Alex Massie

The herring question: fishing for Britain’s future

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Following on from this post on Des Browne's interview with The Scotsman today, the Secretary of State for Scotland (who is also the Secretary of State for Defence, though you might think that ought to be a full-time job) also had this to say:

Mr Browne also dealt a blow to the aspirations of the SNP Executive, which has started negotiations with Westminster in an attempt to get Scottish ministers to lead for the UK in European fishing talks. Mr Browne said the UK government would not agree to such a change. He said: "As far as fisheries is concerned, Scotland has a voice in the fisheries negotiations annually, but they are UK negotiations. It's the United Kingdom which is a member of the European Union and Alex Salmond knows that.

"I frankly don't think there is any possibility of the UK government conceding a position which reflects a different constitutional position than the one that we have."

This is not surprising, even if one may argue that it's bad policy. Certainly if I were a fisherman I'd rather the UK were represented by Alex Salmond in Brussels than by whichever third-rate flunky is dispatched from London. This would be true even if I were an English fisherman.

There is a practical case for letting the Scottish Executive take the lead in fishing talks. Roughly 70% of the UK catch is taken from Scottish waters. Fishing - as the industry has learnt to its cost - is not a priority for the UK government; it is much more important to the Scottish Executive (especially one led by the SNP whose northeastern stronghold is also the fishing industry heartland). 

So the fishing industry may reasonably conclude that its best interests are being ignored for purely political reasons. From a Westminster perspective this is too bad: you may not like it, but you'll damn well lump it. But Salmond appreciates - as politicians at Westminster apparently do not - that there is something to the Europe of the Regions concept. The European Fisheries Agency, for instance, is now located in the Galician port of Vigo.

But, no, better by far to have fishing policy led by people with no real interest or stake in the British position rather than by people who do. The great opportunity for Salmond here is that this allows him to make his case while seeming perfectly reasonable.

He can go on Newsnight and the Today programme and argue, quite legitimately, that this is not a matter of Scotland vs England but one of getting the best deal for fishermen, Scots and English alike. He can say, again reasonably, that of course he's not suggesting that Scotland take the UK lead in, say, defence issues, but that's it's silly - just silly - to suppose that there's no area in which Scottish ministers cannot play such a role.

If Salmond presents himself - and his country - not as a victim, but as a country willing to assume its proper share of responsibilities (and he should stress that he'd be after getting a good deal for English fishermen too) as a grown-up, mature place, he would not only elevate his own stature but that of the Scottish Executive itself.

Such a development would also demonstrate that London and Edinburgh can work together, allaying the fears still held by much of middle-Scotland that the SNP are just one dram away from the worst sort of tartan populism.

So, yes, one can see why Des Browne is opposed to the idea of Scotland taking the lead in fishing talks. It's a tricky position for Westminster: agreeing to the Scottish proposals would be to lose face, but not agreeing to them might result in political embarrassment further down the line.

Treating Salmond - and by extension Scotland  - as a child ("It's the United Kingdom which is a member of the European Union and Alex Salmond knows that") is not very smart politics however. 

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.