Comment: ‘Right to buy’ surprise is among award winners at show

STATING the obvious, the Highland Show is wall-to-wall with competitions and awards: livestock obviously, dairy produce, handcrafts, forestry and cookery to mention a few. The list seems endless and yet here I am proposing to add to it.

My awards are for the most memorable statements of the past four days. For example, the obviously overblown claim by the show’s public relations company that the Highland is “the greatest show on Earth”.

Well, that puts minor events such as the Olympic Games and the World Cup in their place, does it not? Media consultants are renowned for their hyperbole, but that claim is up at the top of the “most outrageous use of superlatives” category.

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For my second award, you must imagine the press pack kicking their heels waiting for some politician or other. One of the photographers picked up his camera and pointed the lens at one of the elders of the pack. “Smile,” he said and the rather surprised hack obliged but then looked crestfallen when the snapper then said: “Well, that should do for your obituary.” Thus was produced an outright winner in the black humour category.

The next award came from an unlikely source. European Union commissioners are not generally regarded for their sagacity or pawky sayings, and I expected little from Slovenian environmental commissioner Janez Potocnik.

However, his belief that “simplification is simply fiction” resonated, and I became engrossed with his explanations of how his desire to make life simpler was constantly frustrated by politicians from member states who wanted to gold plate all legislation.

It was almost as salutary as listening to his reams of data confirming that, as far as the environment is concerned, Europe is not coping. It is in fact going downhill in almost every regard, a rather depressing thought for the next generation.

He wanted to see environmental policies as integral to any new regulations, not as they are regarded just now as expensive add-ons. So for his description of how Europe expresses a wish to make life simpler but ends up doing the opposite, Potocnik takes the “most memorable comment “award.

However, the overall winner of my comment competition goes to Angus McCall, the former chairman of the Scottish Tenant Farmers Association (STFA), who – possibly still suffering from a little shock after hearing the Scottish Government was putting tenants’ right to buy their properties back on the agenda – declared “This could blow us [the STFA] apart”.

The same subject produced a number of other close contenders, such as Luke Borwick, chairman of Scottish Land & Estates, previously known as the landowners, when he described the Scottish Government U-turn as “triggered by those with a land reformist agenda”.

I should add there were other comments on the same subject that did not make it due to the “no use of unprintable naughty words” condition.

The extreme reaction to the government’s position was not surprising as Scottish agriculture works in pretty small circles and industry insiders usually have a pretty good grasp of what is coming down the track, yet none of the usual suspects saw this coming.

There was plenty of scope for rural affairs secretary Richard Lochhead to include it in one of his many official engagements at the show, but it popped out at a press conference when he was questioned on the issue of land reform.

Because it was not included in any of his many official pronouncements, there was, initially, a suspicion that the declaration of including an absolute right to buy in a wider review of agricultural land holding could have been a slip of the ministerial tongue.

But his media minders – although taken aback by its inclusion in an informal press conference – later confirmed the issue had been circulating in Scottish Government circles for some time.

Time will tell if the announcement is little more than a sop to one or two of his backbenchers who have held strong anti-landowner views for some time.

If I was cynical, I might think it may just be a populist move ahead of the independence referendum, with little in the way of lost votes from the land-owning fraternity.

I return to my overall comment winner, Angus McCall, who gave his considered opinion that the whole issue of land ownership and letting farms deserved the setting up of a “land commission” with a wide remit.