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How an early election makes Scottish independence more likely

Progressive unionists fear an early election will galvanise both sides of the referendum debate - and the independence campaigners are more likely to win. 

Before the Easter break, Scottish Labour activists were shuffling their leaflets for the local government elections, and hoping that they could somehow steer the conversation on the doorstep away from constitutional matters and onto the falling standards in education and the NHS. In this, they seemed to have an unlikely ally in Theresa May.

The British Prime Minister had quashed the immediate threat of a second independence referendum. When I met with pro-union campaigners shortly before Easter, there was a quiet hope that the prospect could be shelved until after the Brexit negotiations - in other words, the 2020s. Meanwhile, the Scottish public might have woken up to the fact the SNP-led Scottish government hadn't actually passed any legislation in a year.

Then the nightmare happened. The pro-union left returned from eating chocolate eggs to find May on the steps of Downing Street announcing an early election on 8 June 2017. 

“I think we would regard it as a good day if we at least hold onto one seat,” a Scottish Labour activist told me. That seat is Edinburgh South, held by Ian Murray, the sole survivor of the calamitous 2015 general election. It is viewed as a three-way marginal – Murray’s majority over his SNP rival was just 2,637 votes, and the Tories are also on the rise. 

If that wasn’t bad enough for Scottish Labour, the constitutional debate that sank it in 2015 is allowing both the SNP and Tories to thrive.

“Clearly we are starting from a tough place in Scotland,” said Duncan Hothersall, the editor of Labour Hame. “With the SNP and Tories already framing this as yet another nationalism versus unionism vote we will struggle to find the space to be heard.”

Labour, he says, must be “pro unity” and “reject nationalism in its Scottish and English varieties”. Other activists tell me it will ramp up its message of poor SNP governance. 

Labour’s brand of progressive unionism is being eclipsed by the tank-straddling Davidson. An Ipsos Mori poll found that 48 per cent of Scots think May is doing a good job, and 53 per cent approve of Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson, compared to 42 per cent for Scotland’s SNP First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, and 36 per cent for Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale. 

On the face of it, this means that an early election could be a boon for pro-unionists. The problem is that even while Davidson is widely admired by her opponents, she is seen as too divisive. Even before a second referendum was officially on the cards, the head strategist of Better Together told me "she is not a figure everyone would unite around". 

Where progressive unionists are optimistic, it is often for counterintuitive reasons. One suggested a larger Conservative majority could allow May to pursue a softer Brexit, which would placate Scottish voters. Another theory is that May could do Labour a favour by forcing Jeremy Corbyn's resignation and inadvertently reinvigorating Labour. If Davidson did an SNP and pulled off an unexpected landslide, or split the country down the middle, it would put paid to the SNP's claims to speak for Scotland. 

The SNP knows this. “Nicola Sturgeon and Ruth Davidson have nailed their colours to the mast,” a source close to the pro-union movement told me. “This is going to be a proxy for a referendum.” He added: “It is pretty hard to see how Nicola Sturgeon doesn’t win this.”

While pro-union sentiment is passionate, and widely held responsible for the Conservative surge, the SNP gains energy from fights with Westminster. It has consistently argued that it is the voice of Scotland’s Remain majority, a message that appears to resonate with voters. In the First Past the Post system, its candidates also benefit from the fact the pro-union vote is split between several parties. For all Davidson’s popularity, Labour activists on the ground expect the Tories to make a dent in the SNP’s majority, but not a devastating one (Davidson herself has reacted to the early election by saying she is optimistic about "increasing our number of seats". 

However, the pro-union campaigner feared an aggressive campaign by Davidson will be matched by a similarly polemical response from the SNP, and both will brush the scars of the 2014 referendum. “What happens the day after?” he wondered. He believed Scotland was a factor in May’s decision to call the early election, but not the decisive one. 

“Theresa May is thinking about 12 different fronts,” he warned. “It is pretty hard to see how Nicola Sturgeon just concentrating on this one thing doesn’t find a way to turn it to her advantage.”

Which SNP MPs could be under threat?

Name: Michelle Thomson 
Constituency: Edinburgh West
Majority in 2015: 3,210

Michelle Thomson is officially an independent MP, having withdrawn from the SNP whip over a police investigation into her property deals. The Liberal Democrats came second in 2015 and will find it hard to resist stirring up trouble for Thomson again. 

Name: Calum Kerr
Constituency: Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk
Majority in 2015: 5,901

Calum Kerr may have won his seat in the Scottish Borders by more than 5,000 votes, but the runner up was a Tory, John Lamont, who went on to win the Scottish Parliament seat in the same area a year later.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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A Fox among the chickens: why chlorinated poultry is about more than what's on your plate

The trade minister thinks we're obsessed with chicken, but it's emblematic of bigger Brexit challenges.

What do EU nationals and chlorinated chickens have in common? Both have involuntarily been co-opted as bargaining chips in Britain’s exit from the European Union. And while their chances of being welcomed across our borders rely on vastly different factors, both are currently being dangled over the heads of those charged with negotiating a Brexit deal.

So how is it that hundreds of thousands of pimpled, plucked carcasses are the more attractive option? More so than a Polish national looking to work hard, pay their taxes and enjoy a life in Britain while contributing to the domestic economy?

Put simply, let the chickens cross the Atlantic, and get a better trade deal with the US – a country currently "led" by a protectionist president who has pledged huge tariffs on numerous imports including steel and cars, both of which are key exports from Britain to the States. However, alongside chickens the US could include the tempting carrot of passporting rights, so at least bankers will be safe. Thank. Goodness. 

British farmers won’t be, however, and that is one of the greatest risks from a flood of "Frankenfoods" washing across the Atlantic. 

For many individuals, the idea of chlorinated chicken is hard to stomach. Why is it done? To help prevent the spread of bacteria such as salmonella and campylobacter. Does it work? From 2006-2013 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported an average of 15.2 cases of salmonella per 100,000 people in the US (0.015 per cent) – earlier figures showed 0.006 per cent of cases resulted in hospitalisation. In 2013, the EU reported the level at 20.4 cases per 100,000, but figures from the Food Standards Agency showed only 0.003 per cent of UK cases resulted in hospitalisation, half of the US proportion.

Opponents of the practice also argue that washing chickens in chlorine is a safety net for lower hygiene standards and poorer animal welfare earlier along the line, a catch-all cover-up to ensure cheaper production costs. This is strongly denied by governing bodies and farmers alike (and International Trade Secretary Liam Fox, who reignited the debate) but all in all, it paints an unpalatable picture for those unaccustomed to America’s "big ag" ways.

But for the British farmer, imports of chicken roughly one fifth cheaper than domestic products (coupled with potential tariffs on exports to the EU) will put further pressure on an industry already working to tight margins, in which many participants make more money from soon-to-be-extinct EU subsidies than from agricultural income.

So how can British farmers compete? While technically soon free of EU "red tape" when it comes to welfare, environmental and hygiene regulations, if British farmers want to continue exporting to the EU, they will likely have to continue to comply with its stringent codes of practice. Up to 90 per cent of British beef and lamb exports reportedly go to the EU, while the figure is 70 per cent for pork. 

British Poultry Council chief executive Richard Griffiths says that the UK poultry meat industry "stands committed to feeding the nation with nutritious food and any compromise on standards will not be tolerated", adding that it is a "matter of our reputation on the global stage.”

Brexiteer and former environment minister Andrea Leadsom has previously promised she would not lower animal welfare standards to secure new trade deals, but the present situation isn’t yet about moving forward, simply protecting what we already have.

One glimmer of hope may be the frozen food industry that, if exporting to the EU, would be unable to use imported US chicken in its products. This would ensure at least one market for British poultry farmers that wouldn't be at the mercy of depressed prices, resulting from a rushed trade deal cobbled together as an example of how well Britain can thrive outside the EU. 

An indication of quite how far outside the bloc some Brexiteers are aiming comes from Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson's current "charm" offensive in Australasia. While simultaneously managing to offend Glaswegians, BoJo reaffirmed trading links with the region. Exports to New Zealand are currently worth approximately £1.25bn, with motor vehicles topping the list. Making the return trip, lamb and wine are the biggest imports, so it’s unlikely a robust trade deal in the South Pacific is going to radically improve British farmers’ lives. The same is true of their neighbours – Australia’s imports from Britain are topped by machinery and transport equipment (59 per cent of the total) and manufactured goods (26 per cent). 

Clearly keeping those trade corridors open is important, but it is hard to believe Brexit will provide a much-needed boon for British agriculture through the creation of thus far blocked export channels. Australia and New Zealand don’t need our beef, dairy or poultry. We need theirs.

Long haul exports and imports themselves also pose a bigger, longer term threat to food security through their impact on the environment. While beef and dairy farming is a large contributor to greenhouse gases, good stock management can also help remove atmospheric carbon dioxide. Jet engines cannot, and Britain’s skies are already close to maximum occupancy, with careful planning required to ensure appropriate growth.

Read more: Stephen Bush on why the chlorine chicken row is only the beginning

The global food production genie is out of the bottle, it won’t go back in – nor should it. Global food security relies on diversity, and countries working and trading together. But this needs to be balanced with sustainability – both in terms of supply and the environment. We will never return to the days of all local produce and allotments, but there is a happy medium between freeganism and shipping food produce halfway around the world to prove a point to Michel Barnier. 

If shoppers want a dragon fruit, it will have to be flown in. If they want a chicken, it can be produced down the road. If they want a chlorinated chicken – well, who does?