I am worried. I am worried about the future of Scottish agriculture and land management. To be sure, there is a lot to be worried about with Brexit overshadowing everything; a huge amount rests on the outcome of the trade deals that are still to be negotiated. But, I have a more specific worry which is that Scottish agriculture and land management could find itself at a real disadvantage if the UK and Scottish governments remain mired in a wider constitutional battle.
At the moment the focus of attention is on the Withdrawal Bill in Westminster, which seeks to bring EU legislation within the UK legal framework when we leave the EU. This Bill creates a constitutional issue because it appears that devolved powers are being returned, to some degree, to Westminster. Under current arrangements the Scottish Government has the power to make its own decisions relating to land use, farming and rural development. In practice, because we are members of the EU, the frameworks within which these decisions are made are set at the EU level with the Scottish Government having discretion about how to implement the EU legislation. Under the Withdrawal Bill, however, it is proposed that the powers that currently reside in Brussels (but which relate to devolved issues) should sit in Westminster pending discussions about possible common policy frameworks prior to any decision on devolution. Hence the concerns about a power grab and an attack on the principles of devolution.
Should powers go to Westminster for an undetermined period with subsequent intra-UK collaboration, or should powers come to Scotland with the Scottish Government subsequently deciding on which UK collaborative efforts to sign up to?
I think it is fair to say that from Scottish Land & Estates’ perspective we can see that both governments have a point. The UK government appears to be trying to take a pragmatic approach by proposing a short-term mechanism for dealing with the incredibly complicated process of Brexit. Yet, at the same time, the Scottish Government also has a legitimate concern that the UK government is taking back control in devolved areas and Edinburgh is right to be fighting for Scottish interests.
In this context, my worry is that both governments are unable to agree and that we end up in the worst possible scenario for Scottish agriculture. What we don’t want is a future policy and support regime imposed by Westminster. Any way forward must be developed jointly, respect devolution and allow Scotland the ability to shape its own policy and support regimes. At the same time we don’t want to see a cliff edge drop in support to our farmers and land managers. I worry that if we cling rigidly to the principle that all powers must be returned to Scotland as soon as Brexit happens, the UK government could easily turn round and say that the consequence is that any funding would come through the block grant. That could mean a substantial drop in funds available to Scottish farmers, unless the Scottish Government was willing to take funds from other parts of the public sector to maintain farmers’ payments, which in current circumstances seems a stretch at the very least.
So it seems to me that to get the best outcome for Scottish agriculture and land management we need our governments to work together to resolve the issue of powers as a matter of urgency.
The main problem seems to be one of trust. There seems to be a lack of trust between the UK and Scottish Governments and this is a problem that needs to be overcome, and quickly. If you speak to representatives of the UK government you hear how the Scottish Government is really difficult to work with, but if you speak to the Scottish Government you hear how the UK government doesn’t engage. This gets really frustrating for those of us whose lives and business will be affected, but there are real issues here that do need to be addressed.
The Scottish Government appears not to trust the UK government’s assurances about the Withdrawal Bill and to be fair to the Scottish Government its position is not unreasonable. Assurances are not necessarily concrete commitments. In this context, the UK government needs to recognise how its past behaviour is influencing the view taken on these issues in Scotland and further steps need to be taken to build trust. Yet, at the same time, the Scottish Government may have to recognise that constructive engagement and compromise might be needed if we are to get the best outcome for Scotland.
One way that it might be possible to move forward would be for much more concrete proposals to be brought forward quickly. The lack of detail on matters such as a possible UK policy framework for agriculture appears to be creating some of the concern. Without any detail it is possible for the Scottish Government to think that the UK government is planning a takeover, but it might be that what they actually have in mind is much less concerning. So let’s see the detail so that we can discuss the merits of different ways forward.
At the moment, though, I remain worried. The future of Scottish agriculture and land management is very much in the balance. Most of the current debate is about the fundamental constitutional issues of powers in the context of devolution. These are big political issues, but my focus is on how we get the best outcome for Scottish farming and rural land management and there are still lots of unknowns. Does a UK framework actually mean policy driven by Westminster? What happens if the Scottish Government’s argument prevails and all the powers came back to Scotland? Will the budget be hit? Will farmers and land managers have to pay the price for the focus on getting the powers?
Hopefully our politicians can resolve the constitutional issues without inflicting damage on our rural businesses (accepting, of course, that there will be change). But I suspect that, at the end of the day, this will require our governments to work together and to start having the grown up conversations that we need them to have. It won’t be easy, but it is in the interests of Scotland’s farmers, foresters and rural businesses that they do so.
David Johnstone, Chairman, Scottish Land & Estates