With every passing week, finding ways to write a column about matters parliamentary that avoids getting mired in the latest twists and turns of the tragic Brexit soap opera is proving ever more tricky. The task is made no easier, dear reader, by the prospect of Theresa May suffering an almost inevitable and humiliating rejection of her Brexit deal in a House of Commons vote next week.
Normally, I can rely on getting home to Orkney at the end of a week to help me shake off whatever has been obsessing the ‘Holyrood bubble’. Yet, when it comes to Brexit, there is no escape, it seems. Either constituents are raising the issue with me because they fear it would be impolite not to, or they are genuinely intrigued, confused, appalled (delete as appropriate) by what is going on.
Whatever the reason, few encounters at present do not see the discussion start or turn eventually to the topic of what Brexit might mean in practice or what the most likely outcome is. For the record, I have long given up making any confident predictions, though I fervently hope that the momentum behind calls for a People’s Vote continues to grow.
Meantime, by way of illustration, let me offer a few examples of the sort of discussions I have had with constituents in recent days. This is representative of nothing more than what has been in my diary over the past week. At the same time, it is by no means untypical.
Firstly, at a catch up session on Friday with the local NFUS branch, amidst concerns about the tendering of ferry contracts, management of geese and loss of abattoirs, Brexit inevitably raised its head. With each passing month, the continued uncertainty about future support payments, regulation and access to markets is increasingly preying on the minds of those in the farming community.
The following day, Alistair Carmichael and I visited a couple of local businesses in Stromness and Kirkwall as part of Small Business Saturday, an initiative aimed at highlighting the importance of small businesses to our economy. In Orkney, this is what constitutes a ‘no brainer’.
Those we met talked encouragingly about their plans to develop or expand operations, adapting to changing trends and targeting new markets. The conversations roamed widely from the very local to the undoubtedly global. In both cases, however, Brexit was viewed as an unwelcome risk, whether in terms of the impact on future tourist numbers or its effect in inflating the cost of raw materials. Even if not the dominatant concern for either business, neither could detect an obvious upside to leaving the EU.
So to the start of this week, and a meeting with a Polish constituent for whom Brexit is unquestionably the dominant concern. Like many EU nationals in the UK at present, she expressed genuine fears about what the future holds for her and her family. This is someone who has lived in Orkney for years, made a significant contribution to the local community and deserves so much more than to be told by her Prime Minister last month that she has somehow ‘jumped the queue’. The atmosphere created by this type of ‘dog whistle’ rhetoric is unhealthy, layering unnecessary alarm on top of an already anxious lack of certainty. In short, it is inexcusable.
Finally, during a chat with pupils in one of the local primary schools, I spoke of my experience living and working abroad, and how much this had benefited me. In turn, it was wonderful to hear them talk about the places they had already visited and their obvious appetite to explore more of the world. Brexit, of course, won’t stop them doing this, but nor will it make it any easier. Indeed, given their particular enthusiasm for Disneyland Paris, I didn’t have the heart to tell them that future trips to see Mickey & Co may be a little more problematic in future.
As I say, these encounters are only straws in the wind. Yet they help illustrate the pervasive effects of Brexit and why a way must be found to enable the public to have a final say on what happens next.