Comment: High cost of making UK a foreign land

Sending livestock to the rest of the UK would become complex and costly if there was a Yes vote.'Picture: Allan Milligan
Sending livestock to the rest of the UK would become complex and costly if there was a Yes vote.'Picture: Allan Milligan
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POLITICIANS have long gravitated towards the Hebrides in summer. Lighthouses require to be visited, ferries must be inspected and ceremonial holes in the ground demand digging in these congenial surroundings.

At present, there is an additional virtue to be claimed on behalf of political tourism. They are taking the referendum debate to the furthest-flung parts of Scotland. The voters here may not be numerous, but the pictures are good.

Such attention is welcome. As Charles Kennedy said this week, it would be possible for the concerns of rural and peripheral areas to be “crowded out” of the debate by louder voices in more populous places. Undoubtedly, they soon will be – so even brief consideration is welcome.

Helpfully, many of the critical issues on the periphery are much the same as for the rest of Scotland, but with added clarity. Just as Scotland’s geography helps justify higher levels of public spending than in other parts of the UK, so our most peripheral communities depend on degrees of cross-subsidy which both Scotland and the UK as a whole provide.

Take, for example, postal services and the importance of the Universal Service Obligation (USO) which underpins flat-rate charging throughout the UK. The future of the USO is a bigger concern in rural areas than in cities. But the critical factor in the current debate is that 80 per cent of Scotland’s mail traffic is with points furth of Scotland.

If the “universe” consists only of Scotland, then the USO is not of much use to anyone. The independence white paper simply ignores the issue rather than confess that Scotland would, in the event of a Yes vote, become a European destination for the UK’s Royal Mail, just like the Republic of Ireland, with increased charges. What does that do to mail order businesses and customers?

All of this points to the under-reported fact that creating an international border does not come cheap. The primary industries in Scotland’s rural areas sell three-quarters of their production to what is at present the rest of the UK. It is virtually impossible to find anyone in these sectors who believes it makes sense to turn this into a foreign market. They should be heard.

I admit that Horticulture Week is not my usual reading, but the current issue deserves attention because so many of Scotland’s major food producers have put their heads above the hedgerows to express alarm about what independence would do to their businesses. Take, for example, Jim Stewart, managing director of Stewarts of Tayside, which grows swedes and soft fruit, employing 700 people.

He said: “I’m 100 per cent against, as are most people I mix with … Our customers are UK-based and for them we would become a foreign country.”

Another senior figure in the industry, who desired anonymity, described separation as “potentially lethal for Scottish agriculture” while the NFU, which is remaining neutral, said: “The same questions come up time and again, about cross-border trade, currency, interruption to the CAP [common agricultural policy]…”

The referendum debate occasionally yields nuggets of information. I had no idea until recently that the majority of livestock sold through the Stornoway market goes straight to Cumbria. There is no bureaucracy, health controls or costs – in sharp contrast to the burdens and uncertainties when exporting livestock between the UK and Ireland.

I am not naïve enough to suppose any of this matters to gut Nationalists whose sole interest is in winning the referendum and who neither know nor care what would happen to any industry or livelihood beyond 19 September. For them, there will always be denial and assertion. Every problem will be overcome. Challenge them and you are scaremongering.

But for people who grow swedes and sell lambs, as much as their urban counterparts, these are huge issues on which innumerable Scottish jobs depend. Overall, we sell twice as much to the rest of the UK as to the rest of the world put together. Turning this into a foreign export market would create costs and complexities which have not begun to be explained or addressed by the Nationalists. Just denial.

There was another example of that plentiful commodity when Jim Murphy, a former defence secretary, visited the Uist rocket range where 200 civilians are employed. Jim is well respected locally for having been closely involved in a campaign to retain the range during a consultation process which culminated in 2011 with a five-year extension. The alternative proposal was to transfer the facility to Aberforth in Wales. During his visit, Murphy made the point that 95 per cent of the range’s work is in support of the UK’s Ministry of Defence and that if Scotland became a separate state, it was politically “inconceivable” that a future contest would be won when there is a viable alternative available within the UK.

This drew a splenetic response from the Nationalist MP Angus Brendan MacNeil, who accused Murphy of – yes – “scaremongering” and looked forward to the day when the “Hebrides range will be out of the hands of London politicians”. So it’s to be Scotland’s rocket range run by Edinburgh politicians though, disappointingly, Mr MacNeil declined to respond to the point that it is 95 per cent dependent on the UK Ministry of Defence.

Two hundred jobs in Uist equate proportionately to thousands in the Central Belt area. But the argument is essentially the same. Who in their right mind is going to stake their livelihoods on ludicrous assertions that the “London politicians” berated by Mr MacNeil would consent to every demand made by him and his colleagues on currency, defence, trade or anything else?

That’s before we get on to renewable energy, which could be the key to a much more sustainable economic future in the Western Isles, but only if those despised “London politicians” – minus any Scottish input – agree that they should force their voters to fund a subsea cable between Lewis and the mainland then compel them to subsidise the production of electricity in what by then would be a foreign state. Dream on.

On a clear day, from where I am privileged to write, I can see St Kilda. Even as the mists roll in, it does not take great eyesight to spot a bunch of chancers at long range.