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by Louise Wilson
05 June 2024
Jim Fairlie: Swinney government feels like a rebirth of the party the SNP used to be

Jim Fairlie MSP photographed for Holyrood by Andrew Perry

Jim Fairlie: Swinney government feels like a rebirth of the party the SNP used to be

When Jim Fairlie accepted Humza Yousaf’s invitation to enter government, little did either of them know that the first minister would be out of a job less than three months later.

Fairlie’s elevation to Minister for Agriculture and Connectivity came at a time when Yousaf was looking to shore up support from his own backbenches. Disunity in the party showed no sign of abating and several MSPs had become critical, both publicly and privately, of the direction of the government. In particular, there were accusations of central belt bias and the impression that rural Scotland had been forgotten.

The resignation of Michael Matheson from government in February (following a row over his expenses) made room on the frontbench to, as the first minister’s spokesperson said at the time, realign portfolios with the priorities of government. Fiona Hyslop went from transport minister to transport secretary, and Fairlie was brought in to work with both her and rural affairs secretary Mairi Gougeon

“Humza Yousaf had a horrendous year to have tried to take over as leader,” Fairlie says, “but he was quite clear when he asked me to join government – he told me ‘we’ve lost contact with people who used to support us and who supported us because we govern for the whole of Scotland, I have no doubt that we have hit a point where we’re not doing that any more and that’s why I would like you to join the government’.

“He very much recognised that and he started to try and put that bridge back by appointing me to the rural portfolio. That to me signalled a shift in our thinking.”

Unfortunately for Yousaf, his premiership wouldn’t survive long enough to see those bridges rebuilt. Increasing pressure on the Bute House Agreement between the SNP and Greens finally reached boiling point in late April, causing Yousaf to unilaterally end the pact. Four days later, when it was unclear he could survive a no-confidence vote in parliament, he quit as first minister.

Fairlie, while clearly sorry the decision led to the end of Yousaf’s career as FM, is certain that scrapping the pact with the Greens was the right move. And he believes the new “phenomenal” leadership team of John Swinney and Kate Forbes – whom he backed for leader last year – will begin to shift the dial on the SNP’s woes. 

“It’s that whole thing about governing for the whole of Scotland. I think that’s exactly where we are right now. It feels good. It feels positive. I feel energised,” Fairlie says.

“Don’t get me wrong, we’ve had a really difficult last two years, so to be where we are now feels like a breath of fresh air. It feels like a rebirth of the party that we used to be, and I’m very excited about what we’re going to do in the next two years.”

A former shepherd, hill farmer and owner of a successful catering company, as well as an MSP for the largely rural Perthshire South and Kinross-shire constituency, Fairlie feels keenly the issues facing rural regions. He gets why the people living in those areas often don’t feel fully represented at Holyrood.

“We hear it all the time from constituents: it’s all very well people in Edinburgh telling us how we should be living our lives in rural Scotland, but they don’t know the reality of it. They don’t know the management side of it, they don’t understand what it feels like and what you have to actually do, what the reality of living in rural Scotland is. 

“Quite often I think [policy] was delivered with an ideological belief of what [life in rural areas] could be without understanding what the reality of it is. So yes, I absolutely share the frustration of my constituents and now the people who represent my portfolio, of that feeling there was a central bias and that rural Scotland was not being heard properly. I’m going to do as much as I can to change that.”

He’s clearly feeling buoyant about the future for his party, even amid continued polling suggesting it may struggle to maintain its dominance at the upcoming general election. That’s because he views being a minority government as an opportunity.

“We should be working across the chamber. One of the things that excited me enormously about the Scottish Parliament when it was first reconvened was that there’d be cross-party working. I hate the Westminster booyah politics, I detest it with a passion. So, the excitement of the rebirth of a parliament where whoever the leading party was would have to work and negotiate across the chamber felt to me like the kind of Scotland I wanted to live in. 

People think that’s me being anti-English – it’s not. It’s about protecting ‘Scotland the brand’ because it is potent

“We are diverse, we have got difference of opinions – great, let’s have the political debate and let’s be open and transparent about that political debate. But also, let’s try and get our positions into a place where everybody can say, okay, I didn’t get everything I want but I can live quite comfortably with what’s been decided.”

One area of policy he’ll have to work with others on going forward is post-Brexit agriculture policy. Alongside the rural affairs secretary, he is helping to shepherd the Agriculture and Rural Communities Bill through parliament. But he says a big part of what the Scottish Government can do on this area will depend on funding from the UK Government. 

As a member of the EU, Scottish farmers benefited from a number of funding streams under the Common Agricultural Policy. The UK Government committed to maintaining the same annual budgets until the end of 2025 – but with a general election looming, Fairlie is concerned about a lack of clarity from either of the two big Westminster parties about what happens next.

“Neither the Labour Party nor the Tory Party are giving a guarantee for the Scottish Government to be able to put in multi-year funding,” he explains. “We can talk about the details of what the [agriculture] bill might look like and people can argue the tos and fros of particular aspects of the bill, but none of it matters if we can’t get multi-year funding guaranteed from Westminster. That to me is one of the biggest things. The funding that came from the EU was vital to the long-term security of the industry and we don’t have that.”

Another concern is the impact of the various trade deals being struck with other countries on Scottish farmers and crofters. Better food and animal welfare standards in the UK means farm businesses face higher costs, making it difficult to compete price-wise, once tariffs are removed, with other countries that don’t have those same costs.

Fairlie is careful not to “knock other countries” for their policy choices when it comes to agriculture, and instead says the solution is in part to better promote Scottish produce. “Consumers take six seconds to make a decision. When they walk into a supermarket, they say ‘I want to buy lamb’ and it’ll take them six seconds from making that decision to putting a packet into their basket. I want to think about what happens in those six seconds. How can we  get them to buy Scotch – Scotch beef, Scotch lamb, specialist selected pork – and look for the Scottish brand?”

I’m accused of all sorts of ludicrous stuff

He believes replacing the Union Jack with the Saltire on these products would be a quick win. “People think that’s me being anti-English – it’s not. It’s about protecting ‘Scotland the brand’ because it is potent. The Scottish brand is absolutely potent. It makes more sense economically for retailers to use that brand because of this sense of provenance and trust and quality. We’ve got to exploit that.”

That suggestion, he admits with a smile, means he gets “trolled mercilessly” on social media. “That type of tweet gets me more traction than any other. I’m accused of all sorts of ludicrous stuff. There was one tweet in particular that had over 250,000 engagements on the basis of me talking about Scottish strawberries and now they think it’s funny to mock me.”

When one journalist tweeted about Scottish strawberries earlier this month, suggesting they could be the basis of annual festivities akin to the Beaujoulais Nouveau Festival in France (a week-long celebration marking the release of wine produced in the Beaujolais region each year), Fairlie was tagged in a jokey response.

“I went back and said that’s a great idea!” So now he’s set up meetings with various stakeholders to measure the appetite for a Scottish berry festival. 

Trolling about flags on fruit is not the only abuse Fairlie receives via social media, a problem common to most MSPs. Scottish Parliament security officials released figures last month showing the shocking levels of abuse parliamentarians are subject to – with SNP MSPs bombarded more than any other party.

Fairlie says this is one of the reasons why MSPs need “pretty resilient mental health” – and while he says the “horrendous” abuse does not tend to bother him too much, the constant pressures and demands of the job have.

I had a real couple of weeks of thinking, man, this could have been my funeral this week

It’s also having a physical impact, particularly when long days at parliament and out in the constituency mean little time for activity. “I didn’t realise how unfit I was until I started to try and just go out, thinking ‘I’m feeling a bit sluggish, I’ll go out for a run’. Couldn’t do it. I’d get halfway through it and go, oh my God, this is killing me. I’m going home. Then you feel like a failure. So, then I think, I’ll do a bit more stretching and it’ll be a better run. I still couldn’t do it and I’d failed again, and it just makes you feel worse.”

Then last September, Fairlie had a heart attack. The three-night stay in hospital that followed shook him to his core. Even scarier was the fact that around the same time, five men he knew – also in their late 50s – had had heart attacks and not survived. 

“I had a real couple of weeks of thinking, man, this could have been my funeral this week. This could have been it. We haven’t finished the house, Anne [Fairlie’s wife] could have been left with this, and Christ, what about the kids… and I went through that process.”

And so earlier this month he made a decision to return to running – an activity he used to do in his teens and 20s no bother – and, to hold himself accountable, tweeted about it. This, he says, will help improve both his mental and physical health. To help he’s downloaded the Couch to 5K app, which instructs listeners when to run and when to walk – something Fairlie finds particularly helpful because previously taking a break felt like a defeat.

Fairlie says: “I could run 10K in 36 minutes, now I can’t run the length of myself – and you feel down about that. But rather than doing that, it’s like, OK, this is where I am. This is what age I am. So, let’s start again.”

There are perhaps some parallels between a man trying to get back into good physical shape and a 17-year government trying do to the same. It’s all about a reset.

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