Royal Highland Show: Will it return to health next year? – Christine Jardine MSP

The effect of the coronavirus outbreak and the full impact of Brexit may deal a lasting blow to Scotland’s food industry, writes Christine Jardine MSP.

Sheep are put on show on day two of the Royal Highland show at Ingliston in June last year (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
Sheep are put on show on day two of the Royal Highland show at Ingliston in June last year (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

I awoke this morning to the prospect of a very different summer in Edinburgh.

This weekend I should have been touring the Royal Highland Show at Ingliston.

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Meeting up with old friends and talking about how we protect and nurture Scotland’s rural and food production economy through the impact of Covid-19 and Brexit.

I know this weekend is also a traffic nightmare, particularly if you have a flight to catch or live in the villages to the west that find themselves the chosen rat-runs of too many commuters.

For many people that is their only direct reminder every year that the first of the summer’s multi-million-pound events is taking place on their doorsteps.

But for others it is their life. Their livelihood.

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And for many it is the start of a summer of festivals which are much loved, bring millions to the local economy, but at times try the patience of residents coming close to being overwhelmed by tourists.

This year there is, however, an unmistakable irony in their absence.

The RHS alone attracts more than 200,000 visitors over four days and last year delivered an estimated £65 million boost to Scotland’s economy.

Its cancellation this year could have cost the Royal Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland almost £5m.

There could have been few times in our recent history when the future of those festivals, from the Royal Highland Show through the spectacle of the Edinburgh International Festival and its now huge entourage has mattered more to the city’s economic well-being. Or when their futures have been more under the spotlight and threatened – in the immediacy by the limitations of Covid-19 – and in the longer term by the continuing, looming, long-term threat from Brexit.

This weekend, as the exhibitors and visitors from across Scotland should have been massing at Ingliston for the biggest event in the sector’s calendar, the National Farmers Union issued a fresh warning about what a no-deal Brexit could mean for British agriculture.

To put in context what that could mean for all of us, the NFU estimates that the output of our farmers, crofters and growers amounts to around £2.9bn per year. And the industry is responsible for a large proportion of Scotland’s £5 billion food and drink exports.

When you take those figures into account, you begin to see what the impact of undermining the sustainability of that sector could be, not just on those involved but on all of us.

That is even before you begin to consider the potential impact on food standards which has exercised so many over a possible trade deal with the United States.

The juxtaposition of everything we celebrate over those four days – our pride in our industry, the quality of our agricultural and the food it produces placed against the prospect of imported chlorinated chicken from America is bleak.

It is little comfort, however, that the much trumpeted trade deal with the US looks increasingly unlikely as we hurtle towards the next presidential election.

It would need the approval of Congress, so the reality is that the negotiations might finish under a different administration, bringing a level of uncertainty to them.

Will they, the Government, want it – just like Brexit – ‘done’, regardless of the cost?

And ahead of the election, Trump will surely want to prove to his electorate that he is capable of delivering something for US agriculture. He has, by all accounts, already failed to deliver Chinese custom.

According to the Washington Post, even the UK’s estimates are modest, stating in March “that a comprehensive agreement would boost our gross domestic product by 0.16 per cent, increase wages by 0.2 per cent and save the average household about £8 per year on tariffs”.

With expected losses to come from the new relationship with the EU, this just isn’t enough. On top of a recession all too likely.

So, apart from the false glamour of being able to pronounce that we have a trade deal with the US, which of us would want our shelves filled with chlorinated chicken and hormone-treated beef when what we produce here is so much better?

That is exactly what would have been on show this past weekend in Edinburgh. The very finest of British produce and agricultural acumen.

Even if I put aside my own political and patriotic attachment to our industry, it stuns me that our Government has responded so little to the thought of its cancellation this year.

Despite numerous letters to the relevant Government departments and direct questions to ministers, the only response was from the then parliamentary under-secretary of state for Scotland.

He did respond to my requests for support and his promise to get back to me was, I know from conversations with him, genuine.

Unfortunately he could not do so before leaving the Government.

I know the sector’s employers, producers and the show itself will be able to apply for the various grants, loans and supports available.

I just wish I could be confident that it will be enough to ensure a healthy show – and industry – next year.

Christine Jardine is the Scottish Liberal Democrat MP for Edinburgh West

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