The skirmishes off the French coast are a sign of trouble to come as we leave EU fisheries policy, writes Brian Monteith
The call by the SNP’s Constitutional Relations Secretary, Mike Russell, to build upon Scotland’s “Auld Alliance” with France could not have been more timely, or so it seemed.
Speaking in Paris in advance of the opening of another Scottish Government outpost later this year, the ever loquacious Russell provided some comments that could be spun madly by government and SNP media managers keen to distract attention away from the Salmond versus Sturgeon story.
Unfortunately Russell’s misty-eyed romanticism surrounding the Auld Alliance was soon all at sea when a Peterhead scallop dredger was one of a number of British boats attacked by a 40-strong French flotilla in international waters near France. What was the worth of the Auld Alliance then? Not much, or nul point, it would seem.
Rocks were lobbed, flares were aimed at our boats and reports of ramming either deliberately or from being too close was the result. The French had protested that they had taken an enforced seasonal rest to allow scallop stocks to recover, but beyond their 12-mile limit boats from other EU nations were entitled to continue fishing. And this all happened while under EU Common Fisheries Policy regulations – it will be quite another affair following Brexit.
There is a rich seam of history regarding Scotland’s close relationship with France that could be mined, and Russell did not fail to disappoint. The majority of what is considered the “alliance” of course predates Scotland’s King James VI ascending to the English throne and then Scotland’s Parliament voluntarily founding the Union of Great Britain with England and Wales.
Many a battle was fought earlier against the English with Scots and French side by side; many a member of the royal households of either nation would intermingle and look down on their peasantry; and much trade between the nations would pass through our harbours, not least the great claret trade that, as well as bringing wine to Leith, brought an expertise in glass making that ultimately led to Edinburgh Crystal.
What Russell could not mention though was how the Auld Alliance led to many Scots dying in pointless battles with the English. Nor did he mention the role of Scots at Trafalgar in 1805, which some historians estimate was as much as a third of the fighting complement at sea that day. Or the countless sacrifices made by Scottish soldiers fighting in battles such as Waterloo or the building of Martello towers around Scottish shores to ensure we could have advance warning to help see off any possible invasion by Napoleon’s forces.
The Auld Alliance, once vital and virile had been replaced by a New Alliance where Scots went on to explore the world and build an empire that eclipsed that of the French. Thanks in part to Scotland’s reformation and economic self-interest our loyalties had switched and the likes of Burns, Scott and many others who wrote as they witnessed our reorientation happening had no doubts where our true interests lay.
That is not to say we should not retain our affection for France and the French, not least as its people love visiting our natural landscape or sampling our produce – and especially our whisky. But we should not fool ourselves that Scotland now offers any strategic interest to France or is likely to in the future. Its strategic focus must be towards Germany, which since unification in the 19th century has replaced England as the country most likely to provide an economic or military threat, placing Scotland as Albion’s weakness to its rear as, frankly, an irrelevance.
Russell also tried to make much of Scotland’s vote against Brexit ignoring that when the French were given the chance through a referendum to endorse the new constitution of the EU in 2005 the people voted 55 per cent to 45 per cent against. The Euro remains divisive, with many till receipts still showing the equivalent value in francs, and the idea of a looser EU having significant popularity amongst voters.
So forget the Auld Alliance, when French trawlers gang up on Scottish and British boats we should be under no illusions as to what their interests will be – to maximise opportunities for French fishermen to the cost of our own. Our comrades are who will stand with us – the English crews who are our brothers. This is important, for the skirmish that happened last week – due entirely to French boats being subject to their own national environmental laws that do not apply to British boats – is only likely to become far more regular once the UK leaves the monstrous Common Fisheries Policy and we introduce our own laws that give greater priority to British fishermen.
With Scotland providing the largest share of the British fisheries there is a real opportunity for our fishing communities to benefit, but we need to be prepared to protect our fishermen and their boats.
This has been neglected while the UK was signed up to the CFP, as we had surrendered our waters, our share of the total catch and the wherewithal to look after ourselves. Even now that we know we should be leaving the CFP on 29 March next year I question if the five state-of-the-art River Class offshore patrol vessels to be delivered to the Royal Navy will be sufficient. They will be expected to carry out not just fisheries protection round the UK waters but also duties in the Falklands and Caribbean too, including anti-piracy and anti-terrorism – a squadron of five is not likely to be enough.
If Mike Russell wanted to win support across Scotland irrespective of political affiliations it would be to campaign for greater investment in our fisheries protection so that when we are able to harvest a greater share of our own resources without fear from foreign vessels.
For 40 years British fishermen have had to endure French and other EU fishermen taking 60 per cent of the fish in British waters. That can now change and the Auld Alliance will mean nothing to Scottish crews looking to protect their interests or French crews seeking to find a way round any new rules.
As common inhabitants of our island, Scotland’s best interests lie through common cause with England and our Royal Navy – and that is what we should be investing in.