Farmers and crofters are warning that a row over subsidies in post-Brexit Britain threatens rural life in Scotland, writes Paris Gourtsoyannis.
Farmers, by and large, are a stoic bunch. So when a panel of Scottish farming and crofting leaders came to Westminster last week to warn that much of their way of life could be lost, you’d imagine people would sit up and listen.
The other thing farmers are known for is spending their money. It doesn’t sit long in their pockets. Cash from the livestock market is spent at the feed mart and, like blood pumped from the heart, flows into a dozen other local businesses that keep small communities going. Tourism is the other big industry in rural Scotland, but farming arguably does more to keep families, and therefore vital services, in rural towns and villages year-round.
Certain sections of the commentariat scoffed when the Scottish Government complained of a ‘power grab’ by the UK Government. Powers that had been held in Brussels were coming back to the UK, so the SNP had nothing to complain about, it was argued.
Except it isn’t just the SNP complaining – it’s farmers, not normally given to nationalist hysteria and grievance.
The Agriculture Bill currently before the House of Commons doesn’t plan out in detail what agricultural subsidies and regulations will look like after Brexit, but it does put in place some of the legal scaffolding that will determine how a replacement for the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) will be built. Because the Scottish Government refused to sign off on the Brexit legislation that underpins the sharing of responsibility in devolved areas, it contains no specific provisions for Scotland. Farmers are therefore left wondering which government to look to when the transition to a new subsidy regime takes place in the mid-2020s.
The Scottish Government says authority to design its own scheme resides in the Continuity Bill, a piece of Holyrood legislation awaiting a ruling on its legality from the Supreme Court following a UK challenge. The decision is expected this month. Meanwhile, the Agriculture Bill has farming interests in Scotland worried. Appearing before the Commons’ Scottish Affairs Committee last week, Scottish farmers and crofters made clear their needs were determined by a very different landscape – literally – than in the rest of the UK.
Michael Gove, the UK Environment Secretary, has signalled that he wants subsidies paid in future based on the improvements farmers make to the environment on their land – reducing the impact on landscapes and soils, improving biodiversity, and so on. Funds may no longer be paid simply to support the core business of farming.
“If we took a similar approach in Scotland, that would be extremely detrimental, in many senses, to huge tracts of Scottish agriculture,” warned Johnnie Hall, the policy director for the National Farmers’ Union Scotland (NFUS). In Scotland, 85 per cent of farmland qualifies for support under the EU’s ‘Less Favoured Area’ scheme, designed for less productive, difficult terrain and soils. No other part of the UK is eligible. Rural businesses in more forgiving areas can be improved and diversified, but “there are no alternatives” to the way things are done in large parts of Scotland, the chair of the Scottish Crofting Federation, Russell Smith, told MPs.
“If you don’t support, in this case, stock rearing in the north and the west, then you lose the population, the economy and everything that goes with that and supports it,” he warned.
“In our croft, what we get from selling sheep and from our basic payment covers the costs of running the unit,” Smith added. Support under the Less Favoured Area scheme “is the profit”. Without it or an equivalent successor, “we would stop”. Without a separate scheme supporting specific types of livestock rearing, “we will see even more abandonment of the hills”.
The NFUS has commissioned academic and legal opinion that if the Agriculture Bill is the last word on how subsidies will be designed, that would give Gove “unilateral control over allocations of funding for certain types of support measure”, according to Hall.
Even if this gets straightened out eventually, it might be too late, MPs were reminded. “Farming and crofting is a long-term game,” Hall said. “It takes years and years. Decisions made today might not see a return for some time to come.”
This is existential stuff not just for farmers, but also for Scottish Tories, who represent a sizeable chunk of Scotland’s uplands in the Borders. Yet it was clear from the way Conservative MPs on the committee interacted with the witnesses that there was greater interest in convincing them they should be happy powers are returning from Brussels than engaging with fears about the detail of a future payments system.
Like a tired marriage, EU farm subsidies are little loved, but impossible to imagine life without. The NFUS’ Hall called the CAP a “straightjacket” holding back innovation and preventing fresh blood from getting into farming, one of the UK’s fastest ageing industries.
Some environmentalists believe hill farming is an ecological disaster, particularly in the Scottish Highlands, where before human intervention, a temperate rainforest covered much of the landscape. Eurosceptics on the right and the left see the CAP as the worst example of Brussels waste, and farmers as subsidy junkies. Free market evangelists claim the CAP and other initiatives like geographic indicators, protecting European produce from Parmesan cheese to Stornoway black pudding, are barriers to international trade.
But if Brexit and the rise of populism are a response to the way globalisation lays waste to working-class communities and devalues traditional British ways of life, then protecting Scotland’s most precarious communities must be a priority. Farmers believe the Scottish Government, closer to their interests than Whitehall, is best placed to do that. The risk of families abandoning the Highlands should be enough to get the politicians to agree a solution.