General Election: Could SNP 'trash' claims on fishing harm them?

The row over fishing could cast a long shadow over Nicola Sturgeon's candidates in constituencies that backed Brexit in the referendum last year.
Scots fishing leaders say in the industry can flourish after BrexitScots fishing leaders say in the industry can flourish after Brexit
Scots fishing leaders say in the industry can flourish after Brexit

A row over the future of Scottish fishing as the UK prepares to leave the European Union is still rumbling on.

After being first raised a fortnight ago at First Minister’s Questions, the SNP are continuing to clash with a fishermen’s body and the Tories over apparent plans to keep some EU rules in force post Brexit.

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Scots fishing leaders reject Sturgeon's claims of 'sell-out'
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Then, Ruth Davidson said that the SNP were inconsistent on the landscape of the vital industry, with Nicola Sturgeon accuse her Conservative adversary of flip-flopping on the issue.

Now, with Scotland’s fishing communities in the North East being targeted by the Tories ahead of the General Election, there’s a chance that this particular row could even cause political upheaval for the SNP.

The row

The clashes which were kicked off in that session at Holyrood have escalated since the start of this week after statements from the SNP’s candidate in Banff and Buchan, Eilidh Whiteford.

Excerpts of a letter from Andrea Leadsom, the UK’s environment secretary, were seized on by the SNP to accuse Westminster of planning to ‘sell out’ Scotland’s fishermen by retaining aspects of the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy (CFP).

The letter was sent to the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation (SFF), and Dr Whiteford said the letter proved that Theresa May was planning the ‘gigantic sell out’.

Dr Whiteford also made the claim that with Ms Leadsom saying no decision had yet been taken, the UK was opening the door for other countries in the EU still potentially having control over Scotland’s fish stocks.

The First Minister, for her part, tweeted the letter, adding that “Letter from UK gov reveals that Tories are planning to sell out Scottish fishing – again.

“As Scottish Tories tell fishermen Brexit means no CFP, letter says UK Government is considering incorporating CFP rules into domestic law.”

The backlash

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That interpretation of the environment secretary’s letter didn’t sit well with Scotland’s fishermen, an overwhelming majority of whom backed Brexit.

SFF Chief Executive Bertie Armstrong rejected the claims made by Nicola Sturgeon and Eilidh Whiteford, and didn’t accept their reading of the letter.

He said: “Any reading of this letter in full makes it clear that the UK government is committed to ensuring we exit the CFP and re-assert control of our waters.

“In fact, at our meeting with Ms Leadsom in March she said that we are leaving the EU and we are leaving the CFP”

Tory leader Ms Davidson wasted no time joining in the attack on the SNP, accusing Nicola Sturgeon of a grubby spin operation that she said was designed to scaremonger over the UK Government’s fishing strategy.

She added: “Scotland’s fishing leaders have directly contradicted her – if Nicola Sturgeon has even a shred of decency she will retract her absurd claims.”

The election

This argument, it is important to note, hasn’t taken place in a vacuum.

With an election looming in under a month, Ruth Davidson is clearly keen to exploit the concerns of Brexit-backing fishermen who are currently represented by the pro-Remain SNP.

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Ms Davidson has parked her tanks firmly on the lawn of a number of prominent SNP politicians, including former First Minister Alex Salmond, whose Aberdeenshire seat of Gordon doesn’t seem quite as rock solid as it did a fortnight ago.

The Tories have been briefing heavily that they also consider the constituency of Dr Whiteford, home to a number of fishing families, to be a seat ripe for turning blue.

Ruth Davidson even spent Tuesday campaigning at Peterhead Fish Market even as the row over the CFP was raging.

Banff and Buchan is reckoned to be Scotland’s most pro-Brexit constituency, with the votes of fishermen being vital in ensuring that the seat, by some measures, actually voted to leave the European Union.

With Theresa May’s strong and stable mantra seemingly lacking some value in Scotland, a tailored version of her claim that she can secure the best deal for the UK from the EU might find some resonance in constituencies like Banff and Buchan.

It is clear from the row that the SNP’s relationship with Scotland’s fishermen is strained to say the very least.

Amid an undeniable resurgence for the party, it is clear that Ruth Davidson’s Scottish Conservatives see an opportunity for growth in areas that were previously safe ground for Nicola Sturgeon’s party.