Scottish farming stands united after referendum vote

If you count the No signs planted in fields the length and breath of Scotland as a yardstick of the industry’s support for independence, it would be fair to assume that the majority of Scottish farmers breathed a sigh of relief when the result came.

And while campaigners like Daye Tucker of Farming for Yes, saw their independence dream collapse overnight, they rapidly translated their deep disappointment into a determination to hold politicians to the promises they made in the anxious days before the vote.

That grassroots resolve which spread quickly across political divisions has gone a long way towards healing sometimes tense differences on either side of farm fences. It has meant that in the immediate aftermath of the hard-fought constitutional vote there is surprisingly little animosity among farmers who saw posters and signs ripped down and defaced by opposing sides. On the contrary, there’s a growing belief in farming circles that there’s now everything to play for.

Unique opportunity

Scottish agricultural leaders sense they have a unique opportunity to capitalise on political change and they are aware that the timescale is urgent. NFU Scotland (NFUS) says it is preparing for an exceptionally heavy workload this winter. Priorities have been identified, politicians targeted for lobbying and rapid resolution is being sought on urgent issues that were put on hold during the heat of the campaign.

On the broad political front, a benefit of the 18-month-long build up to the referendum has been a higher political profile for Scottish interests at Whitehall and greater accessibility for lobbying groups like NFUS.

NFUS chief executive Scott Walker says: “We want to see that continue now, and not suffer any slide back to business as usual.”

Union president Nigel Miller agrees. “We need to maintain good, open communication with Defra so the Scottish case is then well represented at European level. We do not want deals quietly brokered as happened in the past, but a transparent system so we do not return to the backwater.”

European representation

Better representation for Scotland in Europe was a key pillar of the Yes movement’s demands. It is also a top priority for NFUS. Mr Walker accepts there can only be one seat for each member state at the “top table” in Brussels, but he argues that it doesn’t always have to be occupied by a Defra minister.

“Defra shouldn’t be overly precious about who’s sitting there. And when it’s appropriate we should be allowing ministers from other parts of the UK to argue their position if there are details to be discussed that are of particular importance to their region,” he says.

“When one country’s issue is paramount, such as Scotland’s need to thrash out the details of coupled payments in the last CAP reform, that country should be in the hot seat. The English, Welsh and Irish weren’t interested in coupling so it would have made perfect sense for a Scottish minister to be discussing the detail because we are the country which ultimately has to implement it and make it work.”

Other matters the union believes could merit regional representation at the Council of Ministers include animal health and animal welfare. Farming for Yes, whose leaders are meeting this week to regroup and change their focus to achieving their aims through devolution, say they too will maintain the pressure for fairer representation in Europe.

The details of the sweeping constitutional change promised in the hours before last week’s vote are still hazy, but could bring huge rewards to Scottish farming.

The Scottish Tenant Farmers Association (STFA), for instance, is interested in the potential of devolved taxation powers.

Fiscal change

Against a backdrop of falling availability of tenanted land, STFA chairman Christopher Nicholson is optimistic fiscal change could encourage landowners to rent more farmland on a long-term basis.

“The tenanted sector could benefit from devolved fiscal powers to ensure that taxation policy does not hinder the letting of land,” he says.

NFUS points to the possibility that more devolution of transport policy might benefit Scottish farmers if rules on speed and weight limits could be altered to reflect the more sophisticated vehicles now used in agriculture. And they are also looking at the potential of devolution of employment law.

However, Mr Walker recognises that the three main political parties in England are still unclear over what powers they will eventually devolve to Scotland. “What we do know is that these powers will have an impact on Scottish agriculture,” he says. “We need to look very carefully at how they will be used and what flexibility there will be.”

The country’s food and drink industry is riding high with record exports, and political parties are united in seeing the potential for more growth and prosperity. Against that backdrop, industry lobbyists are focusing on gaining regional control of powers on issues that are of little consequence at UK level but highly significant to Scotland. There has never been a more favourable time, for instance, to call for the adoption of regional import rules that would give Scotch lamb entry to Canadian markets or see Scottish beef exported to Japan.

Practical issues

Meanwhile as the big issues are chewed over, grassroots farmers are desperate for decisions to be made on practical day-to-day matters that have been put on hold in recent weeks. Colin MacGregor, who farms 3,300ha on the border at Coldstream, accuses the Scottish National Party government of having been distracted from vital issues such as finalising the details of CAP greening measures.

Mr MacGregor says: “I feel that the Scottish government has let us down, they’ve taken their eye off the ball to concentrate on the referendum. We’re four months behind where English farmers are, and we’re planting crops without knowing if they’ll meet the rules that will be implemented next year.”

Mr MacGregor, who constructed a Better Together banner in his field on the edge of the Tweed, argues the default position for the Scottish government has always been to blame Westminster for problems. He says that now needs to change.

“I think the Scottish government needs to engage a bit harder with Westminster. Maybe that will happen in the future and we need to embrace that and just get on with it.”

So does NFUS agree that important decisions have been allowed to slip while the nation’s politicians have been preoccupied with the referendum?

“That depends on how polite I want to be,” Mr Walker says. “But now that the referendum is over, farmers are crying out for decisions to be made not just on greening, but on the detail of coupled payments for sheep and beef and for more facts on how the national reserve will work for new entrants and people who have built up businesses in the past few years.”

Scotland’s rural affairs secretary Richard Lochhead, who was a key player in the referendum campaign, has kept a low profile this week and was unavailable for an interview on how he saw the way forward for farming, post-referendum. In a statement, he said simply that it was “vitally important that agriculture benefits from the further devolution of powers promised by the UK government and others in the past few days.”

Other important industry decisions that have been put on hold for 18 months include funding for some of Scotland’s agricultural research institutes, the merging of SRUC and Edinburgh University and on the measures to be taken following the Scottish government’s review of veterinary surveillance.

And then there’s the bitterness over Defra’s handling of convergence funding that fuelled the fires at many referendum debates. Farming for Yes put a fairer deal on this issue at the very top of its agenda but NFU Scotland accepts that any reassessment of monies will have to wait until after the promised review in 2016.

“There’s only one way that review can go,” Mr Miller says. “Budgets will have to shift in favour of Scottish producers and it won’t be comfortable for other farmers to be on the losing side. It’ll be a tough one.”

Mr Miller is also sensitive to the concerns of farmers in the rest of the UK who are anxious about the effect of the new powers promised to Scotland.

“I have had several conversations with folk south of the border and although their initial reaction has been relief that we’re staying with the union, they are also a little wary of what more powers for Scotland will mean for them,” he said.

“Devolution to date has been asymmetric and Scotland has prised a lot out of Westminster, which means other countries are constitutionally disadvantaged. Unless that devolution spreads across the UK, it’s not going to be easy.”

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