Gloom as winter approaches

Malachy reflects on the speedy passing of summer and reveals how foot and mouth in Surrey has affect

The year is advancing with impetuous haste and a blatant disregard for those of us who are willing it to slow down.

Summer seems hardly to have begun and yet already the calendar shows August is largely gone. The hills are glowing purple with heather, the days are growing noticeably shorter, and the vegetables from the garden are now beginning to fill our plates.

The passing of time is something I have come to notice more since moving to Fair Isle. Each season has its jobs, each month its many tasks, and everywhere you look there are reminders of the year’s progress. Most of the silage fields are now cut and cleared of grass, with the last few soon to be done; and the lambs, now fat and heavy, are almost knocking their mothers over as they dive beneath them for milk. There is undoubtedly an autumnal feel to the days.

Traditionally, this was the beginning of the most important and joyous part of the crofting year. Crops would be harvested, vegetables gathered and animals killed, all ready for the coming winter. All the year’s work leads towards this climax.

Somehow though there is sadness too with the approach of autumn, and the knowledge of winter just around the corner. Summers here can be so short, and the dark, cold months seem unbearably long when viewed from ahead.

In part this may be because autumn no longer means as much as it once did; it is no longer vital to survival in the way it once was. Few crops are now grown here, and though many people do grow vegetables, their success is not crucial. Everything you need can be bought in the shop, so the pressure to succeed is not so great, and the joy and relief in doing so is likewise lessened.

Or perhaps it is just me, blinded by post-holiday gloom. Perhaps things will seem brighter again in a day or two. Once the rain stops.

There is a gloomy uncertainty though amongst crofters and farmers this year for another reason. The situation regarding livestock movements, following the outbreak of foot and mouth disease in Surrey, is a potentially critical one for anyone involved in agriculture.

Although Shetland, along with the other Scottish islands, was given early exemption from the ban on moving livestock (though this came too late for the main agricultural shows, which were forced to go ahead without animals) export of lamb and cattle is still prohibited.

This is of particular worry right now to Fair Isle crofters. Because shipping lambs from the island to mainland Shetland requires calm weather, ours are always among the first to be sold, after which they are usually shipped to Scotland to be fattened up before slaughter. If the export ban is still in place in a few weeks’ time, when our lambs should be going out to the market, it could potentially prove very difficult to get rid of them. No one is entirely sure what the solution will be, but even if the ban is lifted (which fortunately seems increasingly likely as each day passes) it is almost certain that the foot and mouth outbreak will push down the price of lamb once again this year. Given how little crofters earn from lamb already, this is exactly what they do not need.

The obsession in this country with making food as cheap as possible has been entirely at the expense of the independent food producers. Most people have no concept of the hard work that goes into rearing the meat that they eat. A situation like this can only serve to make things even harder.

Malachy Tallack is 26 and lives in Fair Isle. He is a singer-songwriter, journalist, and editor of the magazine Shetland Life.
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The three big mistakes the government has made in its Brexit talks

Nicola Sturgeon fears that the UK has no negotiating position at all. It's worse than she thinks. 

It’s fair to say that the first meeting of the government’s Brexit ministers and the leaders of the devolved legislatures did not go well.

Scotland’s Nicola Sturgeon told reporters outside that it had all been “deeply frustrating”, and that it was impossible for her to undermine the United Kingdom’s negotiating position as “I can’t undermine something that doesn’t exist, and at the moment it doesn’t seem to me like there is a UK negotiating strategy”.

To which cynical observers might say: she would, wouldn’t she? It’s in Sturgeon’s interest to paint the Westminster government as clueless and operating in a way that puts Scotland’s interests at risk. Maybe so, but Carwyn Jones, her Welsh opposite number, tends to strike a more conciliatory figure at these events – he’s praised both George Osborne and David Cameron in the past.

So it’s hard not to be alarmed at his statement to the press that there is still “huge uncertainty” about what the British government’s negotiating position. Even Arlene Foster, the first minister in Northern Ireland, whose party, the DUP, is seen as an increasingly reliable ally for the Conservative government, could only really volunteer that “we’re in a negotiation and we will be in a negotiation and it will be complex”.

All of which makes Jeremy Corbyn’s one-liner in the Commons today that the government is pursuing neither hard Brexit nor soft Brexit but “chaotic Brexit” ring true.

It all adds to a growing suspicion that the government’s negotiating strategy might be, as Jacqui Smith once quipped of Ed Miliband’s policy review, something of “a pregnant panda – it's been a very long time in the making and no one's quite sure if there's anything in there anyway”.

That’s not the case – but the reality is not much more comforting. The government has long believed, as Philip Hammond put when being grilled by the House of Lords on the issue:

"There's an intrinsic tension here between democratic accountability of the government and effective negotiation with a third party. Our paramount objective must be to get a good deal for Britain. I am afraid will not be achieved by spelling out our negotiating strategy."

That was echoed by Theresa May in response to Corbyn’s claim that the government has no plan for Brexit:

 “We have a plan, which is not to give out details of the negotiation as they are being negotiated”

Are Hammond and May right? Well, sort of. There is an innate tension between democratic accountability and a good deal, of course. The more is known about what the government’s red lines in negotiations, the higher the price they will have to pay to protect. That’s why, sensibly, Hammond, both as Foreign Secretary during the dying days of David Cameron’s government, and now as Chancellor, has attempted to head off public commitments about the shape of the Brexit deal.

But – and it’s a big but – the government has already shown a great deal of its hand. May made three big reveals about the government’s Brexit strategy it in her conference speech: firstly, she started the clock ticking on when Britain will definitely leave the European Union, by saying she will activate Article 50 no later than 31 March 2017. Secondly, she said that Brexit meant that Britain would control its own borders. And thirdly, she said that Brexit meant that Britain would no longer be subject to the judgements of the European Court of Justice.

The first reveal means that there is no chance that any of 27 remaining nations of the European Union will break ranks and begin informal talks before Article 50 is triggered.

The second reveal makes it clear that Britain will leave the single market, because none of the four freedoms – of goods, services, capital or people – can be negotiated away, not least because of the fear of political contagion within the EU27, as an exit deal which allowed the United Kingdom to maintain the three other freedoms while giving up the fourth would cause increased pressure from Eurosceptics in western Europe.

And the third reveal makes it equally clear that Britain will leave the customs union as there is no way you can be part of a union if you do not wish to accept its legal arbiter.

So the government has already revealed its big priorities and has therefore jacked up the price, meaning that the arguments about not revealing the government’s hand is not as strong as it ideally would be.

The other problem, though, is this: Theresa May’s Brexit objectives cannot be met without a hard Brexit, with the only question the scale of the initial shock. As I’ve written before, there is a sense that the government might be able to “pay to play”, ie, in exchange for continuing to send money to Brussels and to member states, the United Kingdom could maintain a decent standard of access to the single market.

My impression is that the mood in Brussels now makes this very tricky. The tone coming out of Conservative party conference has left goodwill in short supply, meaning that a “pay to play” deal is unlikely. But the other problem is that, by leaving so much of its objectives in the dark, Theresa May is not really laying the groundwork for a situation where she can return to Britain with an exit deal where Britain pays large sums to the European Union for a worse deal than the one it has now. (By the way, that is very much the best case scenario for what she might come back with.) Silence may make for good negotiations in Brussels – but in terms of the negotiation that may follow swiftly after in Westminster, it has entirely the opposite effect. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.