Brian Monteith: Tories must back fishermen to win SNP seats

The SNP is in 'disarray' over the CFP, says Brian Monteith.
The SNP is in 'disarray' over the CFP, says Brian Monteith.
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Theresa May should make it a priority to leave the Common Fisheries Policy, writes Brian Monteith

Six weeks of campaigning remain and yet the pollsters are telling us that the SNP is at risk of losing between five and eight seats to the Scottish Conservatives.

On first appearances this appears only reasonable, for two recent polls have put the Conservatives at 28 and 33 per cent with Labour wallowing in the low teens.

Canvassers on social media report two factors at play, the first, driving down SNP support from a peak of 49.9 per cent in the general election of 2015, is a number of SNP voters drifting away from the nationalists. Reasons include disillusionment with its stance over Brexit, a catalogue of domestic policy failures that it refuses to give attention to and the irritating whine of a leader who can only talk about independence. Some past SNP supporters might choose not to vote, some might return to Labour – and some feel so strongly they might even vote Conservative.

The second factor is that many past supporters of the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties are choosing to switch their vote to the Conservative candidate on this occasion only, as the best means to unseat their sitting SNP MP. A combination of these reasons has put a number of SNP constituencies in play, most notably in the Borders and what used to be called the fishing constituencies in the days when we had a seriously impressive fishing fleet.

All of that said, the SNP remains ahead of the Tories by at least ten points. Nobody is suggesting the SNP will be anything other than the largest party, but peak SNP is looking past us now.

Regular readers of my columns will know that I believe in a clean Brexit; that means a relatively quick agreement on open and tariff-free trade, reciprocal rights for UK and EU citizens and the return of responsibility and therefore political accountability for controlling our laws, taxes and borders. This requires us to leave the egregious Single Market and its Customs Union that together do so much to disadvantage British industry and export poverty to the developing world.

Theresa May is right to recognise that there are circumstances where a bad deal could be worse than no deal – it is what distances her from the unreal world inhabited by Jeremy Corbyn, Tim Farron and Nicola Sturgeon. Serious negotiation requires believing there are circumstances when one must leave the table and walk away. Her opponents would put the interests of the EU before those of the UK.

What she has not yet done, and must do before the election on 8 June, is explain a bad deal would include giving the EU a continuing role in UK fisheries or remaining in the EU’s disastrous Common Fisheries Policy (CFP). If she does not do that she will stoke lingering doubts that she will trade concessions that will sell out our fishermen.

The SNP is in disarray on the issue, having not one, not two, but three public positions on CFP membership. Its Westminster leader and Moray MP, Angus Robertson, has said SNP policy is to rejoin both the EU and the CFP; yesterday the SNP MP Drew Hendry said the policy is to rejoin the EU with a reformed CFP and last week SNP MPs Eilidh Whiteford and Mike Weir (their chief whip, no less) signed a pledge put forward by the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation repudiating the CFP.

It was good to see Donald Ross, the Tory candidate for Moray, join the Scottish Secretary David Mundell in signing up to the fisherman’s pledge and challenge Angus Robertson, to do the same. If Robertson accepts he will be repudiating everything he has said about an independent Scotland joining the EU and its CFP. If he refuses he is at least consistent, but exposes his party as the enemy of Scottish fisherman and Scotland’s interest, too.

Donald Ross’s action is not, however, enough for the Tories to make their point. Every parliamentary candidate should be queuing up to sign the pledge. All 59 candidates should be challenging the SNP to say why they would put membership of the EU and its CFP before the interests of Scotland.

The Conservatives must then go further by making it clear in their manifesto that the CFP will not be used as a bargaining chip in the Brexit negotiations. If Theresa May can recognise that for Brexit to mean Brexit the UK must have full control of its laws, taxes and borders then she should also recognise that for many people that voted to leave the issue of regaining full control of our fishing grounds was of fundamental concern. Indeed, I found it was the one issue in comparison to others that many remain voters had sympathy with.

The reason is simple enough, the abandoning by Prime Minister Edward Heath of fishermen around the British Isles, from Whitby to Lossiemouth, from St Ives to St Abbs, from Grimsby to Girvan, as a price for Common Market membership is a wrong that has been crying out to be put right for over 40 years.

If May and Davidson are serious about wanting to obtain a sustainable Scottish Conservative recovery the Prime Minister should then go further and make it explicit that once the Brexit negotiations have been concluded – good deal or no deal – then the terms of the Scotland Acts will be respected and the management of Scottish fishing waters will be devolved to the Scottish Parliament.

By being bold and unequivocal the Tories could not only show they are putting right the disgrace of Heath’s betrayal of British fishermen but that they are in favour of spreading power and authority away from the London metropolis that so many people have come to mistrust. The Union would be strengthened and the SNP weakened.

To retain management power at Westminster requires an amendment to the current Scotland Act and would represent a new betrayal, giving nationalism a real and genuine grievance alive and reversing political gains that Tories might make.

It comes down to who the electorate should trust to help our fishing communities – the pro-EU SNP or the Brexit-negotiating Tories?

If the Scottish Conservatives are to win, and win well, they should make it beyond any doubt that the electorate can trust only one party to take Scotland out of the Common Fisheries Policy and that is the party led by Theresa May and Ruth Davidson.

• Brian Monteith is a director of Global Britain