I DON’T have much connection to the Scottish fishing industry, but I do have this.

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My late ex-father-in-law, Jim McAlpine – a quiet but fiercely proud father of three fiercely unquiet daughters – was a seaman engineer. Firstly in the Merchant Navy, then on the Greenock shipyards and, in his final years, on his own wee boat, moored at a marina on the Firth of Clyde.

The highlight of every Christmas was when Jim was just smeeked enough to start clearing his throat, signalling the arrival of his party piece: Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger’s (pictured below) Shoals of Herring. I won’t quote all the verses, just the few I can remember him singing, in his steady, surprisingly light voice:

O the work was hard and the hours long
And the treatment, sure it took some bearing
There was little kindness and the kicks were many
As we hunted for the shoals of herring
... Now you’re up on deck, you’re a fisherman
You can swear and show a manly bearing
Take your turn on watch with the other fellows
While you’re searching for the shoals of herring
... O I earned my keep and I paid my way
And I earned the gear that I was wearing
Sailed a million miles, caught
10 million fishes
We were sailing after shoals of herring

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Whenever I find myself coiling up in fury at representatives of the Scottish fishing industry – for their political conservatism, for their sectoral narrow-mindedness, for them consistently choosing the wrong nation to be loyal to – I hear the strains of Jim’s air in my head, and slowly unclench.

These are not quite our current headlines, of course. We are presently hunting for the scalp of our most hapless ever Secretary of State for Scotland, whose own red line on exempting Scottish fishing waters from the quotas and access rules of EU regulation has been shamelessly self-erased. These are the dog days of UK power; his overdue removal may come from election rather than resignation. But that’s not what fascinates me about the bit-part the 4823 fishermen and the 2031 vessels of the Scottish fishing industry plays in our current, and recent national dramas.

READ MORE: Tory MP admits his government just sold out Scotland’s fishermen

The MacColl lines above hint at the underpinning behind their thrawnness. Self-reliant independence for a country may be one thing. Facing the elements, captain and crew all on the line, wresting silver darlings out of seas that treat your craft like a bobbing cork, is quite another. Come back from that tour of duty, and it is at least understandable that you’d want any “common fisheries policy” (European or otherwise) to maximise your return, for such existence-testing labours.

In the course of my reading, I have found some powerful research by the University of the West of Scotland’s Craig McAngus. Just before the 2016 Brexit vote, he carefully measured the demographics and political perspectives of Scottish skippers in the industry, noting from the start a few shaping factors in a fisherman’s worldview. First would be that because the work is “dangerous and gruelling”, and that becoming a “good fisherman” is largely about practice and experience, not qualification and scholarship. The skills are often handed down through families, fathers to sons (although the latter are increasingly turning away from the call). Second would be the strong gender division. Fishing families are split between men on the seas, and their wives holding families, communities and businesses together on shore.

The National:

Scottish fishermen off the east coast

And thirdly, there is a long tradition of commercial self-reliance among fishermen. Their economic fate is tied to their vessels, and a sense of individualism helps them drive out into the forces of nature to make their catch. (McAngus did a values study among his sample of skippers, and found a strong identification with libertarian positions, significantly to the right of the Scottish mainstream). As MacColl sang: they earn the gear that they are wearing.

THIS robust, small-trader sensibility explains why such a hard-labouring industry largely lends its vote to the Conservatives, with dalliances with the LibDems and the SNP, and Labour never in sight. Its resounding Leave vote in the Brexit referendum, and equally robust Conservative vote in the 2016 snap election, was based on the prospect that being liberated from European regulations can maximise their sectors’ brawny (and briny) enterprise.

Yet there’s one consistently duff note here, even as the SNP gleefully point out cross-generational Tory “sell-outs” of Scottish fishing. Isn’t fishing always a potential “tragedy of the commons”, as Garrett Hardin once put it? Where too much individual (or national) self-interest exhausts the ability of a shared natural resource to replenish itself? Established in 1970, the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) was partly intended to ward against this self-destructiveness, and was itself based on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea in the 1960s.

Of course, the other element of the CFP is the ruthless national horse-trading in the corridors of Brussels and Strasbourg as to national quotas and incursions. As McAngus notes in his paper, for all their Brexit zeal, few working communities are as literate in the shenanigans of Eurocrats as Scottish fishermen. The prospect of having Scotland as a member state in those discussions is the ledge that the SNP have proclaimed from, in order to make their electoral gains in fishing areas.

Another piece of research by McAngus compares a post-Brexit UK fishing industry to Norway, Iceland and the Faroe Islands. All three are “independent coastal states” (the phrase of the moment) sitting beyond the EU. Each of them seems to be handling the balance between fishing industry, environmental science and administration pretty well.

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Norway, as in much else, seems exemplary. Each year there is what’s called a “regulatory chain”. As McAngus and colleagues write, “this allows industry representatives, together with local authorities and environmental interests, to meet to discuss scientific evidence and feed into the annual regulatory cycle. It also fosters trust and understanding between the various parties”. Norwegian stocks have been steadily strengthening under this system over the last decade. As indeed have EU-managed fish stocks, particularly cod. Indeed, all three of these “independent coastal states” manage without too much drama to negotiate shared standards and access with the supposed European behemoth.

We live in a post-IPCC-report world, where we’re told that 40% of sea-life has been wiped out by factory fishing. Surely a Scottish fishing sector can raise its eyes from the catch on the deck, and think about the planet beyond the immediate sea? And a final contrarian point: the sovereign fisherman of MacColl’s romantic lyric may himself stand under oligarchs. A Greenpeace report on the “codfathers” of the UK fishing industry revealed that, in Scotland, “companies wholly or partly owned by five major families hold close to half (45%) of all the Scottish fishing quota”.

The National:

Prawn fishermen working off the west coast of Scotland

Constitutional progress in Scotland has unleashed many serious discussions about the sometimes startling material bounty of Scotland, whether it’s renewables, land, or our vast and troubling reserves of petrocarbons. Independence is minimally required for this community to begin to act on these discussions. And it would be good to put our fisheries on such a first-principles list of post-indy Scottish reform and renewal.

When I remember Jim McAlpine’s Christmas turn, I hear it celebrating resilience, skilfulness, bravery: human characteristics that you’d want to be driving a new Scotland. The MacColl song is a lovely memory for me. But it maybe also illuminates a progressive future for the rest of us.