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Jake Swindells: Rural life defined by election outcome

This article, written by Director of the Scottish Countryside Alliance, Jake Swindells, was first published in Scottish Country Life.


While most rural issues are devolved to the Scottish Parliament the position of the UK government and parliament matters. Both need to understand and respect rural communities and their way of life. They must recognise that if we are to meet the challenges of food security, climate change and biodiversity loss then this means working with those that live and work in the countryside, not against them, as well as with the devolved governments. Too often politicians, whether in Holyrood, Westminster or elsewhere in the UK, seem only interested in doing things to the countryside rather than for it.

With fifty-seven Scottish Westminster seats up for grabs at the recent general election, it was a vital time for rural Scotland. Hustings, debates and canvassing all played a big part, but did the people of rural Scotland know what their vote achieved? It’s never as easy as it seems.

In the last Scottish Parliament elections there was an element of tactical voting. Some voted SNP as it was becoming clear that the Scottish Greens might increase their presence if they did not, but did tactical voting play a part this time around? Manifestos were published and there were no real surprises. The SNP obviously continued their campaign for independence, Labour made it clear that they will ban trail hunting in England and Wales and ban the use of snares in England. Labour MSPs supported both the Hunting with Dogs (Scotland) Act and the Wildlife Management and Muirburn Act. The Liberal Democrats aimed to ban the routine burning of heather on moorland, ignoring all the research and evidence. The Conservatives pledged to invest in river restoration whilst ensuring that tree planting and peatland commitments are met. Pre-election polls from Wales clearly showed Reform UK gathering momentum, and the Green Party manifesto showed a remarkable lack of understanding of the countryside and its management.

What has happened in Scotland in recent years is evidence of the irreparable damage that can be caused by pursuing policies that fly in the face of science and evidence, damaging the countryside, its communities and wildlife. The Scottish Countryside Alliance is, and will remain, an all-party organisation, but we will continue to speak out against harmful policies coming from any party whether in Holyrood, Westminster or anywhere else.

Recently, the Minister for Agriculture and Connectivity, Jim Fairlie MSP, spoke at a moorland conference organised by Scottish Land and Estates. Mr Fairlie used key phrases, such as “proportionate” and “partners” when talking about legislation and rural constituents who face the new regulations and restrictions that are being forced on farmers and land managers. However, I can assure you that little of the recent legislation that has been rammed through, such as the Hunting with Dogs Act, is proportionate. Throughout the passage of that legislation, the public were repeatedly told by ministers that “stakeholders had been consulted”. The reality was that while we had been consulted, we were also totally ignored, as indeed were the findings of their own independent inquiry, the Bonomy Review. Now the SNP want to be partners and work collaboratively, and all this just before a key election.

In Wales, Labour is open about its opposition to shooting and other legal and legitimate activities. In Scotland, they have often been a thorn in the side of rural organisations with damaging amendments proposed to legislation. Thankfully, most have failed, but this won’t always be the case. Liberal Democrats in Scotland have too often sat on the fence when it came to key decisions in the Rural Affairs Committee and although their UK manifesto had a number of interesting commitments for rural communities, such as the “appointment of a cross-departmental Minister for Rural Communities, to make sure that rural voices are heard across government”, their record is mixed. While there were commitments from the Conservatives on rural funding and broadband connectivity, there were also welcome policies in all the manifestos. However, it cannot have gone unnoticed that while some Labour policies could help rural communities, the word rural, which appeared in all the other manifestos launched, did not appear once in the Labour manifesto.

The Countryside Alliance set out its stall prior to the election in relation to what we wanted to see addressed, whichever party took on the hot seat. Our Rural Charter covered key issues such digital connectivity, access to services, food and farming and the importance of countryside and wildlife management, but perhaps most important is the need for rural people to be respected and understood. With one sixth of the UK’s population living in a rural area, our leading party cannot ignore the rural community or refuse to work with it. Many of those in power, despite all the rhetoric about listening to the experts and following the science, seem more interested in ideologies which ignore the evidence and do nothing but harm communities, landscape and wildlife,

No political party is perfect, but what we want to see now and in the future is support for our farmers and landowners and any legislation based on fact, rather than public opinion. For now, and for always, the Alliance will continue to fight for the rural way of life.

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