Blue goes green
In the list of Scotland’s endangered species, the Scottish Conservatives must be one of the most threatened. Since the Parliament’s inception the party has always seemed a slight oddity, and Sir Jamie McGrigor, MSP, 6th baronet of Campden Hill, member of the Queen’s Body Guard for Scotland and former trout farmer, is no exception.
MSP for the Highland and Islands since 1999, McGrigor did not get into politics until he was nearly 50. Before that he had stints as a nightclub singer, in finance, and farmed trout and cattle for 30 years. McGrigor admits his background may seem odd, but says it brings advantages.
“I can see through a lot of the briefs – someone is always going to have an axe to grind somewhere. My background has also given me contacts who I can deal with on the practical end of things like fisheries and aquaculture, people on the coal-face of it.
“I think it would be useful if more people in politics had done other jobs as well, so that they have an idea of what a balance sheet is, so they know what it’s like to be out in the big wide world, not just the view from inside the political bubble”, he adds.
McGrigor has been a long-term supporter of Scotland’s farming sector, and it was his involvement in fisheries committees, while running a trout farm, that first brought him into politics. One of the areas he wants to see greater action is in stimulating the highland economy.
“Things like windfarms and hydro-schemes are a good idea since if a community can produce energy then it provides an incentive for growth. Groups like Highlands and Islands Enterprise have got to take a longer term view sometimes. Small business is key, they have always been the key to the highlands and islands.
“You know, everyone talks about how great highland culture is but you won’t get highland culture unless you have people living there for a long time. Culture is like a yoghurt – if you want it to produce stuff then you have to leave it alone for a long time, and the ingredients have to be there in the first place.
“If you want to encourage Gaelic songs and stories, then it has to come from a population that has been inured to that area for over time, and in order to get that you need to give people the hopes that they are in a place that can provide, not just a living for them, but for their children as well,” says MacGrigor.
These may be exactly the lines you would expect from a Tory politician representing a rural area, but McGrigor is not exactly a typical British Conservative. For a start, and in stark contrast to many members of his party from south of the border, he is seriously concerned about the dangers of climate change.
“95% of scientists have said that global warming is happening – who am I to disagree? You can’t say one way or another if it is definite but I think, as a farmer, I have experienced climate changes over my lifetime and there’s no doubt at all that the weather has changed completely.
“In Argyllshire, my neck of the world, it’s far wetter than it used to be and it is far more difficult to farm, and I know that temperatures have gone up from speaking to fish farmers, who have taken the temperature of the sea every day for the past 40 years, and it has gone up by an average 2 degrees.
“So that to me, indicates that we are doing something wrong, and I can’t help but feel that filling the sky with smoke is a bad idea. In fact filling anything with smoke is a bad idea – except a salmon house.”
But what about McGrigor’s colleagues in Westminster, who have been talking of ‘natural cycles’ and ‘pauses’ in global temperature rises to shrug off the climate activists? In fact even the UK Environment Secretary Owen Paterson – the man charged with leading the UK’s fight against climate change – has taken to using sceptic arguments.
“Owen Paterson may hold those theories – but I believe what David Cameron says, and he definitely moved towards the greener lobby, for our party, and I would tend to agree with him. I am not disagreeing with everything that Owen Paterson says, but I don’t treat him as somebody who I have to listen to on that particular subject,” he says.
McGrigor’s background in rural politics has convinced him of the need to build sustainably, and he is broadly supportive of the SNP’s commitment to growing the renewable energy sector, which he says could lead to jobs and protect the environment. But what about fracking? Many Conservatives would argue that it would stimulate growth, while environmentalists are vehemently opposed due to the potential for environmental damage.
“I think that if fracking can be used to bring down energy prices and if there are safeguards in place then I would support it. Looking at the fracking maps of England and Scotland, the fracking map seems a lot smaller in Scotland and I was thinking that that could be another reason to remain in the UK in that we might be the beneficiaries of a whole lot of cheaper gas. No one has actually come out and said that fracking definitely is very dangerous.”
This is an odd argument, given that environmental groups have repeatedly come out and said fracking is dangerous, particularly after it was linked with causing an earthquake in Lancashire.
“Did it? I would dispute that. I think a lot of people are worried about it because they are worried that something might happen, but you have to look at where else it is being done – look at America – there will be one or two teething problems with it but that’s why we need safeguards.”
It is unlikely that the groups campaigning against fracking would be comfortable with the problems it has caused in the US being referred to as ‘teething problems’. Critics would argue that, safeguards or no safeguards, fracking is environmentally risky in the sparsely populated rural areas of the USA, let alone in the UK.
“The word ‘fracking’ brings out this horrible idea that you are somehow fracturing the entire earth, which you aren’t doing; they’re pumping in water, admittedly along with some chemicals, in order to release this gas that’s down there, but if they can do so without causing earthquakes and without causing damage then it is stuff we should use.”
He continues: “I’ve heard these claims but I haven’t seen any real examples. I would look into it, if I was in charge of that policy, to make certain that is not the case but I haven’t heard any definitive cases of people being poisoned – not yet – and you get a lot of scare stories. I am not saying they are all scare stories - but I would like to see some definitive facts for why fracking should not take place.
As well as being the Conservative spokesperson on the Environment, Fisheries, Climate Change and Europe & External Affairs, McGrigor is a member of the Scottish Parliament’s European & External Affairs Committee, convenor of the Parliament’s Cross Party Group on Crofting and a member of more than a dozen other cross party groups.
But how much is his willingness to work with the SNP due to the relatively marginal position of the Scottish Conservatives within the parliament?
“From the conservative point of view I think that the third parliament was probably the most interesting one, when we had a kind of hung parliament, and I was constantly asked to visit SNP ministers for them to ask what I thought of something, as were my colleagues, and nowadays that just simply doesn’t happen. If you want to see a minister you basically have to force your way in.
He continues: “It’s not that they won’t see you, but they don’t need you anymore. The fact of an overall majority has changed the impact of the parliament, votes are pretty much a forgone conclusion a lot of the time and I think that is a bad thing. The parliament was designed to avoid that happening and it did happen, so there was obviously just something wrong with the initial design of the parliament.”
This seems a pretty perverse way of looking at the SNP’s dominance – surely getting such a sweeping majority within a system designed to foster cross party cooperation is proof of how well the SNP have done over the last ten years, rather than evidence of failings in the electoral system. But at least to some extent, McGrigor sees the rise in SNP support as a by-product of devolution.
“I think what led to greater SNP support is that in the old days, pre-devolution, when the Conservatives still held a lot of sway in Scotland, if people were fed up with Labour they’d vote Conservative. Unfortunately, now that the Conservatives have lost so much power, and the ability to be elected, people looking for an alternative to Labour vote SNP.
“I saw a poll showing that they can only depend on 58 per cent of their supporters to support separation and that tells us that people are voting for the SNP as a second party. It’s rather become a two party system between Labour and the SNP and the sooner that changes the better.”