Letter from Westminster 07.08.09

Let me start this column with a welcome to Master Archie Scott who entered the world last weekend and to congratulate Tavish and Kirsten on his birth. He is a strapping lad by all accounts but not, it seems, one who will be hurried. His disregard for his due date suggests that he may have inherited his politician father’s attitude to deadlines rather than that of his journalist mother. Alternatively it may just demonstrate his own strong independence of mind and you can argue the case for either parent having given him that trait.

By Tuesday of this week, however, the newly arrived Scott was taking second place in my attention as our newly elected Liberal Democrat MEP, George Lyon, arrived in Shetland. He and I made a full round of farmers, crofters, fishermen, fish farmers and councillors while he was here. The intensity of his programme served to remind me of just how much of our local economy is dictated by decisions taken in Brussels.

The reputation of Brussels and the EU Commission in particular is not high in these core industries and it is not hard to see why. The proposed introduction of electronic sheep tagging is exactly the sort of thing that gets the EU a bad name. It is bureaucratic, expensive, unworkable and will serve no useful purpose. It dominated much of the discussions that we had with local farmers and crofters and George would have left Shetland armed with even more A-grade ammunition to oppose it.

It has to be said, however, that not all the problems facing our local industries are manufactured in Brussels. Our own ministers and civil servants can still perform with the best when it comes to nutty ideas. The draft crofting bill is one of these. Like the electronic sheep tagging it is difficult to see what the Scottish Government hopes to achieve with it. The minister Roseanna Cunningham may be right in some of the problems that she identifies but the solutions that she proposes are likely to make the situation worse rather than better. As one local crofter put it to us this week, if the government is concerned about unproductive croft land why do they propose measures that are going to drive even more people out of the industry?

The bill is so far just a draft, but strip out the bad and it is difficult to see what you would be left with. The cynic in me says that there has never been any great affection in Edinburgh for the crofting laws, however important they may have been to communities like ours. It would be ironic indeed if it were to be a Scottish Nationalist minister who was to bring to the point of ruin a system of land tenure which was the saviour of many crofting communities in the 19th century and which ensured their survival through the 20th century.

It used to be said that a croft was an area of land surrounded by red tape. If Roseanna Cunningham gets her way then it may soon be an area of land engulfed by red tape.

Alistair Carmichael MP


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