Parliamentary Officer's Blog 31 May 2017

Another year, and another election. In fact, it is Scottish voters’ seventh visit to the ballot box since 2014 writes NFU Scotland’s Parliamentary Officer Clare Slipper.

So it is understandable that many members are growing tired of the seemingly constant state of political flux – what they want most from this election is some stability and certainty in these increasingly unstable and uncertain times.
It is time for politicians to get on with the job. Indeed, a number of General Election candidates have told us that they have also received this reception from voters as they knock doors on the campaign trail.
All of this said, the General Election on 8 June is pivotal for NFU Scotland members. The government that is elected next week will be the one that steers the ship through the UK’s exit from the European Union. With Article 50 already in motion, whoever takes the helm must quickly get down to the business of negotiating vital and fundamental issues such as the movement of labour and trade after the UK’s ‘day of exit’ on 1 April 2019.

Many have suggested that the election is a foregone conclusion; that the Prime Minister and Conservative Party Leader, Theresa May, acted opportunistically in reaction to favourable polling. However, since the release of the party manifestos over the last three weeks, those polls have narrowed and things have got a lot more interesting.
The future of agriculture and rural Scotland depends upon the UK getting a good deal from the Brexit negotiations, and the government implementing policies that will facilitate profitable, sustainable and active farming. The General Election manifestos provide a good insight into the direction that the parties would seek to take the industry if they take the keys to Number 10 next week.

Comparing the manifestos of the SNP, Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats, Scottish Greens, and UKIP (and the Scottish version of those manifestos where relevant), all seem to be in general agreement that protecting the interests of Scottish farmers will be a priority in their Brexit negotiating stances. On the whole, all of the parties also suggest they will safeguard high standards in food quality, welfare and environment. 

This is a good start. However, differences start to emerge over the (what now seems to be an age-old) issue of where, and by whom, policies designed for Scottish agriculture and rural Scotland will be drawn up, delivered, and funded.
Not surprisingly, the position of the SNP and the Scottish Greens is that the Scottish Government should be given full control of agricultural funding and policy following Brexit. Labour also supports a “presumption of devolution” where powers transferred from the EU over farming, agriculture, rural development and fisheries are transferred straight to Holyrood. This position is also supported by the Liberal Democrats. 

The position of the Conservatives on this issue is more nuanced. The party would seek new frameworks, implemented across the UK in some areas, to support food production and stewardship of the countryside after we leave the EU. However, they do suggest the devolved governments will be given more decision-making power as powers return from the EU and are repatriated, but “care will be taken to ensure that no new barriers within the UK are created”. 

What the parties would do with these powers over policy are also set out in varying levels of detail.

Labour and the Liberal Democrats both suggest that funding would be moved away from larger landowning interests and redirected to smaller family farming businesses that support local economies. The Liberal Democrats would also champion different forms of land ownership to encourage new and younger entrants into farming.

The Scottish Greens and UKIP – which are quite unlikely bedfellows – find commonality in that both would redirect farming through grant schemes that would safeguard the preservation of natural habitats, wildlife and sustainable farming practices. UKIP goes further to propose that payments would be capped at £120,000 and only eligible to land that meets environmental standards. Organic farms would also be paid 25 per cent more under UKIP.

The Conservatives talk about that golden bullet – cash. The manifesto commits the same cash total in funds for farm support until the end of the parliament, which is in 2022.  Intriguingly, the Scottish Liberal Democrats also say they will “keep support payments at the same levels as CAP for Scottish farming under any future system” – a commitment that appears in the Scottish manifesto but is not replicated in the national party’s document.

Aside from Brexit, there are a number of policies outlined in the party manifestos that support the rural economy, connectivity and the food chain more generally.

Both the SNP and the Liberal Democrats commit to pushing clearer country of origin food labelling with the new UK government – a key priority for NFU Scotland. The Liberal Democrats and Labour manifestos also support extension of the Groceries Code Adjudicator to promote fairness right through the supply chain. Meanwhile, the SNP will press for a review of the Dairy Voluntary Code of Practice for the dairy sector and for contract provisions to better meet the needs of milk producers. 

Other pledges and policies are as follows:

  • Conservatives and UKIP are supportive of mandatory CCTV recording in slaughterhouses.
  • The SNP would continue to uphold Scotland’s GM-free status and commitment.
  • Labour and the Liberal Democrats would suspend the use of neonicotinoids until science can disprove their harm to bees and other pollenators.
  • The Scottish Greens and the SNP will argue for the devolution of migration powers to the Scottish Parliament so that Scotland can devise its own migration strategy post-Brexit.
  • The SNP and Labour will urge government to reconsider its Making Tax Digital plans for quarterly reporting.

More generally, the parties’ stances differ on the approach to Brexit. As we know, the Conservatives hold the view that leaving the Single Market is the only way that the UK can effectively take back control over other areas of regulation and migration – a view that is supported by UKIP. Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats support the UK remaining in the Single Market, whereas Labour will fight to “retain the benefits” of the Single Market, and the SNP will “demand the UK Government include the case for Scotland remaining in the Single Market” even if the rest of the UK leaves. 

The Liberal Democrats go as far as to pledge that they would hold a referendum on whether to leave the EU on the terms negotiated by the UK Government, or try to stay in the EU.

Which of course brings us to the small matter of the constitution and the prospect of a second independence referendum in Scotland. 

The SNP has made no secret of its desire to hold a second vote on independence once the terms of Brexit are known. Indeed, in her Bute House speech back in March, the First Minister stated that it should be held at some point between autumn 2018 and autumn 2019.

However, the manifesto interestingly holds no commitment on the timescales, simply stating: “A vote for the SNP is a vote to reinforce the Scottish Parliament’s right to decide when an independence referendum should happen. At the end of the Brexit process, when the final terms of the deal are known, it is right that Scotland should have a real choice about our future.”

Voter apathy or fatigue aside, there is no doubt that there is much at stake in this hugely important election. Just make sure you use your vote! 

Author: Clare Slipper

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About The Author

Clare Slipper

Clare Slipper joined NFU Scotland in 2014 as the Union’s first dedicated Parliamentary Officer. Within her role, Clare briefs politicians in the Scottish, Westminster and European parliaments on key issues impacting Scottish food producers and represents members interests in the policy-making process. Clare started her career working for a public affairs and communications agency, where she worked with clients in the renewable energy and planning sectors. She graduated from Newcastle University with a degree in Politics and Sociology in 2012.

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