Scottish fishermen have been done up like kippers

Written by Mandy Rhodes on 25 March 2018 in Comment

Mandy Rhodes: Will Scotland's fishing communities ever forgive their Conservative MPs?

My friend, the Capt’n, died seven years ago in May, two weeks after the 2011 election – and yes, sadly, I do bookmark important events in my life by political landmarks – but I wonder what he would make of politics right now.

He was a Moray fisherman who first went to sea on his dad’s trawler at nine years old and was so smitten by the sight of nets swollen by hauls of silvery fish that by the age of 16, he was part of the permanent crew.

He loved the sea – it was in his blood – and he was on it for all his working life, first on whitefish trawlers like those skippered by his dad and then on boats that would leave ports like Buckie and Portsoy in search of herring, and later as the proud co-owner and captain of his own vessel. 

He fished alongside the big foreign players who moved in on the North East, paying scant regard for national borders or local crew, with their massive factory ships that would leave Aberdeen harbour and return weeks later with holds full of processed fish. 

The Capt’n fished throughout the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s. He saw how things changed and he changed to adapt.

As the fishing industry declined and oil and gas boomed, he found work on tugs and supply ships, sometimes no longer at the helm but still on the sea, where he felt most at home, even when he was sailing in seas off Africa.

The Capt’n was a Moray fisherman to the day he died. And now his son is following suit but with a future less certain. 

And as always, for fishermen, it is politics and politicians, and specifically, European ones, that get the blame.

It has always been something of a revelation to me that a group of people who find, by necessity, that their reach is so global, their connections so cosmopolitan, can become so insular when it comes to talking fish.

But our fishermen were also largely our Brexiteers and therein lies a problem for Scottish politics. As a nation, we voted overwhelmingly to remain in the European Union while one of our venerated industries, so intrinsically linked with our national psyche, did not.

But last week’s debacle over the Tory-led Brexit transition deal, which saw Scots fishermen sold, once again, down the river, could only confirm that long-held belief in those communities that they are truly considered superfluous.

What was more surprising to me was that fishermen, who so loathed the Common Fisheries Policy, were prepared to put their faith in the same Conservatives that took them into it, to then take them out of it with no equivalent pain. They were expendable then and they are expendable now.

It was always going to be the case during this phase of Brexit negotiations that something would give and in this case, the argument goes, Scotland’s fishing industry was a sacrifice worth making. That’s the economics.

But it was also pure politics. From the shallow election promises made just 12 months ago by Scottish Conservative candidates, to receptive fisher folk scunnered by decades of being shackled to the hated CFP, through to the Tory chief whip’s clumsy attempts last week to calm rebellious Scots backbenchers by assuring them that their constituents would never vote Labour anyway. 

If ever Scotland’s fishermen needed final confirmation that they don’t really matter, it was in that display of breathtaking ignorance of Scotland’s political scene.

The Scottish Conservatives fought and won seats on the back of promises to the fishing industry over Brexit. If that election was tomorrow, those seats would surely be lost. As Douglas Ross, Tory MP for Moray, so graphically put it, it would be easier to get someone to drink a pint of cold sick than to try to sell this outcome as a success.

And while the SNP may have its own difficulties in squaring its pro EU/fishing circle, it is not the party leading Brexit negotiations nor the one that promised one thing during an election and then did another.

And if the Tory government could sell out the fishermen at the transition stage, what is there to say it won’t do the same in the final outcome?

I live half my life on the Moray coast and I see the consequences of communities buffeted by politics, disregarded for their economic contribution and used as a bargaining chip in a bigger picture.
And it’s not pretty.

These are resilient communities. They’ve had to be to survive. But unlike the former industrial heartlands of the central belt, there is no real alternative for these people to finding a living other than from the sea.

In these north-east villages, pretty on the outside but slowly decaying from the inside, drugs are rife, poverty real.

They are communities of proud folk, hard folk, folk who aren’t flashy or brassy and who don’t protest loudly enough as their livelihood is taken away. These are folk who feel far removed from the politicians that navigate their journey. And they are used to being betrayed.

Of course, there is a romance about Scotland’s fishing industry that outweighs its economic import. And why not? Fishing is, quite literally, knitted into our cultural past. It is part of being Scottish. That, too, should carry a value.

Scotland’s fishing communities should not be sacrificed at the altar of Brexit simply because the economics don’t stack up. We are an island and our coastline and its communities must mean more to us than simple pounds and pence. 

Scottish Tory MPs promised to stand up for Scotland’s fishermen but couldn’t stand up to their own prime minister. Will those coastal constituencies ever forgive them or has that ship truly sailed?

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