Sunday, 25 March 2018

Fishing barons the Brexit winners

From my Daily Record column

The fishing fiasco has exposed the utter shallowness of Conservative thinking on Brexit, and much else besides.

Michael Gove and Ruth Davidson were fools to cast aside a political rule to under-promise and over-deliver in a rush to say the UK will quickly gain control of territorial fishing waters.

Desperate for a Brexit win, they set the UK up for a fall.

Russia is not the only country which delights in sowing dicord.

French negotiators read British newspapers, saw what the pair wanted and simply said: “Non”.

The EU will set quota until 2020 and France proposed not just that the UK have no say but that our share be reduced too.

British negotiators were lucky to escape with the current quota intact, and that was bad enough.

Politicians then danced a sailor’s hornpipe to outdo each other on outrage.

To calm Scottish Tory MPs, whose lease on the north east has fishing and Brexit stamped on every page, chief whip Julian Smith told them not to worry because “it’s not like the fishermen are going to vote Labour”.

Unbelievably, Smith is Scottish but hasn’t caught up on the last 30 years of SNP dominance in fishing communities cut short by Brexit.

They just don’t get it but neither do nationalists clamouring that the UK will sell out fishing for a better deal for London’s financial services.

The choice is not between banking and fishing quotas, it will be about how much quota the UK will share versus the EU trade tariffs fish exports could face.

The hard-Brexit Rees-Mogg and his Scottish valet, Ross “Jeeves” Thomson MP, propose what might amount to a quick quota grab for the white fish fleet.

But for the majority of Scottish fishermen, the in-shore boats that export shellfish landings into the EU, it would be a disaster.

Before their limited free trade deal with the EU, Canadian fishermen faced an eight per cent import tariff on lobster - double if the produce was frozen.

That’s the price the Scottish shellfish industry would pay under a sovereign seas policy Farage and Co demand.

Fishing, like shipyards, is a deeply symbolic industry, but just who are politicians fighting this Brexit war for?

To their credit (and the EU’s), Scotland’s white fish fleet went through years of conservation pain and decommissioned boats.

Perversely, as stocks recovered, quota was gathered into fewer hands and fishing power was concentrated in supertrawlers capable of hoovering up tons of stock in one catch.

Effective control of the Scottish fishing industry now rests with a few dozen multi-millionaire owners across the north-east and northern isles.

These fishing barons are licking their lips at the prospect of leaving the EU and dictating policy to MPs marching up Downing Street to their tune.

What chance for conservation or a re-balancing of the fishing industry if it’s the megabucks interests masquerading as a heritage industry who call the shots?

There is a genuine opportunity in Brexit, though Theresa May probably didn’t register it when she said: “We want to rebuild our fishing industry.”

Voiceless, run-down fishing communities want that too but there isn’t a post-Brexit plan which speaks to them any more than there is for negotiating Brexit in the first place.

Right now all Brexit means for fishing is allowing millionaire Scottish quota owners and huge English quota conglomerates (foreign-owned some of them) the opportunity to plunder more from the seas.

If it is about the catch to profit ratio of millionaires, Brexit will be a real betrayal of coastal communities.

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