New ministers’ in trays are full to the brim already - Andrew Arbuckle

One of the unusual features surrounding the reporting of the recent Scottish Government Cabinet reshuffle was the prominence given to the departure of Fergus Ewing as Rural Affairs Minister and the relative lack of information on his replacementnote-0, Mairi Gougeon.

Mairi Gougeon is the new Rural Affairs Minister

Although Ewing’s departure was not forecast by many in the farming world, the signs were already there. The walls of government – even this government – can be quite flimsy and there were reports of shouting matches when the minister did not get his way. That is not a good indicator for political longevity.

Now the First Minister likes matters to be quietly controlled. Not for nothing have her Cabinets – past and present – been described in a fairy tale comparison as “Nicola and the Seven Dwarves”.

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Recognising his term of office was on the last lap, Ewing made some strong pre-election statements that endeared him to the farming community but scunnered his political colleagues. Remember he indicated he was on the side of the farmers. He also suggested the farming industry should help decide future policy.

These sort of remarks, simultaneously ensured farmers thought warmly of him but also made the policy road forward for his successor more problematic.

In her previous short spell as a junior minister, Ms. Gougeon did all the right things and kept closely to the Scottish Government script, all the while with a fresh-faced enthusiasm.

But she now faces an overflowing desk thanks in part to Fergus. The old fox’s main policy of ‘kicking the can down the road’ or not making any decision unless he had to, preferring instead to set up a working group or as they became known in the farming press as non-working shops.

In the coming weeks and months, the new Rural Affairs Minister will face problems ranging from post-Brexit fishing issues through to animal welfare difficulties if new transport plans are pushed through. With these and other problems piled up, the North Angus and Mearns MSP will, to mix a metaphor, earn her corn.

But the big issue, and the one which towers above the rest for the new minister, is setting the future policy for agriculture north of the Border. This new direction for farming has been made more than usually difficult on account of impending climate change targets. As host to the major international climate change conference, COP26, in Glasgow later this year, the Scottish Government is desperate to demonstrate its green credentials with a solid plan to be carbon neutral within 25 years.

This puts pressure on Ms Gougeon as she sifts through the future policy plans as written by farmers and submitted just before the election. She will be aware that, in the initial discussions, there was an almighty bust-up between the previous minister and his civil servants, with the latter not believing the farmers’ plans could deliver the carbon savings needed with no reduction in the numbers of belching and burping cattle.

A bit of nifty political footwork will be needed to get out of that particular hole and that is a big ask for someone who only stepped into the political swamp five years ago.

That length of experience as an elected politician is massive compared with that of Mairi McAllan MSP for Clydesdale who less than a month after her election to Holyrood has been appointed as the Minister for Environment, Biodiversity and Land Reform.

For those who do not know this youthful politician, after qualifying as a lawyer, she has been working as a special advisor to the First Minister but now as minister, she has such knotty issues as genetic modification, land Reform and forestry in her portfolio.

For everyone who has had a covid jag, there may be a better appreciation of the benefits of gene editing, as that is how the main vaccines have been produced, but even that may not be sufficient to persuade the Scottish Government of the advantages of adopting this science.

Ms McAllan will also have to bridge the gap between the views of the Scottish Land Commission and Scottish Land and Estates over land ownership with some of the verbal sallies between the two bodies being adversarial to say the least.

In the coming weeks and months, there is a considerable workload on the relatively inexperienced shoulders of these politicians.

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