On a recent trip to Peterhead, David Mundell, the Scottish Secretary, lifted up a giant cod for the media to photograph. It was hard to decide who looked the more startled suddenly to be hailed as the fishermen’s friend, Mundell or the dead cod.
Cod, as a stock, has seen an impressive comeback in recent months. So has the Tory brand, particularly in the heartlands of Scotland’s fishing industry, the North East. What makes the revival remarkable is that it has come as a direct result of Brexit.
Indeed “hard Brexit” is seen by many as the potential saviour of an industry that has been too long in the doldrums. Orders for new boats are up and former crewmen are clamouring to get back to sea. Far from revivifying the independence dream there is now the very real prospect that Britain’s withdrawal from the EU, and consequently from the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) and the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), could actually trigger its demise.
Scottish Tories went into the EU referendum advocating a “remain” vote. So, it’s fair to say that its leadership has found itself on the right side of the fisheries argument purely by default.
We shouldn’t be too hard on Ruth Davidson who wasn’t even born when Ted Heath signed away some of the richest fishing grounds in the northern hemisphere. But successive Tory leaders failed to heed the pleas to re-negotiate the hated CFP which allows the UK only 13 per cent by value of the fish caught in what were previously British waters.
Small businessmen like fishing boat skippers and processors were natural Tories, hence their accusations of "betrayal" by Heath and his successors for nearly half a century. A Department of Agriculture and Fisheries paper as far back as 1970 warned that allowing such massive access to European boats would ‘lead to a weaker and less efficient national fleet’.
Scottish Tories duly paid the price for Heath’s “betrayal”. Replaced in all their coastal constituencies by the Nationalists, they were subsequently wiped out throughout Scotland as a whole in 1997. With Alex Salmond representing the key fishing constituency of Banff and Buchan, the SNP was able to build itself into the political behemoth it has become.
Fergus Ewing, the current fisheries minister, claims the SNP has always opposed the CFP. The truth is somewhat different. The party’s spin has always been that successive incompetent UK governments could not negotiate a favourable deal for Scotland.
What was needed was SNP determination and persuasiveness at the Brussels negotiations. Try telling that to the hapless Richard Lochhead, the SNP’s long-serving rural affairs spokesman, who sat alongside British fisheries ministers for years, and saw at first hand the impossibility of getting agreement among more than twenty EU countries.
At the recent election, SNP candidates in fishing constituencies echoed the Ewing line, while Nicola Sturgeon was blithely claiming that Scotland in Europe would remain part of the CFP. Indeed the SNP’s fate in the fishing heartlands was probably sealed in Andrew Neil’s pre-election interview with the First Minister, when she conceded that in exchange for full EU membership a Scottish government would readily hand control of fisheries back to Brussels.
Previously booming fishing ports like Peterhead, Fraserburgh, Burghead and Lossiemouth have struggled for years under catch quota reductions and cuts in fleet sizes. In 1974, when Heath signed up to the EEC, Britain had Europe’s biggest fishing fleet and 80 per cent of all its fishing waters. In that same year more than 500 boats worked out of Peterhead alone. It’s still Britain’s biggest landing port, but Peterhead has seen its fleet reduced to a rump with half of its remaining 90-odd vessels under 10 metres in length.
Outraged at the collapse of their whole way of life, “fisher folk” and “fermin folk” united to turf Alex Salmond out of his rural Gordon constituency, replacing him with a Turriff farmer. But throughout the North East the fishing vote clearly played the key role in the SNP’s rout.
Could Salmond’s personal nemesis be the beginning of a nation-wide disillusionment with a party that promotes a failed Brexit negotiation as its best electoral hope? Could the bursting of the independence bubble come from the same fisheries heartlands that gave it birth? The evidence is stacking up as SNP stalwarts, including Alex Neil and Jim Sillars, openly question the absurdity of their party’s position on fisheries.
The Tories now have a golden opportunity to put Heath’s “betrayal” behind them. Lord Duncan, the Scotland Office Minister and a former deputy CEO of the Scottish Fishing Federation, well understands the complexities of fisheries negotiations. Westminster’s man in charge will be Michael Gove, the adopted son of an Aberdeen fish merchant. Gove and Duncan seem ideally suited to hold the Brexit negotiators’ feet to the fire. Doubtless, EU vessels will continue to fish in the UK pond post-Brexit, but the British (and Scottish) governments, not Brussels, will have the right to decide who fishes where and for what species. It’s exactly the deal with the EU that Norway enjoys. It’s the kind of deal Britain could have had years ago if only the courage and political will had been there.
Ted Brocklebank was a Tory MSP from 2003-2011 and is a former fisheries spokesman