It wasn’t all that long ago. They were the ‘SNP heartlands’ and we seemed unassailable. When I was first elected in 2001 the SNP at Westminster held 5 seats and all of them were from rural Scotland. From Kinross to Kinloss it was the North East shoulder of Scotland that returned SNP MPs and it was rural Scotland that sustained our Parliamentary footprint. In the nascent Scottish Parliament it was no different. In 1999 we won 7 constituency seats, all rural, the 6 constituencies we won in 97’s General election with the addition of Inverness. In fact if we were to look historically at where the SNP had won all their Westminster seats at General elections prior to the 2015 breakthrough, other than Dundee, they were all mainly rural.
Fast forward to 2018 and the whole situation has flipped. The majority of the seats we hold are now in urban Scotland and the losses we sustained at last years General Election were in the seats that we used to rely on to give us our Parliamentary presence.
What has happened in rural Scotland and what does this tell us about our prospects for securing independence? Because, let’s not forget, these rural seats were also the parts of Scotland that returned the biggest No votes in the 2014 independence referendum. Seats that stood alone in voting for independence supporting SNP politicians are now the seats we appear to have the greatest difficulty defending.
Some say that rural Scotland is just returning to its natural Conservative ‘home’. Where rural Scotland did vote for the Conservatives in large parts of the last century it doesn’t explain why it was also the first part of Scotland to return independence supporting MPs? Maybe it’s even something to do with the ‘nationalist unionist’ narrative that people like David Torrance have recently written about. Before the SNP had fully emerged as a serious force Conservatives in large swathes of rural Scotland helped carry the torch for Scottishness, home rule and the preservation of much of our cultural iconography. Our Scottishness was very much under threat by a strong post war, all pervasive, unifying British identity and rural Conservatives in places like Perthshire and the North East were amongst the most curious defenders of our national symbols. It was only with the emergence of Thatcher that this part of Scottish Conservatism was effectively killed off. I often wonder if the logic of this ‘nationalist unionism’ had been properly pursued what sort of Scottish Conservative party might have emerged and where this interest in ‘nationalism’ might have taken it? The thing is rural Scotland is politically complex and is open to the idea of constitutional progress. We have prevailed in rural Scotland before and we can again.
The other reason given for current rural disenchantment with independence is it is now seen as an urban concern. Most of the groups that emerged out of the independence referendum were left wing with a strong ideological and class base to their vision for a future independent Scotland. Where this played well in constituencies with a tradition of voting Labour there was perhaps an inevitable consequence in areas where small ‘c’ Conservatism is the predominant community and political value. For so much of rural Scotland observing the talk of a movement seeking to ‘transform’ our nation was maybe just a bit too much to take.
But the urban/rural circle has been squared before and it can be squared again. There is also the example of the Highlands, the one part of rural Scotland that has mainly stuck with the SNP, and we need to know why we have prevailed there and lost elsewhere.
But more than anything we need a new independence case for rural Scotland. Opposition to independence has hardened in rural Scotland following the referendum experience but this means we just have to work all the harder to get it back on board again. It is about developing agendas that support and develop the rural agenda and explaining the opportunities independence can bring. We have to learn to speak to rural Scotland whilst listening and agreeing with them a bit more. And there are a lots of opportunities for debate.
Food and drink is now our premier export and branding issues concern rural Scotland. Excellence in Scottish produce is one of our nation’s most important international calling cards and it is under threat from a Brexitised UK determined to pursue a one ‘UK’ approach to bilateral trade deals. Then there is the power grab. So many of the 24 powers that the UK wants to maintain in their desire to secure this UK ‘single market’ are in agriculture. This imposes a UK determined straight jacket on our farming sector and limits our ability to pursue our own priorities.
Then there’s the obvious consequences of Brexit. Top amongst this is immigration and worries that there may not be a seasonal workforce to harvest the fields of rural Scotland. This extends to the rural hospitality sector where the bulk of hotel staff in large swathes of rural Scotland are from Eastern Europe. The ending of freedom of movement will have a bigger consequence in rural Scotland than anywhere else. There is also what happens when the £3 billion of EU farm subsidies comes to an end in 2022. The UK Government have wittered on about ‘rewarding efficiency’ but has produced no solid plan about what will happen. Scottish farming is more dependent on this EU support than any other part of the UK and is the most likely to be hurt with its withdrawal.
In the next few months I will be hosting a variety of meetings with rural businesses in my constituency and I will be listening very carefully to the issues that farming interests want to see pursued. My view is that rural Scotland is at a cross roads on a number of its preconceptions about Brexit and possible constitutional progress.
In the next case for independence we have to get to a One Scotland approach that unites every sector and part of Scotland. Where there are parts that need extra reassurance we have to offer it and understand the concerns. We must make sure that no part of Scotland is left behind in our quest for independence.