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Farming Matters: “Who Speaks for Scotland ?”

Since it’s Friday, here’s a daft wee story that also happens to be true.

Long before the age of the internet and social media, people wrote to each other. If you wanted to write to the newspapers, you sent your letter by mail.

Years ago, a Scottish tabloid newspaper ran a competition where the first correct answer won £50, or whatever.

“Who”, it asked, “won the Eurovision Song Contest in 1969?”

Readers were then helpfully advised:

“Please put your answer on a postcard and send it to: Lulu Competition, The Sunday Post, Dundee”.

It was, I suppose the ultimate “spoiler”. What follows may be something the same.

I’m coming up to Orkney next week. It’ll be a busy week and I’ll doing all my usual stuff. I’ll be at the grazing cattle show and sale on Monday, and getting onto farms on Mainland and the north isles. Despite the lack of grass, I’ll be talking silage and thinking about rations for the coming winter. With the longer days, I might even bring my clubs.

But what makes this trip different is that I’ve been asked to speak to the local Yes group about some of the issues currently affecting the industry, issues that I’ve been writing about in this column. So if you’re reading this, you may get a feeling of deja vu if you come to Dounby on Tuesday.

view from the office (A Ross)

View from my office (A Ross)

We’ve had a great spring down here in Wigtownshire. Winter crops are well through the ground and looking well, with no hint of stress. Spring sowing is well up to date, the cows are out, slurry tanks and lagoons have been emptied without making a mark on the ground, and grass is growing. Most folk have enjoyed successful lambings and calving is going well. In a couple of weeks – I kid you not – people will be cutting silage. We even avoided the snow.

I related all this to a friend on Sanday last week. Perhaps I shouldn’t have.

“Did you call for a reason, Alec”, he asked, “or are you just ‘phoning for a gloat?”

Suitably chastened, I reflected that Scotland has never – meteorologically, politically, economically, or culturally – been homogenous. And yet that doesn’t stop people talking about it as if it is.

for readers in Sanday this is grass (A Ross)

For readers in Sanday ‘this is grass’ (A.Ross)

I’ve a chart which I’ll share with you next week. It shows clearly the 85% of Scotland which is designated Less Favoured Area, but also the 15% which variously produces cereals, pigs, milk, cattle, sheep and poultry. In colour-coded format, it couldn’t be more obvious. Scottish farming is a rainbow nation writ large, and it has an agricultural policy that broadly reflects that. A UK-wide approach – whatever on earth that is – post Brexit cannot possibly deliver for Scotland’s farmers and growers.

Scottish farming is a very different animal. There are currently 20,000 or so farms and crofts and the industry supports 340,000 jobs both directly and indirectly. We are three and a half times more likely to work in agriculture than our friends across the border. In GDP terms, our food and drink is six times more important to the economy than it is to the rest of the UK. Indeed, the industry is worth £15bn to the Scottish economy, and the Scottish Government has plans to double this by 2030.

To achieve this, maintaining the Scottish brand is critical. And yet, worryingly, the UK did not demand Protected Geographical Indication status (PGI) during the recent Canada European Trade Agreement talks. This matters, because it jeopardises the premium status of Scotch beef, lamb and pork, products like Stornaway Black Pudding and – in these parts – Orkney beremeal.

Other factors demand a differentiated approach. We have 9% of the population, but 25% of the UK’s breeding stock is in Scotland. More strikingly, 85% of Scotland is designated Less Favourable Area (LFA). In England it’s 15% – precisely the opposite. That imbalance is reflected in the higher level of overall EU subsidy (16%) that Scotland receives from the EU. Post-Brexit, the best case scenario is that the Barnett formula halves that amount. And, given that for ten years Tory policy has been to reduce Pillar One payments to zero, the endgame is the removal of direct support. In such an environment, I don’t fancy our chances.

sheep (A Ross)

Dutch Masters – Zwartble ewe and lambs at Auchenree Farm, Portpatrick. (A Ross)

Current Scottish farming policy has evolved to suit our specific circumstances. It’s why, for example, the Scottish minister for rural affairs holds a senior cabinet position that reflects the importance of farming to the Scotland’s wellbeing, and explains why his Westminster equivalent hasn’t had cabinet status for at least a generation. That one fact alone demonstrates the need for a Scotland specific rural policy, whether in or out of the European Union.

There’s a worrying sentiment that I’m hearing a lot on farms these days.

“Ach”, folk say, “Brexit has happened and we just have to get on with it”.

Well, no it hasn’t and no you don’t.

In this Westminster government, and with this Prime Minister, we have an administration that, when offered compromise, rejects it and runs faster towards the hard-Brexit cliff edge. That questions the mandate of Scotland to decide its own future and tells us to respect the result a 2014 referendum who’s central pillar was continuing membership of the EU, while ripping up the 2011 fixed term parliament act in an act of breathtaking political opportunism. A government whose default position when even mildly challenged is to call reasonable people saboteurs, to refuse to debate, to retreat into secrecy and blatant abuse of power.

What are the chances, do you suppose, of winning a good deal for Scotland under these circumstances – particularly when powers from Brussels will not be repatriated to Holyrood and future funding will depend on how much money – if any – Andrea Leadsom manages to beg from the treasury, and how much she’s prepared to give a part of the UK where nobody votes Conservative and where the mainstream media narrative is that we’re subsidy junkies anyway? How much consultation do you suppose there will be when they’ve already ripped up the Sewell agreement and when the Supreme Court Article 50 judgement has rendered us a legal irrelevance? We’ll be left, once more, with the crumbs from the table.

But we’re lucky. We have a choice. We’re clearly going to get no change whatsoever out of the most ideologically driven, xenophobic, intellectually pessimistic political ruling class in British political history. That, for me, simplifies things.

Westminster has shown itself incapable of rational discussion, respect or anything other than naked self-interest. In terms of framing the future of Scottish farming, they are not only unfit for purpose but present an existential threat the industry and Scotland as a whole.

For all of its faults, some real and many more imagined, Europe is watching us closely. A body built on respect for self-determination and the right to democracy will be witnessing a sovereign nation being denied its inalienable rights to these things at every turn. It won’t like what it sees. As the Brexit omnishambles stumbles along, build on that, and on the deserved goodwill and common purpose between us and our fellow EU nations.

So my advice is that we ignore Westminster and sort it out for ourselves. We must spend the next eighteen months deciding what our industry will look like. The discussion must involve every person in Scotland representing every viewpoint and every group, for this is far too important an issue to be left to politicians. Let’s come up with a plan and then decide who is best placed to deliver it. Given what we already know, that won’t be a difficult decision to make.

Three years ago the question was Yes or No. I believe that the questions are, now, even more clearly defined. Who do we trust to deliver the type of policies that will safeguard our industry, value those within it and allow it to thrive for generations to come? In other words – “who speaks for Scotland?”

Scotland has always seen itself as a clear-thinking, progressive, fair, socially just, inclusive society. The weeks and months ahead provide an opportunity to demonstrate that to the avidly watching billions. Let’s not disappoint them.

Scotland has never been scared, in farming and beyond, to lead the world. A small country used to regularly astonish the world. The time to do so again is long overdue.

If we’re to thrive, we need to think large. And to think for ourselves.

Starting, of course, in Dounby.

I’ll see you Tuesday.

scottish farming yes orkney meeting

Scottish Farming Yes Orkney meeting with Alec Ross. Milestone Church, Dounby, 2nd May, 7.30pm


Alec Ross is a regular columnist with The Orkney News and every Friday writes a Farming Matters column

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