Mike Small on why No Deal Brexit, and the ‘internal market’ is an attack on devolution. Worse than that it means deregulated food standards with chlorine-washed chicken hormone-treated beef, ractopamine in pork (all banned in the EU) and chicken litter as animal feed (includes the birds’ faeces).
Rish Sunak, the Boyband Chancellor, has been applauded by many for his PR and his seemingly endless benevolence as he dolled out wads of money this week and posed as a waiter in Wagamama. Unionist commentariat drooled over the banquet surmising that such generosity would feed their own argument that poor Scotland could never and would never have been able to survive without such largess. We were they concluded literally getting crumbs from the table and should be suitably appreciative. Sunak stated, with an eye no doubt to the resurgent polls for independence: “No nationalist can ignore the undeniable truth that this help has been possible because we are a United Kingdom.”
Except it doesn’t quite work like that. A more sober assessment was that Sunak’s stunt was more Meal Deal than New Deal, and a discount for Nando’s on a Tuesday night wasn’t really what was required for an economy on the verge of collapse.
Every indication is that we are off the map in terms of economic falloff, and the response from mainstream economists and policymakers is (for those of the tl:dr mindset): “Buy More Stuff!”
The internal logic of the Unionist framing is unconscious but repetitive. It goes something like this: Scotland as part of the Union is inherently poor; it is an impoverished nation for reasons no-one can (or will) explain, it just is; therefore it’s dependent on the United Kingdom for handouts to support itself. Scotland is essentially a mendicant nation. Any notion therefore of it being self-sufficient and independent is implicitly ludicrous. The exceptionalism of Britain and Britishness (uniquely Great and superior) goes hand in hand with the exceptionalism of Scotland and Scottishness (uniquely Poor and inadequate). One requires the other, and Britain’s Uniqueness and Greatness is proven by its benevolence to its impoverished constituent parts, which it looks after with benign grace.
To say that belief in this story is unfolding is an understatement.
Kate Forbes the Finance Minister stated that of the £30 billion announced by the Chancellor Scotland would receive £21 million, less than 0.1%.
If there’s any further indication needed that the story of the Union being a source of benevolence and strength, the spectacle of the unfortunate Jackson Carlaw being skewered by Adam Bolton on Sky News is it.
Bolton interviewed Carlaw about the issue of food standards and the consequences of an “internal market” meaning that food policy, currently a devolved settlement, would become part of a pan-UK plan. Carlaw was adamant that these powers should be withdrawn from Holyrood and centralised as part of the post-Brexit restructure. This is the power-grab in action, it is a very specific attack on the founding principles of devolution.
It’s ironic given Sunak’s Meal Deal that food and food policy is going to be the arena of the next major constitutional battleground.
Peter Foster, previously a Telegraph writer had the scoop this week for the Financial Times. Foster wrote (‘Edinburgh threatens to defy London on post-Brexit legislation‘):
“The Scottish government has threatened to defy proposed UK legislation allowing Westminster unilaterally to set food and environmental standards, setting the stage for the biggest constitutional stand-off between London and Edinburgh since the 2016 Brexit referendum. Michael Russell, Scotland’s cabinet secretary for constitutional affairs, told the Financial Times that the Scottish National party government was prepared to fight in the courts over legislation that would give London unilateral control over the UK “internal market”. The bitter dispute over the Conservative UK government’s efforts to ensure it has a free hand in post-Brexit trade negotiations with other countries highlights the far-reaching constitutional implications of leaving the EU. One person familiar with the proposed UK internal market bill said it would create powers to enable the Westminster government to force Scotland and Wales to accept whatever new standards on food, environment and animal welfare were agreed in future trade agreements. Food safety, agriculture and many aspects of the environment are policy areas overseen by the devolved administrations in Edinburgh and Cardiff, but the UK government wants to have the final say on issues previously decided in Brussels.”
Nor is this one of those protracted never-ending Brexit stories. We hear that the UK Internal Market Bill White Paper will be put out in the next month or so. The crisis is now.
But whilst this is new terrain, there is a long backstory to the crisis.
Just to take one example that made unionist politicians and commentators absolutely livid, was the Scottish Government having a different policy on GM foods. Scotland’s policy in this area is one rooted in a European-wide anti-GM network and in the precautionary principle. It makes good business sense. It must be defended.
In 2013 the Scottish Government laid out the following principles which guided their policy:
The precautionary principle – insufficient evidence has been presented that GM crops are safe.
The preventative principle – the cultivation of GM crops could tarnish Scotland’s natural environment and damage wider aspects of the Scottish economy such as tourism and the production of high quality, natural food
The democratic principle – science-based decision making cannot replace the will of the people. There is no evidence of a demand for GM products by Scottish consumers.
The fact that the Scottish government has put together these sound, well-reasoned principles to guide their opposition gives us real hope that Scotland can be a strong voice against the pro-GM lobby in the years to come, and we can focus our attention on building a sustainable food system for the next generation. But the very idea of Scotland charting a different path was the cause of apoplexy by many journalists and politicians.
Far from Scotland being some kind of parochial outlier, in our GM policy we had in fact joined a global resistance. India has not approved a single genetically modified food crop for human consumption. Only four African nations—South Africa, Burkina Faso, Egypt, and Sudan permit the commercial use of products that contain G.M.O.s. Other countries involved in bans and restrictions throughout the world include: Italy, Austria, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Portugal, Greece, Spain, Switzerland, Norway, Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Algeria, Brazil and Paraguay.
This is just one area that is about to come under sustained attack.
Food standards are not just an issue for obscure policies and technical details, they are the basis for our health and wellbeing they are the basis for our food sovereignty. Without food sovereignty – without control over what our children eat – we are nothing. And this battle lands in a country where there are already massive issues about poverty, health and wellbeing, and in which Scotland in particular faces huge challenges about our dietary health.
In a country in which 1.5 million people are already reliant on foodbanks, further price rises and disruptions this aren’t good news and likely to hugely exacerbate inequality.
As Ash Sarker explained back in 2018: “Hard Brexit has never been about sovereignty – it’s about creating a legislative bonfire to decimate protections enshrined in law, and hold the UK hostage to corrupt corporate interests.”
Hard Brexit as a form of hyper-nostalgia is the emergent form, a new isolationism in a country that already has a disastrous relationship with food. In a country that has concentrated the food system into the hands of a handful of companies, that has a population more divorced from land, nature, seasonality and place than almost anywhere else in Europe, and that already has staggering food poverty and insecurity, Brexit-style shortages aren’t going to arrive into a context of resilience, balance and plenty. They will arrive into a context of childhood obesity, diabetes and deep cultural ignorance.
The reason that protecting food policy is important to Scotland is interesting. On the one hand we have some of the greatest natural resources in food and an image of food that we can project and build on. But the flip-side of that is that we have huge issues about our diet, about our obsession with export growth, about our salmon industry, about our obesity epidemic, about our diet-related ill-health that we desperately need to confront. Some of these myths – say about basing food policy on export growth make even less sense in a post-covid post-Brexit world than they did before.
Nor does this particularly virulent form of Disaster Capitalism derive from the popular will as routinely claimed. This isn’t happening with just the momentum of The People but with the organised will groups with direct economic interest. On food standards and regulations there’s a feeding frenzy of right-wing think-tanks queuing up to divvy-up your rights to good (or at least nominally safe) food. As the dearth of foreign workers leaves crops rotting in the ground the glee with which policy makers are eyeing up the potential profits of a free trade agreement is undeniable. Politically, for both the Trump administration and Boris Johnson’s beleaguered government this would be a rabbit out of the hat moment, a vindication of the Global Britain rhetoric for Boris and a clarion of American Means Business for Trump.
As long ago as 2018 the environmental group Unearthed have revealed the reality of the Anglo-American trade deal after a transatlantic network of conservative think tanks accidentally published its secret plans to influence US-UK trade negotiations. They revealed: “Documents outline plans to form an “unprecedented” coalition of hard-Brexit and libertarian think tanks, which will call for Britain to ditch strict EU safety standards – including rules on food and pharmaceuticals – in order to secure a sweeping US-UK trade deal.”
The group will hold “shadow trade talks” in Washington and London to “hash out an ‘ideal’ US-UK free trade agreement (FTA).” It hopes this will form the “blueprint” for the real negotiations between the British and US governments.
A report by the Soil Association highlights 10 concerns about food safety in a post-Brexit era that ushers up the ghost of the 4.4. million cows killed as result of the BSE crisis. These foods are currently banned in the UK:
Chicken litter as animal feed (banned in the EU). Includes the birds’ faeces.
Atrazine-treated crops (banned in the EU). Atrazine is a herbicide used on 90% of sugar cane, which can enter into the water supply and interfere with wildlife.
Genetically modified foods (banned in the EU).
Brominated vegetable oil (banned in the EU). BVO is used in citrus drinks; Coca-Cola announced it would stop using BVO in 2004.
Potassium bromate (banned in the EU). A dough conditioner also banned in China, Brazil and Canada, in tests on rats it has been found to be a possible carcinogen.
Azodicarbonamide. A bleaching agent for flour, it has been linked to an increase in tumours in rats.
Food colourants (banned in the UK, regulated in the EU). Can lead to hyperactivity in children.
This is your Brexit Recipe Book. This is what your cupboards and your super-market shelves will be brimming with if Jackson Carlaw gets his way.
If we can now see the corporate vultures circling around the carcass of Brexit Britain we can also see the deep-irony that the communities most likely to be hit hard by a further deregulated food system are those already disfigured by inequality and diet-related ill-health.