It is a badge of shame really.
Since turfing Ian Lang out with all the other Tories in 1997, Dumfries and Galloway and the two parliamentary seats that make up (just about, with a stretch and a tug here and there) the local authority area have bucked the national trend. One of only two regions to vote No to tax-varying powers in the devolution referendum, it has also turned Dumfries red and then blue again at different elections, while the Galloway bit slipped from yellow to blue in both.
I dread the election announcement from my neck of the woods; even in this year’s historic election, Alex Fergusson hung on by 500 votes.
Nope we’re not known for following the prevailing political winds in Dumfries and Galloway, and it was ever thus. For some reason, folk where I come from seem to like the Conservatives and what they stand for. They’re also a bit partial to the odd Liberal Democrat at local level, though that has never translated into parliamentary support. It’s odd and I’m sure there’s a PHd dissertation in it for some enterprising politics student.
Well, here’s something that might just make them all change their minds.
Last week, the Conservative Liberal Democrat Government passed a bill that will effectively abolish the Agricultural Wages Board for England and Wales. An important cornerstone of the welfare state, it was brought into being to address poverty and low-income in rural communities, acknowledging that farm work was dangerous, dirty, with long hours and at the time, low paid. It was also deemed necessary to keep folk on the land, in post war Britain, to keep producing scarce foodstuffs for a population that would still face rationing for a number of years.
Now, the ConDems have decreed it is a bureaucracy no longer needed. The free market shall reign untrammelled, their rich landlord pals will get richer and the poor can be damned. It will result in young people leaving rural communities even faster than they do now and increase our food import dependency, at a time when to be greener, we should be producing more of our own and seeking food security. In a neat twist, they have completed Thatcher’s legacy for her. She began the erosion of minimum wages boards but even she baulked at removing pay protection for agricultural workers.
For rural communities in south of Scotland that have been a trifle sniffy about the benefits of devolution, now is the time to be thankful. Because Scotland got its own agricultural wages board and legislation in 1949, and since rural affairs are a devolved issue, Scotland is untouched. Our board survives – despite an attempt by the Labour-Lib Dem Scottish Executive to abolish it in 2005. Wages and conditions are still set for our rural workers: at the start of October, pay rises of 2.5% were announced, against the grain, and even the dog allowance went up.
Unlike the ConDems, the SNP values the role not only of the Scottish Agricultural Wages Board, but also the role farm workers in their all their guises play in keeping our rural communities thriving. Only this week, statistics revealed that farms are still the most dangerous workplace in Scotland. People who work on them know this only too well. It’s still dirty and dangerous work, manual labour at its hardest, with long and punishing hours. Eighteen hour days are not unknown at harvest time. Yet, it is also vital, for all of us who live in cities and take for granted the ready availability of fruit and vegetables, dairy products and quality meat.
The trend is definitely local – I go out of my way to purchase organic dairy products, knowing that the raw commodities often come from Galloway. I also buy meat from my local butcher who has a map on the wall showing the farm provenance of all that he sells. And I seek out Scottish berries and vegetables whenever possible. I do it, from a sense of patriotic duty, to keep folk working and earning in communities where alternative employment is often hard to find.
But I also do it to demonstrate solidarity with those still at home. Who choose, or cannot not choose, to live and work on farms, acknowledging that rural Scotland must not, cannot be allowed to be treated as a playground for urban Scots. And that the habitat we like to enjoy is essentially manmade one, which needs folk living and working on it to remain accessible to we central-belters.
And I do so, fully aware unlike the Tories, that the Agricultural Wages Board is as relevant today as it was back when it was formed. The need for it has not diminished, indeed, is arguably greater, to protect in particular, seasonal and transitory workers. I know that every time I buy Scottish produce, the people who contributed to its creation, are at least decently paid. That matters to my conscience, but apparently not to ConDem politicians.
Gallovidians have many friends and family in rural England and Wales. We should lament the impact of the loss of the Agricultural Wages Board on their lives. But at the same time, be thankful that we do, in fact, live in another country. One with distinct values, with a Government which does things differently and which will defend all of our traditions and invest in all of our people and resources.
And it’s time all Gallovidians woke up to that and used their votes accordingly.
(For my Pops, and all his pals who read this blog, including the ones who do so, apparently, on “verandahs in Egypt”)