Rural issues not top of the agenda for our politicians

When I was a local councillor in one of Fife's more rural areas, election time would see me heading up every farm track and country road with a pile of leaflets extolling my successes '“ all on A4, albeit double-sided.

Scottish Lib Dems leader Willie Rennie visits Edinburgh's Gorgie City Farm on the campaign trail. Picture: Toby Williams

Unless you have carried out this exercise, you have no idea how many bumpy farm tracks there are in rural areas. However, to compensate for any tiredness I often thought “that’s a few votes in the bank” after completing my rural challenge.

It was only well after the election, when going through the marked registers that tell who has ­voted but not how they ­voted, I realised that many of my off-road trips had produced minimal reaction. To quote a more relaxed colleague: “All you were doing was stirring up apathy.”

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There is no doubt that many who work on the land are still mightily busy in the first week in May when elections tend to be held. Excuses I ­subsequently received varied from “we were still planting potatoes” to “there were a few stragglers to lamb”.

Now, the Scottish Parliament election this week is more important than a local authority contest but I fear the farming vote will largely stay on the farm despite agricultural ­policy being devolved to ­Holyrood.

Part of the farming ­apathy might just be the dominance of one party, thus giving rise to a “Why should I bother voting?” attitude; this being emphasised by some ­other ­parties just fighting to be the ­opposition.

A poor farming vote could also be related to the increased presidential style now favoured by political parties where, on a daily basis, we see TV ­coverage of the leaders in various photogenic ­surroundings.

The rural apathy, which I admit has still to be proven, might also be down to the fact there seems to be little to choose between the major parties when rural matters are on the agenda. All the manifestos I have seen are swaddled in generalities and largely bereft of specific policies.

To illustrate the large consensual policy areas, I was one of the 150 or so people who attended the rural hustings early last month. It kicked off with a question on connectivity. Unsurprisingly, every one of the politicians said they were in favour of better rural broadband and they then pitched in with similar support for better rural roads and rail services.

There was similar unanimity on the next issue which was on rural housing, with every candidate saying they would like to see more development in the country areas.

The prepared questions from the various organisations behind the event ­continued to produce little in the way of political ­division and after an hour or so of this tepid debate, most of the audience were checking their phones to relieve the tedium or to ascertain how much longer it would go on.

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Eventually the meeting moved to agriculture where there was the potential for heated debate with genetic modification, land reform, wonky computers and delayed payments all in the headlines but the scripted question was on what the 2020 CAP should look like.

It was all too easy for the practised politicians. It should be better than the current one and it should be simpler, they almost chorused in response.

After that we all trooped home, some still fizzing that the politicians had been let off the hook and moaning that there was no opportunity to quiz them on any other issue.

The Scottish NFU has done its best to put putative politicians to the test with its hustings meetings across the country and there has been the odd flurry of verbal jousting but on the whole, this election has failed to come alight in farming terms.

By this time next week, we will have a new minister in charge of rural ­matters. With the audit on the dodgy computer to come out later this month, it is certain there will be a new, untarnished person at the helm.

Over the coming months and years of the new parliament, issues such as further land reform, which have been hidden under general statements in manifestos, will emerge.

We might all be suffering from election fatigue but less than two months ­later the country is off to the polls again. This time, the decision is whether to stay or leave Europe. Will apathy continue to rule?