Scottish farmers wary of arguments for independence
Scotland’s farming community knows referendum will be decided in urban areas
“What [farmers] are worried about is losing markets. Currently, we have a huge home export,” said former MEP George Lyon. Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
Bullocks and heifers emptied quietly from trailers and trucks into the holding pens at Dumfries mart for the Wednesday sale. Inside, banter filled the air in the canteen, helped along by ebullient auctioneer Harry Begg.
Few sitting at the table wanted to talk about Scotland’s independence referendum, due to take place on September 18th. When coaxed, a majority was united in its opposition. “King Alex [Salmond, Scottish first minister] just wants a crown on his head,” a butcher who had come to buy stock for his shop said scathingly.
With less than two months to go before the referendum, the 65,000 farmers and others living in rural Scotland are hearing pleas from both sides of the debate – even if the battle will be won or lost in urban areas.
For the Yes side the arguments centres on London’s lack of interest in farming and its near-pathological dislike of the European Union’s common agriculture policy (CAP) – which successive British governments have wanted to cut.
Year after year, they say, British ministers have sat down at meetings of EU agriculture ministers in Brussels determined either to keep subsidies down or to direct them towards bigger farmers in England.
Farming in Scotland is different. Farms range in size from tiny crofts in the Hebrides and elsewhere to the huge intensive operations that are more common south of the border, in England.
Nearly two-thirds of agricultural land is useful only for rough grazing, compared with 15 per cent in England; while Scottish farmers are far more dependent than others on the state of the beef market, since they own a quarter of the UK’s herd.
Barley is the most important cereal grown, by far – filling 340,000 hectares every year, with nearly all of it going to feed Scotland’s whisky industry, one that has become increasingly successful on the back of rapidly rising exports.
Since devolution, agriculture has been directed from Holyrood, but Scottish ministers never get the chance to represent UK interests at the Brussels table, Scottish rural affairs secretary Richard Lochhead has frequently complained.
The EU-funded direct payment scheme was negotiated without Scottish influence, he argues, asserting that Scottish farmers would have received €1 billion more between 2014 and 2020 if it was independent.
Ireland is frequently mentioned: “My equivalent in Wexford gets three times the support from Europe for doing exactly the same job. That puts me at a considerable disadvantage,” said Farming for Yes member Cameron Ewen, who farms nearly 400 acres near Aberdeen.
For the No side the arguments are equally stark. Currently the promises being made are unrealistic; doubts about which currency would be used have not being assuaged; existing markets, especially in England, would be threatened; while Scotland’s place in the EU is not guaranteed if a referendum about an exit from the union is held in 2017.
Questions about the currency dominate conversations among farmers in Dumfries, as they must for a group of people who export three-quarters of everything they produce.
“What they are worried about is losing markets. Currently, we have a huge home export. Scottish meat carries the British label,” said former Liberal Democrats MEP George Lyon, who lost his seat in the May elections.
Scottish farmers have consistently received more than Irish farmers: “The returns over the last three years have been £200 (€253) more per head. Why would you walk away from that?” said Mr Lyon, who used to farm in Bute.
If Scotland becomes independent, both will battle for English markets on an equal footing, he argues: “We would be competing head to head with the Irish in what would be for both of us a foreign market. Home-produced always gets a better price.”
For Mr Ewen, however, independence is firstly a matter of the heart: “My father was in the British army in 1958 in Cyprus, There, he asked himself why they were using force to stop the Cypriots wanting to run their own country.
“When he got home he said: ‘Well, I don’t get much say in running my own country either.’ Just like him, independence seems a natural thing to me, I didn’t need any convincing.”
Tenth of farmers
He disputed a poll by the Aberdeen Press and Journal that said just a tenth of farmers in the northeast of Scotland would vote Yes in September: “If that’s true then I must know everyone of them,” he said dryly.
“Farming has been fairly good over the last three years. Prices falling back a bit now, sure, but even anti-independence people would accept that devolution has been good for Scottish agriculture. And this Scottish government has been good for agriculture.”
Back in Dumfries, Harry Begg busily moved ploughed his way through the list of Charolais, Limousin and Angus cattle, along with the hundreds of lambs that had been brought for sale. Trade was brisk.
The mood in the canteen said much about opinion, with most of those there appearing to agree with George Lyon that their voices would count for little in the weeks ahead.
“This’ll be decided by the folks in Glasgow, not by us,” said one as he stirred his tea.