Comment: Legacy of Thatcher’s attitude to Europe still felt today

Margaret Thatcher's policies changed farming forever. Picture: PA
Margaret Thatcher's policies changed farming forever. Picture: PA
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HAVING spent some considerable time in the past year burrowing into the history of NFU Scotland, I am reasonably certain that the late Margaret Thatcher might have an obscure claim to fame: that of having visited Union headquarters and met the top team more than any other prime minister in its hundred-year history.

But how will she be remembered by the industry? Where shall she feature in the pantheon of politicians who have dealt with Scottish farming in the past century? The answer, I believe, lies in the basic divide between her free ­market ideology and the protected and supported nature of much of farming during that time.

Two of the first politicians to make a real difference to Scottish farming in the 20th century were Walter Elliot and Tom Johnston. They inserted two of the main planks which put agriculture down a road where support was part and parcel of farming.

When minister at the Board of Trade in the mid 1930s, Elliot – MP for Kelvingrove and a man with roots in Borders farming – pushed through the Marketing Act which brought stability to an agricultural industry that was deep in the doldrums with fluctuations in production and under threat from imports.

While some of the various boards, such as the Pig Marketing Scheme, did not survive, others such as milk and potatoes did and brought control into the market and, with it, some security in income. The arrival of the monopolistic milk boards may not have been uniformly welcomed, but they did ensure continuity in production and provided assurances on marketing.

Then Tom Johnston, as Scottish Secretary of State in what was surely the most radical UK government of the 20th century – Clement Atlee’s post-Second World War regime – was influential in bringing in the 1947 Agriculture Bill, which set in place a support system for the farming industry that endured until this country entered the EEC, now the EU.

The roots of that policy lay in the fact that two world wars had proved the need for this country to be self-­sufficient in food production.

Incidentally, the same basic principle was later set down by those who remembered vividly the hunger and starvation in post-war mainland Europe as they established the CAP (Common Agricultural Policy).

Following the setting up of the price review system from the late 1940s to the early 1970s, the NFUS top team would join their English counterparts in an annual review where the UK minister of agriculture and his team sat on the other side of the table. Their joint decisions set the prices farmers would receive for the following 12 months.

Following entry into Europe, the discussions and support or subsidies were settled in Brussels, with ever more complex and bureaucratic CAPs.

And it was into this world of marketing boards at home and the Common Agricultural Policy in Europe that Margaret Thatcher came.

She did not like business monopolies, and saw the marketing boards as such. It did not matter to her that a NFUS poll revealed a massive 98.6 per cent of Scottish milk producers supported marketing boards. They went.

In hindsight, the end of the statutory boards might have been inevitable. But the lack of support in restructuring an industry so it could compete with strong – almost monopolistic – European farm co-operatives was unhelpful.

However, Thatcher’s attitude to what she saw as the interventionist and costly CAP has had a far more significant legacy for farming and rural Scotland.

In true “hand-bagging” style, she negotiated a rebate on UK contributions to Europe. That was good political news.

Unfortunately, that deal also effectively put the UK at the bottom of the pile as regards funding from the rural development programme. This legacy exists to the present day, as last month in Brussels, I was reminded that during her time at prime minister, the UK was seen as a semi-detached member of the European Union.

She may never have literally “hand-bagged” anyone on her frequent visits to union headquarters, although John Cameron, as president, recalls she was always ­robust in her views and prepared to challenge others on theirs.

This assessment on her legacy is not based on whether her opinions on a free market were correct or incorrect, nor does it take a view on what the UK’s relationship with the rest of Europe should be. But it does, I hope, reflect the consequences of one woman’s strong beliefs.