The battle over continued EU membership, the threat of losing sterling and the best chance of winning back Scotland’s convergence money were the flashpoints at NFU Scotland’s independence debate at Stirling Auction Mart.
It was standing-room only at the meeting on Monday night (17 March) as opposing teams of high-profile speakers focused the debate on the wallets of the ringside audience of farmers, processors, auctioneers, land agents, vets and crofters, rather than their hearts and minds.
Four hundred people turned out to hear the two sides of the argument, but while there were plenty of assurances and promises, there were few guarantees and no consensus.
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Rural affairs minister Richard Lochhead argued it was “shameful” that Scotland had lost out on European convergence money and insisted that if it had been an independent member state during the negotiations, it would have been able to inject the disputed £850m straight into Scottish agriculture.
“Convergence will continue post-2020,” he added. “So you have a choice. You can vote yes and we’ll be able to influence the formula. Or you can stay in the UK and have a review.”
Scottish secretary Alastair Carmichael conceded there had been dismay over the UK Government’s decision on convergence and offered hope from the review promised by the UK Government. MEP George Lyon agreed it would be a tough negotiation but rejected the Scottish National Party’s claim that once they joined the EU they would automatically get the uplift.
Mr Lyon, an MEP since 2007, highlighted the protracted negotiations Scotland would face over European entry and the clear signals from Westminster that sterling wouldn’t be available to an independent Scotland. However, deputy first minister Nicola Sturgeon and Mr Lochhead dismissed the concerns and turned the argument on its head.
Ms Sturgeon said: “Only independence will secure the farm funding from the EU that is so important to rural communities the length and breadth of Scotland.”
“CAP payments, which plough about £450m into Scotland’s rural economy every year, will only continue if Scotland is independent and we become an equal member state of the EU with a seat at the top table.”
Other issues raised by the audience included the future for renewables, funding for research, and the market for prestige Scotch beef.
Richard Lochhead promised an independent country would set up a Scottish Levy Agency so that the £2m/year of levy money that was currently “leaked” to England would stay in Scotland. However, when Mr Lyon challenged him to explain the mechanics of collecting such a levy, Mr Lochhead couldn’t offer a practical scheme.
Farmer Jim Fairlie conceded that independence wouldn’t solve all farming’s problems overnight. “But if there’s an issue, we can always pick up the phone to the Scottish Government. Try getting hold of Owen Paterson for a discussion. Our own Cabinet secretary can’t do that so what hope do we have?”
No vote was taken after the debate, which lasted almost three hours, but applause for the pro-independence speakers indicated this gathering was much more supportive than those at previous farming debates and possibly higher than for the Better Together team.