Scottish independence referendum

Whitehall breathed a sigh of relief at the Scottish referendum result. Panicking at the prospect of losing, the big parties called out sections of the food industry to stop this small island breaking itself up. Like the Queen, food magnates were wary of going public, privately agreeing. Don’t alienate the shopper on whom the fragile ‘recovery’ depends.

“Across the West, work is fragile, wages stagnant, disaffection rife”

The referendum highlighted issues that will now infuse UK and food politics. The first issue is alienation. In the late 1980s and 90s, I was shocked at food poverty in Glasgow estates. Joblessness grew; manufacturing disappeared. Across the West, work is fragile, wages stagnant, living costs squeezed, disaffection rife. Low-paid food work symbolises this new employment reality. Turning disaffection into hope is why the SNP nearly upset the UK applecart. That potential exists across England, too. But England is itself divided.

The English problem is the regions. The UK economy is dominated by London - vibrant, growing, and full of casual work; but the regions are different. New Labour botched the chance to give regions more power in 2004, but created Regional Development Agencies, which the coalition then wiped out. Voices already call for something better. Again, food epitomises this picture. A few weak marketing bodies offering notional ‘local’ identity are no substitute for food democracy. The vibrant Sustainable Food Cities network is already articulating the desire for power to be devolved down more. It’s a multi-level world now, not just England.

Then there’s the issue of independence itself. What is food independence? Scotland doesn’t feed itself. It exports alcohol, meat & dairy, soft drinks, biscuits; treats but hardly life fundamentals. Its income and health inequalities are massive, like England. Nor does the UK feed itself. We waste food and land. Food workers are poorly paid. We rely on others to feed us even in foods we could grow here.

Scotland sparked overdue debate. The entire food system is fragile, needing redirection. The debate about self-reliance, independence and democracy is complex, but don’t let’s squander it with false, if understandable, dreams.

Tim Lang is professor of food policy at City University, London