Controlling our future: Scottish fishing and the need for independence

It is difficult to imagine that there is any connection between the success of a country’s economic strategy and Scotland’s fishing industry.  But there is and it’s a salient lesson.

Scotland's economic strategy

Strategy is the art of placing yourself in an advantageous position for the future.  It’s about making decisions and moves, today, based on tomorrow’s circumstances.  Strategy by its nature is longer-term, forward looking and adaptive.

Countries specialise in particular industries for a reason, whether it is because they have the right resources, skills, knowledge or traditions, or because they can do something cheaper or better.  Smarter countries apply strategy to these favoured industries, in order to keep them productive, healthy and competitive into the future.

Expanding Scotland's fishing potential

Fishing is one vitally important Scottish industry that is often neglected during the independence debate.  But it is an industry, like many others in Scotland, that could and should be much more today.

Due to the abundance of plankton in colder waters, the world’s major fishing grounds are in the Northern hemisphere. The North Sea and North Atlantic, around the continental shelf is the biggest fish-exporting region of the world. Scotland has the North Sea on one side and the North Atlantic on the other.

The fishing industry was culturally, socially and economically important to Scotland.  Scotland has an extensive coastline with suitable harbours and shelter.  Communities, built up over centuries, relied on fishing as the main source of industry and employment.

You could say that Scotland was strategically placed to have the biggest and best fishing industry in Europe.

Westminster sold out Scottish fishing

But in 1973, Ted Heath ‘sold out’ the fishing industry in order to gain entry into the, then, EEC.  The EEC, Common Fisheries Policy, allowed member states to gain equal access to waters of its members.

This meant that larger countries, particularly Spain and France, got access to the richer fishing waters around Scotland.  The direct cost to Scotland was the loss of thousands of jobs and many communities.

But worse, there was the loss of the opportunity to modernise and grow an industry, vital to the Scottish economy and prosperity of future generations.

You could argue that Scotland ‘does okay’.  The countries that fish around the continental shelf, in order of catch size today, are Norway, Denmark, Spain, Iceland and the UK.  With less than ten percent of the UK population, Scotland lands eighty-seven percent of the total UK catch of key stocks in 2012 and thirty-seven percent of the total allowable catch in the EU.

But how does a country so ‘well placed’ in an industry, lose out to Norway, Denmark and Spain?   How was our competitive advantage in a vital industry lost?  Well, like many of Scotland’s other great industries, they were and are impacted by inappropriate decisions taken in Westminster.

Today Scotland only receives 41% of the UK's European Fisheries Fund allocation and only 1.1% of total European fisheries funding. With Westminster unwilling to represent Scotland’s fisheries, this is below a fair allocation. Scotland does continue to land 7% of all wild caught fish, 12% of EU aquaculture production and is the world’s third largest salmon producer.

There are many examples, but let’s look at another maritime example.

The EU Maritime College debacle

In 2000 Glasgow rightly believed that their maritime and educational history positioned the city well to bid for the EU Maritime College.   This would be a strategy that would strengthen the West Coast shipping industry.

In 2005, after freedom of information requests, it was confirmed that the UK Government had lent on the Scottish Executive in a series of behind the scenes discussions. Ultimately, the Glasgow bid was lost amid claims that the UK Government had instead lobbied for Hampshire to win a separate bid for the European Police College.

In other words, deals were done behind closed doors to ensure Hampshire got the EU police college, while Lisbon got the Maritime College that Glasgow was well qualified for and had made a lot of effort to pursue.

The Scottish Government had to appeal the FOI decisions as UK ministers sought to keep the information secret in ‘the public interest’.

So not only does Scotland have to contend with strategic decisions being thrust on her, she also finds her own legitimate strategies undermined by devious politics in Westminster.

In Cameron’s recent cabinet reshuffle, George Eustice became the latest Defra fisheries minister for the UK.  Mr Eustice is an MP for Cornwall.  He grew up on a fruit farm and worked there for a number of years before going into politics. He stood for UKIP before joining the Conservatives and headed up the anti-euro ‘No’ campaign in 2003.

Now, given maximum benefit of the doubt, Mr Eustice, may be a marvellous chap be highly knowledgable around the Scottish Fishing industry. But who in their right mind would believe that Mr Eustice and his department are going to pay any serious attention to the needs of a few thousand fishermen in the North?

With Scotland’s unique maritime position and coastline, with her easy access to Southern markets via England and the EU and with her strong maritime history it is easy to imagine that had the correct strategy been implemented Scotland would now be recognised as having the world’s best fishing industry.

Conclusion: This is about more than fishing. It's our whole economy.

And this article is not really about fishing is it?  It’s more of a short parable.  And the moral of the story is that it is much better to have full control of your own affairs if you want to look after your future.

Whether it’s fishing, shipbuilding, whisky, or oil.  The best people to implement strategy for Scotland are those people in Scotland who will be affected by the outcome.

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