rees Moog condemned the whole deal. There is a possibility that if they stick to their guns, it could be Scottish Tories who bring down the Tory government. If that happened it would be the biggest shakeup in UK politics since the SNP brought down Labour and inadvertently helped Mrs Thatcher into power.
There is a great prize awaiting Scotland’s fishermen if we can get a real Brexit. But given the forces arrayed against that (the SNP, Blairites, Big Business, the EU, the Lib-Dems and the Osbourne/Hammond Tories) it looks unlikely. We can but hope….