Saturday, 13 May 2017

Fishing for votes in Scotland's Brexit Corner

Election trail in Banff and Buchan, May 10th 2017

IT is just 7am and Ruth Davidson is already taking the fish wars to the SNP in the noisy Peterhead market.

Most voters are only waking up but the largest daily white fish auction in Europe is in full swing and so is the Scottish Conservative leader.

Davidson is firing off sound bites faster than the merchants can bid for boxes of coley, all while posing for her trademark photo opportunities.

Having ridden buffaloes in previous campaigns Davidson is today willing to share the limelight with a sizable cod, and local Tory candidate David Duguid.

This is the glamour of the election trail but neither the cod nor the candidate get a kiss from Davidson. The photographers are pushing their luck with the can-do politician who thinks she's about to land an election catch.

Across the north east the Conservatives are wooing Brexit-supporting fishermen into their nets with the promise that only Theresa May can deliver a good deal from Europe.

Banff and Buchan, that box of fertile farming land and fishing ports in the top right above Aberdeen, is home to the UK's biggest fishing fleet. It is also Scotland's  Brexit corner.

When the referendum votes were weighed up this was the constituency that definitely voted to leave Europe.

The reason is simple - the hated Common Fisheries Policy. Fishermen on the coast, and farming communities inland, feel control over their livelihood and industries have been ceded to foreign powers for the last 40 years.

The place has been an SNP stronghold ever since Alex Salmond snatched the seat from the late Buchan Bulldog, Tory MP Albert MacQuarrie, back in 1987.

The SNP has prospered over the years from the story of how UK fishing grounds, and Scottish fishing communities, were bargained away by a Tory government as the price of joining the EU in the 1970s.

Sitting MP Eilidh Whitford, who has nursed the seat since taking over from Salmond seven years ago, enters the race on what should be a comfortable 14,000 majority.

But now the Brexit fishermen and the pro-European SNP appear to have fallen out. Conservative polling hopes are borne out by voting in the council elections last week, leaving the SNP on the defensive.

The nationalists welcomed Davidson to Peterhead by leaking a partial account of a letter from UK Environment Secretary Andrea Leadsom. It claimed to show that fishing was an expendable Brexit pawn.

The charge has been dismissed out of hand by the fishermen's leaders like Bertie Armstrong who has had the letter for a month and found that far from threatening it delivers the assurances the Scottish Fishermen's Federation were looking for.

Davidson  accuses Nicola Sturgeon of a "grubby" attempt to sink her visit to Peterhead.

In the comfort of the port authority board room she emphasises the message she gave to the market below: "We've got one chance to get a good deal out of Brexit, I'm committed to that and so are the Conservative Ministers and fishermen know that any attempt to take us back into the EU would mean we go straight back into the Common Fisheries policy."

Up in town, and batting for Europe , Eilidh Whiteford has a simple reply for that. She says: "The Tories betrayed the fishermen on the way into Europe and they would betray them on the way out."

The fishermen want all the fish in the sea and all the markets to sell them too. But what would be unacceptable would be for the Common Fishery Policy rules to keep applying after Brexit.

That, Whiteford warns, is what a Tory Brexit would mean - a second sell-out of the fishermen.

She says: "The Leadsom letter couldn't be clearer - the Tories are simply going to translate the CFP into UK law and it is going to be business as usual with the same foreign vessels fishing in our waters but with restrictions on our exporters."

She adds:  "The wise heads in the industry see this, the risks will fall on processors and exporters. You can have much quota as you want but if you don't have a market to sell to no one is winning."

But echoing across the Peterhead market, voices can be heard willing the Conservatives to win.

Jimmy Buchan, the skipper who starred in the popular Trawlermen TV series, now represents the processors onshore through the Scottish Seafoods Association.

"We need a strong Prime Minister in there," he says. "This is is not about completely excluding our European counterparts it is about getting the balance and the share in our favour as the nation that has the fish, that is not unreasonable."

Davidson highlights that the SNP has nothing left  to offer the fishing communities: "The EU fishery commissioner has made it clear, no new entrant to the EU will be able to modify the CFP. You're straight back in that would be a huge disappointment to people here who see the opportunity Brexit gives to their industry."

The North east has been rewarded for its loyalty by the SNP government. Big infrastructure investment in the SNP's favoured corner has transforming the road network but there has been another change of late.

In the council elections Conservatives were ahead in first preference votes in every ward, even SNP strongholds like Fraserburgh.

"There might be people who voted Scottish independence but they voted with even more passion to leave the EU," says Tory hopeful David Duguid.

"I can be a voice for the whole community in the heart of parliament, not just shouting from the sidelines of opposition"

Duguid and Whiteford are politicians unlike Ruth Davidson or Alex Salmond.

Whiteford is no blowhard but the quiet-spoken veteran has a native feel for the communities that make up Banff and Buchan.

There is more to the seat than fishing. On the doorstep she hears a lot about the problems of lay offs in the oil and gas industry, the quiet disaster that has left once wealthy oil workers facing their overstretched credit lines.

She is also still getting a warm response to that other referendum question,  the one on independence.

Like the fishermen Whiteford knows not all fishing expeditions end in success.

She says: "We were returning SNP MPs here when the party was at 14 per cent in national polls.I think a lot of people with the loudest voices don't always represent the common sense of the majority."

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