On Erasmus and Langoustine
You probably know the travelers tale, that time when you found yourself in an unusual place, and you stop a passer-by to ask them for directions – only to get the following answer: “Well, if I was trying to go there, I wouldn’t start from here”.
It’s a sensation that UK government ministers (and Prime Minsters) have had to get used to.
That’s because it really doesn’t matter how many times politicians, or others in Whitehall, and Westminster, and their cheerleaders in the media, say “Britain holds all the cards” it never rings true.
It was a claim that I heard a lot in relation to Brexit. Back in the days when BBC Question Time was still being given a chance in our house, every Thursday night during 2015 and ’16 and ’17 had an obligatory intervention from an audience member saying “they” (meaning our European trading neighbours) “they need us more than we need them – they need us to buy their German cars, their French cheese, their Italian prosecco”. As with so many Vox Brittaniae, it looked upon the world as a one way street (and we’ll maybe hold that thought for when we touch on Erasmus, below).
Well, it turned out that BMW could survive just fine, even with a few less sales in Basingstoke. The cheese-producers and prosecco vineyards are all still trading. In fact, the traders that Brexit made suffer the most have been Scottish. A place I know well is Loch Fyne, and anyone on Scottish political social media in 2021 is likely to have seen updates from the Loch Fyne Langoustine company. Their feedback has been emblematic.
They explained, in stark and dignified and succinct terms (and all deeply impressively, in my opinion) that Britain had not held all the cards in the Brexit talks. The systems put in place, by the UK, to handle Brexit were incompatible with the time-sensitive exporting of world class live produce. This would be true when a lorry’s cargo was from a single supplier…and ten times worse when supply stocks require a trailer-ful of stock to have come from a range of different suppliers.
What the Loch Fyne traders were describing was this – a whole industry of world-class produce has been closed down as a direct consequence of ideological decisions taken in London.
It would be an unusal for any country (let’s call it Scotland) to watch an entire world class industry be destroyed through others’ ideological decisions, and to think “yeah, I’m going to hang around for a few years in *this* UK union to see who’s next”, as if our lives and livelihoods are someone else’s remote whim. London doesn’t care, and we can see tangibly that it causes harm, but doesn’t care.
There are numerous things that you could say about it all. I am going to draw out two themes that played out with Brexit and that we will (sadly, but assuredly) see in independence discussions – “it’s the natural resources, stupid” and “the futility of life in a one way street”.
Britain didn’t hold the cards over Brexit (though it tried to persuade you that it did).
And guess what?
Britain doesn’t hold the cards over Scottish independence (though it will try to persuade you it does).
An LSE report this week was the first of (probably) many pieces of “client research” that we can expect to be bombarded with, trying to set out that Scotland will be in a weak position come indy.
The question I like to see asked whenever these pieces are produced is: what is rUK buying from Scotland that is an essential – not a luxury? You know, things that life would be at risk without. Because those kind of essentials are probably things that rUK will need to trade with Scotland, in good faith, in order to keep life ticking over. The two I would draw out are energy and freshwater.
A quick confession – these areas seemed to me to be utterly factual, black-and-white issues. You either produce enough of them yourself (being self-sufficient) or you do not (where you become dependent on others). And I was not alone – indeed the main people who have identified and talked publicly about England’s impending (and catastrophic) freshwater shortage are people like the chief officials in England’s own Environment Agency. It makes for sobering reading, in fact.
I’m not one for stereotypes or drawing conclusions, but we may safely assume that Sir James Bevan, chief executive of England’s Environment Agency, is probably not motivated by any rabid position on Scottish independence, when he said (Guardian, 18 March 2019 – LINK) that England is facing ”the jaws of death” as the country is set to run short of water within 25 years, as demand from its rising population surpasses the falling water supply in England (the falling supply being attributed to factors like climate change and overdevelopment on traditional flood plains).
Of course, any S1 geography student knows Loch Ness alone, at 263 billion cubic feet of water, holds more freshwater than all the lakes, rivers and reservoirs in England and Wales combined.
So, before we even begin to talk about Scotland’s energy supply (and rUK’s growing demand for it) we can see that top officials in England’s Environment Agency may take the view that rUK would not hold the cards, when any indy negotiations get under way – “it’s the natural resources, stupid”.
Of course, this is all out in the public domain, authored on behalf of the Westminster government. It is a Rumsfeldian known known for Gove, and for Johnson, and for whoever comes next.
And it can be set alongside a rather revealing discussion that Boris Johnson (of all people) held recently at the United Nations in New York.
Presumably drawing on stories like this (“Scotland already produces enough wind energy to power two Scotlands”, The Independent) Johnson outlined to the UN that Scotland “could be the Saudi Arabia of wind power”, in the 21st Century. Well, actually, he referred to us as the north part of the UK in that speech. But nevertheless… the point is that rUK is well aware of Scotland’s output in our natural resources. rUK is aware that they will need to work with Scotland, to avoid “the jaws of death” (not my words, Lynn, the words of Sir James Bevan, Environment Agency chief executive).
And the similarity with the Brexit negotiations is stark – rUK needs us more than we need them. And that is a truth that dare not speak its name (in the UK media).
So, when reports like the LSE one this week drop through our doors, it’s always worth asking “does this assume Scotland drove a hard bargain at indy (which we are well placed to) or does it assume that rUK held all the cards (which is “jaws of death” levels of denial and delusion)”? It turned out this week’s LSE report was based on “jaws of death” stuff – the kind of deal that would have turned Scotland off wanting to trade with an untrustworthy neighbour. Not an oucome that people like Sir James Bevan (and his successors etc) would be likely to sit idly, quietly, by and watch happen? Gove has a famous disdain for experts – my hunch is indy talks will see some experts (like the Environment Agency) find their voice, if / when Westminster raises stakes to jaws of death” levels.
The bottom line here: keep your eyes on the natural resources, to see rUK does not hold the cards.
The futility of life as a one way street
A final, related thought. During all those Question Times from 2015-17, the Vox Populi mantra that “Britain holds all the cards” always seemed to sit alongside a “take take take” worldview that understood the world as a one way street, here purely for Brexitland’s benefit.
Imagine, for a horrible minute (and bear with me) that there is no Indyref2, or, that there is an Indyref2 and Scotland votes to stay inside the UK.
Three things leap out.
First, the chances of ANY progressive poloicies being enacted this side of 2030 (or longer) are gone. They just won’t happen. They would not be allowed to happen.
Second, Westminster will seek to grab control of more and more resources in Scotland. The “jaws of death” are a major motivation, right?
And third, we will be living inside Brexitland’s one-way street, where everything is expected to flow towards them (meaning in Scotland’s case, a centralised system in London).
And here’s where I will leave it, with a tale of two Erasmusses….as an emblem, a symbol, of two mutually incompatible futures that Scotland soon has to choose between.
On the one hand, one quarter of ALL MEPs, including MEPs from every single EU country (and – incidentally – from all parts of the political spectrum, from left, right and centre) recently signed a letter expressing their unity and support for Scotland to be made welcome back into Erasmus. And a key (but often overlooked) aspect of Erasmus is it is a two-way street.
It does not just give Scots kids the chance to experience life and cultures overseas (and, full disclosure, I enjoyed a life-changing and life-enhancing year in Catania Sicily in 1999/2000). Erasmus, with its two way street, also brings students from all over Europe, with their brightness and inquisitiveness and their joie de vivre, to towns and cities all over Scotland. In short, the two way street benefits the individuals who venture forth AND the wider recipient communities.
The rUK worldview seeks to replace Erasmus. They have already (unnecessarily) ripped you, or your kids and mine out of Erasmus. It’s gone. Like the Customs Union and Single Market, it’s already another tangible harm that London has brought, and that London doesn’t care about. Another mess that has been left to us (in Scotland) to clear up – or to not – in our impending referendum decisions.
But here’s the kicker, and the emblematic part (in my opinion)…the UK’s proposed replacement for Erasmus (Turing) is to be a one way street. It will try to benefit individual UK kids. But it will not have any opportunity for any “foreigners”. People from outwith the UK won’t be “coming over here”, under this scheme. And the worst part is – the people coming up with these ideas probably don’t even think of asking if they should have created a scheme with mutual benefits, wider benefits, some give as well as take, let along asking if there is any benefit our communities at home derive from the presence of talented folk from elsewhere living next door to us for a year (or more).
And that is the worldview we are currently stuck with: the one way street, ruling us, worried about the “jaws of death” and keen to keep a grip on Scotland’s natural resources. We need indy. Now.
The conclusion I reached? Next time anyone tries to argue that Scotland would be in a weak negotiation position, when it comes to negotiating indy from Westminster, show them the links in this article (Scotland produces enough wind energy to power two Scotlands; while England could run short of water within 25 years) and gently mention that we all want a deal, nobody wants to fall out here, but when all is said and done, “it’s the natural resources, stupid”… Sir James Bevan, and other experts who know their stuff down in England, may well suggest rUK dials down its rhetoric.