On a recent visit to the National Mining Museum in Newtongrange, I was taken slightly aback by the questions from young adults who knew nothing at all about Thatcher’s destruction of the coal mining industry or its motives. It is hard to realise that for an 18 year old today the miners’ strike is as chronologically distant an event as Dunkirk was to me.
My whole adult life has been defined by the changes initiated by Thatcher and continued by Tories and New Labour. It is hard to remember now the world where your employer could not, by law, sack you just because they wanted to, and where you could get state protection from rapacious landlords charging unfair rents. The destruction of heavy industry in order to destroy the strength of organised labour, and the privatisation of the monopoly utilities for the profit of the rich, was a transformation that is at the root of the mass misery we live amongst today.
There was one small and forgotten part of Thatcher’s attack on traditional working class lifestyle that you probably had to be in Dundee to remember. The war on berry pickers. The soft fruit of the Carse of Gowrie and the Tay Valley is an important part of the Scottish economy. There is currently much concern as to how, post-Brexit, labour is to be found to pick the fruit. Government proposals to issue visas for the purpose are an order of magnitude below what is needed, and local labour remains difficult to attract.
It did not used to be difficult, until around 1980 the Tories launched an extraordinary campaign to drive pickers out of the fields. Berry pickers, they decided, were an unacceptable part of the informal economy and were not declaring their income on benefits claims. Suddenly teams of besuited benefits inspectors started appearing among the raspberry canes demanding social security numbers. People signing on for the broo had to produce their hands for inspection for berry stains. There was a campaign in the rabidly Tory Courier newspaper which even alleged that Tayside berry pickers were a major source of funding to the IRA!
So people stopped going to pick berries. Who would give up their unemployment benefit for a few weeks back-breaking seasonal work, with all the delays and rigours of signing back on again?
Which suggests to me a possible solution to the problem. British people should be able to do up to three months seasonal agricultural work without any requirement to declare the income for either tax or benefit purposes. This would make the financial incentive sufficient to get people into the fields, would protect the economic benefit of the crops to the economy, and would be benefit neutral (the benefits are already being paid) and more or less tax neutral (the large majority who can do this would be nowhere near reaching the income tax threshold anyway).
I am not sure whether the Scottish government’s tax and benefit powers suffice to introduce this in Scotland alone, but it should be considered as a possible way forward throughout the UK.