Friday Farming Focus: a regular column about current issues in our Agriculture Industry
Cards on the table time
I’ve always wanted Scotland to be an independent country. I travelled round Scotland in 2013 and 2014, speaking in cold village halls, trying to persuade people to support Scottish self-determination.
I remember taking part in a debate in Castle Douglas Mart, when George Lyon guaranteed that a No vote would keep Scotland in the EU.
I also attended a debate in Stirling Mart when the then Secretary of State for Scotland – Alastair Carmichael – guaranteed three times that there would be no EU referendum.
Shortly afterwards, I took part in a Radio Scotland debate, during which I predicted a EU referendum in 2017. The only thing I got wrong was the year.
Brexit & Orkney Farming
For Orkney farmers and those Scottish farmers firth of here, Brexit presents an existential threat. These are deeply worrying times. Between basic EU payments, Less Favoured Area monies (LFASS) and the Scottish Government funded Beef Calf Scheme, £20m went directly to Orkney last year, a figure that doesn’t include environmental monies, Leader payments and crofters’ grants.
Neither does it include Orkney’s share of the 2014 convergence uplift monies, cash that was earmarked for Scotland but never made it out of London.
There were promises pre-Brexit vote that powers over agriculture would be repatriated to Holyrood. Those promises have now been shelved.
The new NFUS president now admits that any sort of funding post 2020 cannot be guaranteed. For ten years now, and long before the Brexit vote, UK policy has been to reduce Pillar One (direct payments) to zero. A hard Brexit makes that nearly inevitable.
The way I see it, there are four main consequences for Orkney. I don’t like the look of any of them.
Firstly, you don’t need to be a Nobel Prize winning economist to work out that removing £500m from the Scottish rural economy would be catastrophic.
Secondly, we’ll see tariffs on our exports. This could, for example, put the price of lamb up by around 69%, pricing us out of the market.
Thirdly, the idea that we’re going to get tariff-free access after a hard Brexit is an utter fantasy. And, if we end up operating under World Trade Organisation rules, we won’t be permitted to make payments or subsidies to our producers.
Finally, a hard Brexit means a flood of unregulated imports to our shores, goods produced in countries that do not adhere to the same rigorous level of protection as EU members. In every sense, then, we end up poorer.
So is there any good news?
Actually, there is. By forcing us to confront the likely consequences of a hard Brexit, we now have an opportunity to have an honest discussion about our priorities as an industry. That discussion must include every single person in Scotland.
Let’s take the next two years to re-think everything from land use to the supply chain, to re-invent our payment system into something based on the civic good, the environment and economic regeneration. I don’t doubt that there will be robust debate. That’s a good thing. It shows we care about our industry.
I meet talented and forward thinking people in Scottish farming every day. That we’re capable of producing a blueprint that reflects the specific needs of our industry isn’t up for question. But what is up for grabs is this: who do we trust to deliver this?
Who speaks for Scotland?
The Prime Minister’s speech in Glasgow last week confirmed what many in my industry had feared. Westminster is taking us down a hard-Brexit route that takes no account of the very different needs of Scottish farming and repatriates no powers over agriculture to Scotland whatsoever. As an industry we need to ask if we’re ok with this.
If we’re fine with not having a voice, a non-permanent parliament, with not mattering. If we’re ok with being constitutionally and legally irrelevant. Which makes us barely a country at all. Or, perhaps, this. Are there any circumstance in which we would consider independence an option if the relevant facts are presented, or must we in all circumstances stick with the UK even to our own impoverishment?
We have two years. Two years to decide what all of us, Yes and No, Leave and Remain, want our farming future to look like, in Orkney and beyond. We can leave that to an unelected government that couldn’t give a damn about us and, legally, doesn’t have to. Or we could do it ourselves.
Time for Scotland to think large. And to think for itself. When the question of Scotland’s right to self-determination is asked again – and it will – it will not be about currency, or oil, or pensions, or even EU membership. It will be about something that goes beyond politics. It will be about our pride and our self-respect. Let’s never lose that.
Fool me once? Shame on you. Fool me twice? Shame on me.