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by Louise Wilson
07 April 2024
Sketch: Away in a manger...Tory MSP dials in from the lambing shed

Tim Eagle took part in a parliamentary debate live from the lambing shed | Cartoon by Iain Green

Sketch: Away in a manger...Tory MSP dials in from the lambing shed

New Tory MSP Tim Eagle is keen to make a name for himself. And after the debate on the Agriculture and Rural Communities Bill, he’s probably achieved it. He’ll forever be known as the guy that took part in a debate live from his farm. Before this, he was best known as the guy that failed to take control of Moray Council because he drew a seven of hearts.

Perhaps Eagle should be applauded for being live on location as Holyrood debates pertinent legislation. Too often we hear MSPs debate topics that they have no experience of. But here, Eagle begins his speech by pointing out he is a farmer – in case that wasn’t clear from the sheep wandering around behind him. It is lambing season, he tells colleagues, so he’s having to work from home (or rather, work from farm).

He is at least sticking to parliamentary convention by continuing to wear business attire, though it’s difficult to imagine that’s the best thing to have on while waiting for sheep to go into labour. Maybe lambs are also sticklers for Holyrood rules. Unfortunately, there is no live lamb birth and instead Eagle waffles on about… something. Honestly, I have no idea what he said because I’m paying too much attention to the sheep. What’s that saying about never working with animals and live TV? 

Every hack in the parliamentary lobby has, naturally, got rather excited about Eagle’s farm. And it’s not just journalists either. Tory MSP Jamie Halcro Johnston admits he was “waiting to see what would happen in the background”. The whole affair “did have the feel of a Willie Rennie press stunt,” he adds. Those poor pigs, bet they never thought they’d have a legacy beyond sausages.

Eagle is not the only Tory farmer to speak in this debate. Sadly, all the rest of them are in the chamber. Still, Edward Mountain is delighted to be there. 

“Two treats in two weeks”, he begins, referring to both this bill and the one on wildlife management MSPs debated the week before. Even though he’s happy to be talking about farming, he’s a little “sad” about it too. While he’s happy to debate farming now, he’d have been happier to debate farming “two years ago”, and is now sad that it is 2024 and he’s debating farming, although he still insists it’s a treat. 

It’s not just farmers interested in this legislation. Richard Leonard gets up on his soapbox – sadly not sporting a flat cap – to decry the “great injustice… served upon those who live and work on the land”. For too long, he laments, agricultural policy has been delivered in a way that benefits the “least deserving; the biggest, the wealthier landowners”.

He goes on to namecheck a few who, in his eyes, have claimed subsidies unfairly. “In 2022, the Duke of Buccleuch pocketed £1.8m for Queensberry Farming Ltd,” he begins. And then, with the performative flourish customary in a Leonard speech, adds: “Oh! And then £1.7m for Bowhill Farming Ltd!

“And there are some of our other ancient noble families apparently in need of a helping hand from the state as well – like the Earl of Moray, who netted £1.7m; the Duke of Roxburghe – £1.4m; the Earl of Roseberry – £1.3m!” This proud socialist is aghast. He goes on to warn that, when considering new legislation, MSPs would do well to remember “this aristocratic lot have had centuries of practice in rigging and fleecing the system”.

This has all got a bit much for the Tories. Rachael Hamilton rises to commend Leonard’s passion for the subject, but she celebrates little else from his diatribe. What about the, uh, “large-scale” farmers – now there’s a euphemism for landowners – who contribute to things like biodiversity?
Leonard, consistent as always, replies by saying there is a need for “decisive, radical change”.

He says vast swathes of land in Scotland is owned by a firm whose “speciality is not in planting trees or in saving the planet, but in tax avoidance for the super-rich. They represent extractive capitalism at its voracious worst”. It’s a classic of the genre.

And of course, no true Leonard speech would be complete without an obscure quote from a man who died a long time before the Labour MSP was even born – and so he reads a section from Lewis Grassic Gibbon.

He concludes by insisting the bill should alter power dynamics, as that would be “transformative”, “radical” and “revolutionary”. “One fine day, it will happen,” he predicts as he takes his seat.

But then SNP MSP Kate Forbes, who is next, begins her speech by warning that politicians must “front up to the reality of not being able to deliver everybody’s objectives”. Sorry, Dick, doesn’t look like you’ll get your revolution this time. Baaa-d luck!

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