Brian Henderson: Common cause in search of common ground

Jonnie Hall's secondment to the Scottish Government has been welcomed by the industry. Picture: Contributed
Jonnie Hall's secondment to the Scottish Government has been welcomed by the industry. Picture: Contributed
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Claims that the Brexit and subsequent trade deal negotiations might take as long as ten years to complete were poo-pooed by the UK government at the end of last week.

However, I suspect that the farming sector – with its greater experience of EU’s glacial pace of change – might be considerably less dismissive of this sort of time-scale.

Jonnie Hall’s secondment placing to help the Scottish Government was roundly welcomed by the industry

Brian Henderson

And there’s no getting away from the fact that the UK is a bit short of experienced negotiators to get us the sort of deal we need. Someone described the members of the EU’s negotiating team as being akin to a high-tech jet fighter – full of the latest electronic gadgetry and bristling with warheads, while having the sort of ground support which would put a Nasa space station launch to shame.

The UK’s negotiators, on the other hand, were likened to a man with a spoon – for Britain hasn’t had to negotiate in this sphere at international level since 1973 as the vast majority of our trade deals have been carried out directly by Brussels.

And, having had agricultural policy decided by Europe for over 40 years too, it would probably be fair to say that the UK’s state of preparedness on this front probably isn’t any better.

READ MORE: NFUS director Jonnie Hall seconded to Government team

So the announcement last week that NFU Scotland’s top policy guru, the well-known Jonnie Hall, was to take up a secondment placing to help the Scottish Government was roundly welcomed by the industry.

Hall’s two-day-a-week posting will see him work directly with the team charged with assessing the effects of the Brexit negotiations on Scottish agriculture – and attempting to draw together a future strategy for the industry – no small task.

The truth is that while a vacuum might currently exist in post-Brexit policy development, there is no shortage of ideas, theories and even flights of fancy floating about waiting to fill it.

And although the farming community probably has the most direct interest in how things shape up, there are plenty of other stakeholder groups who would give their eye teeth for such a degree of involvement.

However the move shows that there is a recognition from the authorities that some solid, practical, down-to-earth input is necessary right from the start.

And from the Scottish Government’s point of view, having someone with the ability to work out some of the implications and ramifications of ideas before they get further than the drawing board will be a huge benefit.

For while the EU has been blamed for being at the root of many difficulties, a fair number of the problems have actually been self-inflicted by the Scottish Government – such as its gold-plated greening policies and the impracticalities of the beef efficiency scheme.

So giving the farming industry a conduit to offer some practical appraisal of proposals has to be a good idea. And the secondment will mean that the water-cooler effect will allow this to happen not only during official discussions but also on an informal basis – allowing realism to be reinforced at an early stage.

Hall has admitted that when he was on secondment he would be wearing a Scottish Government hat, but also hinted that he would still probably be wearing his NFUS vest. And while the move might take the union’s policy director away from his desk for two days a week, this time would probably have been spent attempting to gauge exactly what was going on in the various government departments anyway, so it looks like a win-win situation for both sides.

Of course the move is not without risks – for both Hall and the union as a whole. Having such a direct line of input will, inevitably, leave both open to charges of being complicit in the processes which will undoubtedly produce at least some unpopular decisions – and also sharing in the blame should things not turn out for the best. But, given the circumstances and the opportunities, few would deny it’s a risk worth taking.

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