WESTMINSTER and Holyrood ministers have become embroiled in a row over the two governments’ ability to promote Scotland’s food and drink industries overseas.
During a visit north of the Border, Owen Paterson, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in the Westminster coalition, claimed that Scottish exporters gained massive advantages from the UK government’s “clout” in markets such as China and Russia.
He said an independent Scotland would struggle to lobby for rights with as much conviction.
Paterson said he was recently in Moscow for a trade fair and negotiated the opening up of the Russian market to British beef and lamb. He told Scotland on Sunday: “The role of the UK government is to lead these delegations and we can help.
“What I see time and again after the success of the Olympics last year, the Royal Wedding and the Jubilee, is that there’s a real interest in British products.
“There’s a real positive for great Scottish firms like Walkers and those in the Scotch whisky industry in using the British government.”
But his comments provoked a furious response from Scotland’s Rural Affairs Secretary Richard Lochhead. He said: “Owen Paterson is scraping the bottom of the whisky barrel with such comments. Scotland’s worldwide reputation for high-quality produce speaks for itself.
“With the recent launch of the UK government’s Food and Drink International Action Plan, they have at long last started out on a journey the Scottish food and drink industry began in 2007.
“Independence would create even more opportunities for Scottish food and drink. It will offer Scotland the fiscal powers to make our nation a more attractive place in which to do business.
“With our own voice in Europe, we can stand up for our farmers, our fishermen and our food industry. And in our diplomacy we’ll be able to prioritise key industry needs such as the removal of red tape between Scotland and markets our food industry would like to access, such as Japan, which for too long was not regarded as a priority for the UK government despite huge demand there for Scotch beef.”
But Paterson insisted the UK government could pull all the right levers in other countries. He said he had no doubt that an independent Scottish Government would struggle to lobby and protect exporters’ rights with as much success.
“The UK is the sixth biggest economy in the world and we have real clout. When we asked that our whisky is treated fairly and ask hugely important governments in very important potential markets like China and Russia to look at counterfeiting or geographical indicators, that is to the massive advantage of that industry.”
He added: “How people vote in the referendum is down to them, but I would make a very strong case that there’s a clear advantage for Scottish farmers and manufacturers to stay within the UK.
“We’ve negotiated all sorts of advantages specifically for Scotland at the request of senior Scottish politicians to help Scottish agriculture in the CAP [Common Agricultural Policy] negotiations and represented the whisky industry and food manufacturers at the very highest level.”