Sketch: The Scottish Parliament debates potatoes

Written by Liam Kirkaldy on 27 January 2017 in Comment

The Scottish Parliament talks rural development and New Year's resolutions

The first debates in parliament after the New Year are a chance to begin anew – for a fresh start and new adventures. And so it was refreshing to see Fergus Ewing open the first rural debate of 2017 by sharing his resolution. “I shall seek to work with members in other parties on the key matters that we face,” he promised.

As resolutions go it was a pretty niche one. And who knows how achievable it would be for any member of the government – after all, bellowing incoherently at people from other parties with very similar but slightly different ideas about public policy is really what parliamentary democracy is all about.

The problem for Ewing, though, is that a lot of rural development funding comes from the EU, and we are leaving it. In fact, according to Ewing, Scotland will receive around €4.6bn from the Common Agricultural Policy between 2014 and 2020 alone.


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This was an important point. After all, you can’t spell rural development without using at least some of the letters that make up ‘European Union’, although you don’t need all of them, and you will need some others.

EU funding, he said, even pays for Scotland’s potato production, as well as potato research. Perhaps inevitably, the talk of potatoes drew in Stewart Stevenson, who popped up to ask Ewing if he was aware that the US state of Idaho was “poised to exploit any lacuna in our ability to supply seed potatoes to export markets”?

Idaho. Bastards. They’re Scotland’s potatoes.

Ewing said he had been unaware of the danger, but was glad to learn of it.

Still talking about potatoes, Ewing said: “I have deliberately sought not to express all this in hyperbolic ultra-rhetorical terms, but simply to set out the facts in a calm and reasoned manner.”

That was true, Ewing had been very calm. It was the potatoes that were causing the hysteria.

Tory Peter Chapman followed, welcoming “the new, cuddly Mr Ewing” before adding that it was “unfortunately, typical of the SNP Government to treat everything that the UK Government does as another sign of impending doom for Scotland.”

It wasn’t the SNP Government doing it, Peter, it was the potatoes. Idaho is coming.

After that, Rhoda Grant argued Scotland needs to make greater progress in reducing emissions in areas like farming.

This was a good point, but how to go about funding it?

One possible policy, presumably, would be to grow some sort of magic money tree. It could have bank notes instead of leaves, and we could just shake it whenever we needed cash.

Grant bravely rejected this, arguing, “We all know that there is no money tree to shake.”

In what must constitute a hammer blow to wizard biologists, she instead suggested putting together a “commission of stakeholders” to look at the issue, which is certainly less magical than a magic money tree. Though it was refreshing to learn there is at least one example of the Scottish Parliament’s approach to policy which diverges from that of a small child’s crayon-based drawings.

Edward Mountain came next, telling MSPs: “Before I look forward, I want to reflect a wee bit on the past so that we can understand where we want to be post-2020. Those who were involved in farming or agricultural policy in 1992 will remember the excesses of that time.”

“There were lots of unwanted mountains,” Edward Mountain explained. “Mountains of butter, mountains of beef, and mountains of cheese, to name but a few.”

This was all too much for the opposition. Pouncing on Mountain’s lines, his eyes glittering at his own cunning, Stewart Stevenson shouted: “Mountains of Edward?”

Low-level chaos followed, as you would expect, given this was probably the most cutting line ever to be uttered in Holyrood.

It was brilliant. In a split second, Stewart Stevenson had seized his moment, grabbing his window of opportunity before it closed forever, and cleverly played on the fact that Edward Mountain, whose surname is Mountain, which is the same as a mountain, had been talking about “unwanted Mountains”. Once he had made that breakthrough, the only thing left was the execution, which he timed perfectly.

Stevenson basked in his moment, soaking up adulation from across the chamber like a greying, wizened old lizard, stretched out in the afternoon sun. Mountain looked gutted, frankly, shaking his head to himself and telling Stevenson: “That was a predictable intervention that I am glad I allowed the member.”

He looked a bit hurt, yet MSPs from across the chamber seemed largely unconcerned. Even the Tories laughed. Why was no one giving the issue the importance it deserved? MSPs were making a mole-hill out of a mountain.

Looking quite sad, Mountain added: “I will not allow him back in later.”

Mountain then allowed him back in later, on the basis that no one else had wanted to speak. It was very kind of him. At least one member was sticking to Ewing’s resolution.

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