Andrew Arbuckle: Time to seal off the union trapdoor at Ingliston

SOME 30 years have passed since most of Scotland's rural organisations moved out of their expensive Edinburgh city centre offices and de-camped to the rural centre adjacent to the Highland showground.

There are benefits from having a cluster of such bodies on the one site but last week I wondered, not for the first time, if there were also negatives.

The trigger was the announcement that Jim McLaren, the current NFU Scotland president, will be the next chairman of Quality Meat Scotland; effectively just opening the trapdoor of the union's first-floor office at the rural centre and landing down in the ground level QMS office.

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With the announcement, it is first of all necessary to acknowledge McLaren's performance leading the union. I know he does not officially go until February but, as soon as the shift was made known, his value as president is compromised; a fact acknowledged by a press release denying it.

McLaren has a razor sharp mind and can rattle out facts and figures supporting an argument faster than the average journalist can translate them on to a notebook. He is rumoured to have been slightly acerbic with some who take a different line to his own but that is often the mark of the successful businessman that he is.

His term as president has not been marked by any great tsunami - such as BSE or foot-and-mouth - so he has not been tested as some of his predecessors were. With the issues that have been on the agenda, he has been very much on the front foot in promoting the various animal health initiatives currently running in Scotland.

However, I believe the main legacy of his presidency will be the membership of the union. He has put a considerable amount of his time and persuasive powers in getting more people to join.

So why am I bothered about the move downstairs? It is in part because of the proximity and the recent history of the proximity. It is too easy for a former president to believe he is still president if there is an issue involving the red meat industry that comes under QMS's portfolio.

The other part of my concern is that the role of leader of a pressure group or lobby organisation such as the union is different from a promotional body such as QMS. I know that people can change but believe they need a little time "in the country" to help any adjustment.

Let me explain. There is revolution in the air in the milk industry.

Already activists have picketed a distribution depot in England. McLaren himself has warned there could be action in Scotland. If there is physical action, his role as union leader would be high profile at the front of the crowd.This is hardly compatible with the leadership of a non-departmental public body such as QMS. I accept the deed is done but, if I was in QMS, I would quickly get a joiner in to nail up the trap door to prevent it happening again.

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My attention shifts to the future leadership of the union. It may seem tangential but every time I go to the rural centre, I pass the large bed of heathers planted at the entrance.

It is beautiful but I always see it as a sort of memorial garden where the hopes and ambitions of those from the various organisations at the centre are metaphorically buried.

There are no headstones or plaques but the names of those who have vanished over the years keep coming back to me. Some basically did not deserve to move forward. Others woke up and found a knife in their back. Some were taken off to the Elysian fields and others just went back to farm.

A number of them were union vice-presidents. Their demise is due to arithmetic where there are two vice-presidents and they only need one president. There is therefore a 50 per cent cull and it can be more if an ambitious newcomer rises from the ranks and overtakes the current pair of "vices", Alan Bowie and Nigel Miller.

This latter possibility increases if there is to be industrial action. It is not too many years ago a young Jim Walker found his political feet heading a crowd of farmers at the docks at Stranraer.

No doubt Bowie and Miller will have their election campaigns organised. For myself and no doubt others, Bowie will require to prove that selling his farm has not diminished his ambition for the farming industry.

For Miller, the need is to see an ambitious gleam in his eye. Basically proof that he really wants the job. His ability is not in doubt but the fire of ambition has been rarely seen.

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