Unfamiliar focus at Highland Show festooned with politicians

I found myself feeling a wee bit of sympathy for Prime Minister Theresa May during the course of the Royal Highland Show last week.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon was among the many politicians to visit the Royal Highland Show. Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon was among the many politicians to visit the Royal Highland Show. Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire

For, while the show has always been about the stock lines, the machinery stands, seeking refreshment at the beer tents and meeting folk you haven’t seen since the last show, working for the papers puts a different perspective on it for a few days.

But with the Brexit issue and arguments over where powers repatriated from Brussels should lie, the place was crawling with politicians from all parties and parliaments, so the first few days were spent playing at being a mainstream journalist.

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Rather than devoting time to the usual joys of tracking down the elusive owners of the reserve champion in some obscure sheep class, getting updates on technical developments or catching up on latest pronouncement from the industry’s weel-kent faces, two days of the show were spent either waiting for, tracking down or tailing the great and the good.

And somehow this left little opportunity to catch up on the gossip and tittle-tattle which oils the farming world and, more importantly, keeps feet firmly on the ground. Instead there was a constant tension fuelled by a feeling of impatience as deadlines always approached faster than the expected politicians.

But given that there must have been similar pressures for them to get round and to perform at all these interminable meetings, they, too, must have been denied the opportunity to meet with the proverbial man on the Clapham omnibus – or even the Edinburgh tram – which would have allowed them to remain grounded.

So, being pushed from event to event and being constantly surrounded by individuals and groups harping for attention to their own little problems and difficulties bound to affect the ability to keep things in perspective while at the same time isolating them from contact with the normal everyday people who make up the bulk of society and who help maintain its humanity.

I suspect that politicians therefore end up living life in the sort of bubble which is totally divorced from any real contact with the outside world and which is entirely coloured by those who surround and advise them – or, in some cases, their own inflated sense of self-importance.

Which of these outcomes, therefore, accounted for the Scottish Government’s decision not to ‘fess up to the fact that they’d lodged a request with the European Commission for an extension of the support payment window – or the delay this is likely to mean to some people getting the balance of their 2016 payments – when they had ample opportunity to do so at the show remains open to interpretation.

Similarly, we can ask which accounted for the new Defra secretary of state, Michael Gove, giving a statement at the show that farm support would not fall as the result of Brexit – yet his apparent ability to state a totally contradictory opinion in an interview the next day.

But the “life in a bubble” syndrome might also account for the other major phenomenon of the show – the creation of ever more focus groups on top of the plethora already in operation in the farming sector.

It would appear that the quartet of farming champions on top of myriad civil servants isn’t enough to keep the Scottish Government informed – and so a whole new National Council of Rural Advisers has been set up to help them.

On top of this there was the new Women in Agriculture taskforce, set up to consult on under-representation in the industry’s hierarchy – and let’s not forget the fruit and veg industry leadership group aimed at identifying problems in this sector.

And while there was more than a little irony as the farmers’ union cried that it was “time for action not words” – just as it released a discussion document to put to members – you can understand where they’re coming from.

And I’d probably agree – just let me check with my new consultation fatigue focus group.