Comment: Industry mulls independent Scotland’s place in Europe

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IN RATHER dramatic language, it has been called the “Highland Showdown” with Scotland’s premier outdoor event, the Highland Show, being used as the backdrop to the opening shots in the debate over whether Scotland should vote for independence or not next September.

The first volley was fired last week by George Lyon, now an MEP but previously a farmer on Bute and a former NFU Scotland president.

Surrounded by prominent farming names from around the country, he kicked off the campaign to keep Scotland within the UK. His Rural Better Together group aims to pick up support at the Highland Show from others who feel that while the present system may not be perfect it is better, as one of the founders remarked, than “a leap in the dark” towards independence.

There are not many opportunities to be a bookmaker in farming journalism, but it was a racing certainty that the Scottish Government would cover Lyon’s move and sure enough within a couple of days, there came an announcement that Richard Lochhead, the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs, will make a speech at the Highland Show detailing the gains that an independent Scotland can bring.

(I cannot say that this was a knee-jerk reaction to Lyon’s move because the wrath of the government press office would then come down upon my head with claims the minister had been planning such a statement for months, so 
I will refrain from any such suggestion.)

Even if there is still more than a year to go before we will have to put our tick in the appropriate box, it is high time the farming industry took the matter seriously. The average citizen will worry about personal issues, such as the future of his/her pension. They may also have concerns over major issues such as defence, but the farming community more than any other will worry about the European link.

Put at its most basic, farmers will consider whether there will be any interruption to their Single Farm Payment, beyond any changes already coming along the track within the reformed Common Agricultural Policy.

With Spain resisting independence calls for a separate Basque region and other European member states fearful of a break-up of their countries, I find it hard to believe that Scotland would be granted automatic European Union membership.

Continuing from this, my worry is that even a temporary blockage of the subsidy pipeline as Scotland negotiates entry into the EU could cause major problems for Scottish agriculture. You cannot just take the £500 million or so of subsidy out of the equation.

Linked to this, Scottish farmers will have worries about their export market, which in the future will include England, plus concerns on currency and financial structures.

So far in the independence debate there has been a surfeit of political rhetoric and a minimal amount of important economic information.

My worry is the large number of knowledgeable and potentially influential people who will be excluded or will exclude themselves from making public comment on the issue.

This list includes anyone in high positions in organisations such as NFU Scotland, which throughout its 100 years has kept political neutrality.

I assume the same impartiality will go for Scottish Land & Estates, representing the landowners in Scotland, the Scottish Tenant Farmers Association and all the lobbying organisations such as the Scottish Beef Council and the National Sheep Association.

Within all those organisations there will be members who will hold opposing views and it will be mightily dangerous in membership terms for such bodies to take sides in the independence debate.

Those who pursue a quango career, or who would like to, will also probably keep their powder dry, just in case their cards are marked in the future.

Professional companies, be they legal firms, agricultural advisers or estate agents, will be curtailed by commercial considerations of what impact their views might have on their businesses.

Doing the same will be all those linked to bodies funded by the Scottish Government such as SRUC and the research institutes, as it would be extremely imprudent to take a view contrary to those currently running the country, or indeed those who might be running the country in the future.

This brings in another category who might prefer to keep quiet but who will wonder what will happen post September 2014 regardless of how the vote goes. Will opposition to change or support for change be forgotten the following day? I doubt it.

I congratulate those who have so far spoken out, but I fear there will be few prepared to put their head above the proverbial parapet.

I hope I am proved wrong.