Through the looking glass

Brexit was never going to be good for food.

The EU, for all its faults, has been progressive on food safety and labelling, on safeguarding local food traditions, on environmental protection, on GM regulation and on animal welfare.

The Common Agricultural Policy has been stubbornly misdirected towards rewarding the ownership of land rather than the public goods which land can deliver. But it has been significantly reformed in the latest round; and will be improved further as the Farm to Fork policy gets into gear. The Common Fisheries Policy hasn’t solved the problem of equitable and sustainable management of a common resource: but simply declaring the UK an ‘independent coastal state’ doesn’t solve this either.

We could have used the four years since the referendum for reality orientation, for a respectful conversation about how to implement that decision with the least damage to the four nations of the UK, and least damage to the forty years of institution-building and co-operation with our nearest neighbours.

We could have used the four months since Covid-19 struck to press pause, to acknowledge that tackling the greatest economic crisis in our lifetime will only be made harder by a disorderly Brexit.

Yet, as next year marks the 150th anniversary of ‘Alice’s adventures through the looking-glass’, we are all being asked to believe (at least) six impossible things before breakfast:

  1. We will have the highest standards of animal welfare (though we have no policy on animal welfare in our trade negotiations with the US and we’ve voted against safeguarding animal welfare in the UK’s Agriculture Bill)
  2. We won’t have chlorinated chicken (not thanks to regulation, but rather through a market mechanism of putting a tariff on it to stop it being cheaper)
  3. We will take a bigger share of the fish around our coasts (and we won’t have to pay anything for this in the trade negotiations)
  4. We will cultivate an anti-immigration environment and policy (but the people we need to operate our farming, fishing and food industry will still come)
  5. We will be ready in the event of a no-deal Brexit (just like last time)
  6. It will be worth it in the end: we had jam yesterday and we’ll have jam tomorrow (so don’t complain about the lack of jam today)

Last week, the Scottish Government published a detailed analysis of the damage a no-deal Brexit would do in the context of Covid-19. Full of arguments, case studies and facts, it makes for a concerning read.

And it’s not just Scotland. Two-thirds of the UK public support an extension. Last week we joined the Human Rights Consortium and the Brexit Civil Society Alliance in a letter asking the Prime Minister to extent the transition period beyond 31st December 2020.

We need to step out of this looking glass world, where the people’s will is not the people’s will; and risking the security and prosperity of millions of people as we start recovering from Covid-19 is the core business of government.