Brian Monteith: Why Ruth Davidson must oppose the Customs Union

There appears to be silence from Ruth Davidson, says Brian Monteith
There appears to be silence from Ruth Davidson, says Brian Monteith
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Controversy surrounding where responsibilities will lie in a post-Brexit relationship between Westminster and the devolved institutions in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast will not go away – with tensions being raised by all sides.

If it is not the Scottish Government’s Mike Russell undermining any case for putting trust in its involvement (by threatening to leak papers from any meeting) it is Theresa May’s number two, David Liddington, claiming that the SNP could seek to wreck beneficial trade deals for little more than spite.

A great deal of this bellowing is deflection and distraction – designed by both parties to give themselves a headline or take attention away from more serious issues. What should be more concerning to those of us who care about building our prosperity is the absence of any real attempt in Scotland, from either the Scottish Government or the opposition parties, to seek out and talk up what advantages Brexit offers.

The point that is being missed by Scottish Conservative politicians (with a few notable exceptions) is that Brexit presents an opportunity to win public favour. Indeed it presents so many opportunities to be on the right side of arguments with campaigners and voters that previously would never have considered listening, never mind working with Conservatives, that I do not have room to discuss them all today.

Those that scaremonger about deregulation after Brexit usually cite the possibility of a loosening of employment law, leading to poorer terms and conditions of work. Fearing a loss of mass appeal the Conservatives were quick to assure those areas will be protected, and it should be remembered that those that campaigned to Leave the EU opposed its transatlantic trade agreement with the US precisely because of its potential for such workplace deregulation.

The real opportunity for change comes from having the ability to strengthen some regulations, such as animal welfare, while relaxing others, such as allowing freeports. It is in these areas that Scottish Conservatives could be taking a lead, both in proposing innovative reforms so that a public debate takes place (which they can lead and claim credit for) and, where appropriate, argue that the setting of regulations be devolved.

One such example is in the issue of the export beyond the UK of live animals for slaughter. It is interesting to see that the SNP government has made it explicitly clear it would rather that such exports continue with the setting of rules remaining with the EU; not London, not Edinburgh – but Brussels.

The numbers are significant; the European Commission figures for 2016 show that the UK exported 42,515 cattle to the EU of which 25% were for slaughter and 60% were for fattening – only 15% being for breeding. For Pigs there were 10,615 exports to the EU with 84% for slaughter and 16% for breeding; for sheep it was 483,859 with 80% for slaughter and 19% for fattening and 1% for breeding; while it was 1,198 goats with 86% for slaughter and 14% for breeding. Of the UK trade to the EU Scotland accounts for some 9% between 2012-16, which was valued at £35 million by the HMRC for 2016. When even longer journeys to the rest of the world are included Scotland’s share is 10% – valued at £60.9 million in 2016.

There is no shortage of evidence that some animals exported for slaughter continue to suffer desperate conditions once leaving the UK and even before, such as a highly controversial incident at Ramsgate in 2012 where over 40 sheep were euthanized by the RSPCA rather than be allowed to continue their journey. The European Commission last reviewed its regulations in 2011 and had to acknowledge that severe welfare problems persist.

The EU regulations do not allow for local deviation and intervention – animals must be permitted to be exported between EU members, which in the UK’s case means mostly to the continent by sea, with a significant local trade to the Irish Republic from Northern Ireland. If the UK does leave the Customs Union new animal welfare policies can be introduced, raising standards by banning the export of animals for slaughter, and tightening regulations regarding those exported for what the trade calls “production” (but in most cases is fattening).

There is also the opportunity to consider regional differences through the devolution of powers within a framework so that Scotland could introduce a ban from its own ports while Northern Ireland could have a dispensation to allow export to the republic only.

Already the Conservatives have stolen a march on the issue arguing in their June 2017 election manifesto that they would seek to ban the export of live animals for slaughter and subsequently the Cabinet Secretary responsible, Michael Gove, has said that he wishes to consider all the possibilities for raising animal welfare standards that Brexit will allow. Yet there appears to be silence from Ruth Davidson on the issue when one might have expected she would recognise it as a progressive issue she could win a great deal of sympathy on. What is holding her back? Is it that such reforms would be contradictory to her expressed support for the EU’s Single Market and its Customs Union?

Leaving the Customs Union remains a stated objective of Theresa May’s government but is about to become the main focus of those seeking to halt Brexit. Tory rebels such as Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan (both sacked by Theresa May) are seeking to side with Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour, which is about to announce a reversal and betrayal of its past support for abandoning the EU’s fortress against free trade as it senses it might now have the numbers to bring down the government and force a general election.

If Ruth Davidson is not careful she will end up on the same side of the argument as not only the Tory rebels that have been unceremoniously branded as traitors by government-supporting media, but as Jeremy Corbyn too.

Surely it would be better to take the moral high ground, win new supporters to her cause and wrong foot the SNP in the process by talking up what Scotland’s Brexit Bonuses might be? If she is serious about forming a future Scottish Government the benefits to our fishing industries, whisky exports and animal welfare could be in her armoury, but first she must embrace Brexit with the spirit she has shown for defending the Union.

l Brian Monteith is a director of Global Britain