Siol nan Gaidheal

The Countryside Crisis

Scotland's countryside is in crisis. The ability of farmers and rural producers to feed our population is under threat. Scotland has no future as an independent sovereign nation unless the essentials of life produced by agriculture and the rural economy are safeguarded.

The lesson that food production means freedom and independence should have been learned from the farmer's contribution to the Allied victory over Germany in the Second World War. Every Scottish Nationalist worthy of the name should put farming, food production and the rural economy firstmost in the priority list of an independent Scotland. Without the ability to feed our population we have no meaningful power as a people whatsoever.

Scottish agriculture, an industry vital to the Scottish nation, is facing collapse. The strong pound, a fall in produce prices, supermarkets buying cheap foreign imports and the costs of fighting B.S.E. (mad cow disease) have cut farming incomes (35% in real terms in 1997) and forced farmers to cut their variable costs. The result is a slump in demand for agricultural supplies and the products of all rural farming influenced businesses. The knock-on effect encompasses every aspect of a rural way of life that is already facing a social and educational crisis.

In the countryside, rural transport services are inadequate or non-existent. The over-taxed car is here an essential of life. Primary and secondary schools are closing and village shops, halls and country pubs are becoming a distant memory. Sentimental and ill-informed urban attitudes to animals and hunting conflict with those of country people who have always known that real nature is "fed in tooth and claw".

The debate on the future of Scotland's rural areas is not helped by the ignorant and very often patronising mind sets that characterise it must be said both the urban and rural classes — "the townie and the teuchter" syndrome.

Townies are not necessarily a plague that devastates the countryside every weekend spouting “food in the mouth” green theme-park platitudes, dictating how the countryside is wasted on the local yokels.

City people are somewhat more civilised than the locust-like horde of nose-ringed, drug-crazed, lager-swilling hunt SAB huns, vandals and goths dreamed up by the more imaginative of the land-owning "country gentry".

The city caricature of the countryside is all too familiar. The country is full of fat, subsidy-swollen farmers forever riding around in flash Range Rovers complaining constantly about how poor they are, or else the country contains braying red-coated huntsmen with dogs or shotguns, blasting every furry animal they find to bits, and then of course there are the tiresome jibes about sheep etc.

Such town and country stereotypes, many imported from and applicable to England, have unfortunately featured only too often in the debate on the countryside as any reading of the "letter page" of the local and national newspapers will readily confirm. They merely obscure the real issues and prevent the type of co-operation needed to deal with the problems of the countryside.

The greatest problem facing the agricultural industry and the countryside would appear to be the powerlessness of the people involved in the industry to do anything about their situation.

In theory, Agriculture and Fisheries is to be devolved to the Scottish Parliament. In practice, control over agriculture lies with the Council of Ministers and the Commission of the European Union.

The European Common Agriculture Policy (C.A.P.) is notoriously difficult to reform. Changes to European agriculture have to have an international consensus and it has to be said that there is little appetite for change among the continental E.U. member states.

Once voted on in the European Council of Ministers, spending for example on the C.A.P. cannot be challenged in the European Parliament or the English House of Commons far less in the new Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh.

The European Union Common Agricultural Policy is vastly expensive and, it would seem, structurally corrupt. It is estimated that the C.A.P. adds more than £20 per week to the food bill of the average family in the "UK". Scottish figures might well be higher, taking geographic and logistic factors into consideration.

Even the bureaucrats in Brussels accept that there must be some reform. Europe is expanding, the impoverished former communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe are desperate for agricultural subsidies to prop up their largely inefficient farming systems.

If the present structure of the C.A.P. remains, it will become too expensive and therefore unworkable. The present farm reforms being brought in by the European Union to prevent this are part of the package of measures called Agenda 2000 which also, incidentally, entails reforms of E.U. regional spending and means less European money for Scotland.

The C.A.P. reforms will mean sharp cuts in the support prices for milk and grain and are aimed at shifting the emphasis from artificially propping up prices to direct income payments to farmers. Scottish farmers will suffer from cuts in the subsidies they receive from Brussels and Scottish consumers will have to pay more to help subsidise agricultural inefficiency in Eastern Europe. The C.A.P. is becoming an expensive luxury that neither benefits the Scottish farmer nor the Scottish consumer. Perhaps then the best reform of the C.A.P. would be its abolition!

With Scottish farming already suffering from European Union dictatorship, as in the BSE fiasco and from British Labour Government neglect, the slashing of farm incomes has forced the Scottish farmer into a crisis which promises only debt and bankruptcy.

If farmers and agricultural workers are forced off the land, the whole infrastructure of the rural environment will be destroyed. The countryside built up by the sweat of generations of Scots will degenerate into an unproductive wilderness. The downward spiral for rural communities will accelerate with villages and small towns losing their shops, banks, pubs, village halls and schools. Closing down rural schools in particular penalises children, disrupts families and kills community spirit.

The rape of the countryside must stop. It is ironic that Labour attempts to ban fox-hunting have set in motion a movement which is at last arousing the Scottish countryside to fight back.

The participation of Scots in the massive countryside marches in London showed the great strength of feeling and the depth of concern in rural Scotland at the crisis in agriculture.

Scottish Nationalists must help to build up the rural resistance here in Scotland and shift the countryside Movement away from London-orientated gesture politics, and the agenda of the begging-bowl.

If there is to be a real rural revolution in Scotland, rural development policies must be integrated within the remit of the Scottish Parliament as a focus for beneficial change. One idea among many is for the creation of a Scottish Rural Development Agency. This agency could bring together an active network of local rural organisations encompassing farming bodies, central government, local authorities, environmental bodies and country communities.

It is only through co-operation in a Scottish context that the problems of the Scottish countryside can be solved.

Siol nan Gaidheal pledges itself to lobbying unremittingly for the policies and resources necessary to regenerate Scottish rural communities and to ensure the continuing production of Scotland's most important strategic commodity; the supply of food on which the independent future of Scotland's people depends.

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