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Tim Bonner: Will a new Scottish First Minister change direction in the countryside?

Over the past few years Scottish politics sometimes seems to have been obsessed with rural issues. From hunting and grouse shooting, to deer management and land reform, the Scottish Government has brought forward measure after measure to restrict and regulate land use and wildlife management. Some of this was the SNP’s own doing, but some was initiated or at least encouraged by its partners in the Green Party. First Minister Humza Yousaf’s decision to end that partnership may have led to his political downfall, but it also raises the possibility of a political change of direction on rural as well as more general issues.


Much of the commentary about the SNP’s travails focuses on issues like hate-crime legislation and trans rights and the suggestion that, encouraged by the Greens, the party had pursued an ultra-progressive agenda which had become out of step with mainstream public opinion. On top of that, SNP government inevitably suffers from the curse of long-term incumbency, which the Conservative party is equally suffering from in Westminster. Without making judgments on competence or record, there is a political reality that after 17 years in government there is no-one else to blame for anything that is less than perfect, and voters become instinctively attracted to the idea of change.


Creating the perception of change within government, rather than by changing government, is a huge challenge and one that the next leader of the SNP will have to face. The current favourite for the job, John Swinney, will have even more of a challenge having previously served in many senior roles including SNP leader and Deputy First Minister. Mr Swinney is a rural MSP representing the constituency of Perthshire North and one area where he could make real change is in the party’s approach to rural issues. No-one denies the critically important role the countryside must play in addressing climate change and nature recovery but, as he must know, without sustainable communities and a functioning farming sector, any targets will be unachievable.


Just as in other areas, an ultra-progressive approach to land management is likely to alienate those in the centre ground. Pursuing pointless vendettas against those who keep hounds or shoot grouse does not contribute towards nature recovery, in fact in many cases it compromises it. It also makes the Scottish government look out of touch with the priorities of voters. 


An all-out assault on traditional land management and ownership, especially in the highlands, might satisfy a wing of the SNP’s support base, but it will not deliver necessary benefits for the environment. Mr Swinney has the opportunity to pursue a policy of moderation – fewer deer, not no deer; more trees, not only trees; evolving land use, not enforced change – which would certainly be a marked difference to what has come before. Like the SNP, the Scottish countryside is in the process of fundamental change and where that journey ends will be greatly influenced by the direction of travel the new First Minister chooses. Whoever gets the job would be well-advised to adopt a more balanced, moderate and relevant approach to the politics of the Scottish countryside.

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