Political Affairs Manager's Blog - 20 December 2017

I still recall the words of the late Donald Dewar which opened the Scottish Parliament on 1st July 1999 and would shape the landscape of Scottish politics writes Clare Slipper, Political Affairs Manager.

“There shall be a Scottish Parliament.

“Through long years, those words were first a hope, then a belief, then a promise. Now they are a reality.”

I watched this speech whilst sat cross legged on the floor of my primary 5 classroom in central Edinburgh. Aged 8, I was yet to discover a keen interest in politics which would later lead to my employment at NFU Scotland and the world of agricultural politics. But I do strongly recall an understanding that it was an important moment (possibly because we were enticed with juice and biscuits to up the intrigue).

Two decades have now passed since the 1997 referendum on the creation of the Scottish Parliament and the country is once again at a crossroads as we collectively try to make sense of the result of the European referendum. Now seems like a fitting moment to examine what the Scottish Parliament has achieved in its (relatively) short life - and, importantly, what it has achieved for agriculture in Scotland.

The Scotland Act that followed the 1997 referendum established the founding principles of devolution and transferred powers over the implementation of agricultural policy to Scottish Ministers.

In that time, the Scottish Parliament has had a couple of shots at Land Reform legislation and Crofting law reform (an issue which will return during this parliament); it has legislated to enshrine climate change targets and established a new Food Standards body.

Rightly or wrongly, Scottish Ministers have also legislated in some areas of agricultural policy that has taken Scotland in a different direction to the rest of the UK. Ruling out the cultivation of GM crops in Scotland is one example. Another is the highly successful work that has been undertaken to eradicate disease and improve the health status of animals in Scotland - an accolade which might not have been achieved without a strong, devolved focus on animal health as a priority area.

Since 1999, Scottish Ministers have also had the discretion to implement the Common Agricultural Policy within Scotland, meaning that Scottish farmers and crofters have retained the option to make use of coupled support and Less Favoured Area payments where their English counterparts have not.

On balance, it is fair to surmise that overall the devolution of agriculture to the Scottish Parliament has worked well for Scottish food producers in allowing decisions that impact them to be made closer to home.

Of course, it would be remiss not to mention another significant referendum which has taken place between 1997 and now - the 2014 referendum on independence. Scottish independence was an issue which split opinions between NFU Scotland members down the middle, and the Union took a neutral stance towards it. Rather than taking one side, our role was instead to furnish members with arguments from both sides of the debate to help them to make an informed decision. The engagement of NFUS members at that time was remarkable - with over 1,500 members attending debates organised by the Union up and down the country, it sparked a real interest amongst members on how their priorities are represented and catered for politically.

As the Scottish Parliament has matured, so too has the relationship between the agricultural industry and its political representatives. In the four years I have worked for NFU Scotland, I have witnessed a significant upscale in the interest of Scottish parliamentarians in the priorities of food producers. They realise that, for the Brexit negotiations in particular, the stakes are high for our industry.

And this is where the nuance of the current debate over future agriculture policy frameworks lies.

Leaving the EU is the first opportunity we’ve had in over 40 years to implement real, effective change to agricultural policy and devise a system which fits and is genuinely sensitive to the vast range of landscapes, farm types and land uses that make up Scotland’s patchwork agricultural industry. Our diversity and provenance are our Unique Selling Points, and we can’t afford to lose this opportunity. We must be ambitious, but also ensure that change is managed and not chaotic.

Scottish farmers and crofters are up for this challenge, but only if the UK Government recognises that the devolved administrations require significant latitude and flexibility to devise and implement policy tools that fit their needs. And ultimately, that requires respect for the Scotland Act and the founding principles of devolution.
The Scottish agricultural industry must not become a political football, but equally it is vital that devolved and UK Ministers find a way new way of working together to attain meaningful consensus on this crucial issue. Otherwise, the great opportunity of Brexit could be lost.  

I finish with another quote from Donald Dewar. To critics of the Scottish parliament, he was known to say: "Cynicism, together with unrealistic expectation, are the two great bugbears of politics."

One can’t help but draw a parallel.

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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