A Week in Scotland… 700 Miles Later!
I have the biggest constituency in Europe, stretching from Uunst in the Shetland islands, to the Mull of Galloway. To travel tip to toe would take 3 ferries, 4 car journeys (and roughly £130 in fuel, if you're driving economically!), some 22 hours of travel. From Stornoway in the west, to Stonehaven in the east, you would have to bypass two stretches of water and a mountain range. All in all quite a skelp of land as my grandfather would say!
Each month the European Parliament declares a constituency week, so last week I was en Ecosse and ‘on the road’. Over the week I covered a staggering 700 miles. We began in Aberdeen and took a grand loop via Fraserburgh, along the Moray coast to Inverness, before heading south to Eyemouth in the Borders, skirting back to Edinburgh and then heading west to East Renfrewshire and Hamilton. What did I get up? Glad you asked…
Monday, 6 April 2015
In Aberdeen to speak about the Conservative Party’s support for the oil and gas sector. It is some time since I worked in the industry, even longer since I studied geology, but I have not lost touch a the sector so important to the North East. Since being appointed Energy Spokesman of the Conservatives in the Parliament my attention has been all the more focused.
We pitched up on Ship Row overlooking the harbour, which was crammed with the great oil service vessels, nestled side by side. It was a striking backdrop for the media interviews, but in reality, Aberdeen prospers when the harbour is all but empty, the vessels out servicing the rigs and platforms. Aberdeen has been hit and hit hard by the collapse in the oil price. Offshore exploration has been curtailed, jobs lost. The evidence was there to see in the harbour.
The North Sea is a mature geological basin, the easy oil long since gone. Recovery today depends upon a high oil price, or a favourable tax regime. I was in Aberdeen to talk of the latter. In the recent budget, the Chancellor had pulled a number of rabbits from his bunnet, and his budget was welcomed warmly by the oil industry. That much was evident from my discussions with representatives of the sector.
I was joined at the harbour by several North East candidates: Alexander Burnett of West Aberdeenshire & Kincardine, Cllr Ross Thomson of Aberdeen South (my old stomping ground when I stood back in 2003) and Colin Clark, who is tackling Alex Salmond in Gordon. It was good to hear what was happening on the ground. Three very different seats, but the same trends emerging: the SNP harvesting Labour votes, the LibDems in free fall and the most positive response on the doorsteps for Scottish Conservatives in a generation.
These themes were confirmed later when I joined Colin in Gordon. Voters are crying out for a ‘Stop Salmond’ candidate. Colin Clark is just the man.
Tuesday, 7 April 2015
Day starts with the farming correspondent of the Press & Journal. Farmers are beset by troubles domestic and European. To address the latter, I have secured a meeting with Agriculture Commissioner Phil Hogan and his technical experts. Eurocrats have determined that the solution is more bureaucracy, more rules, more regulation. I am hopeful that Commissioner Hogan can help us cut through this approach.
The problems created by the Scots Government are the subject of my second meeting. Alex Johnston MSP, our candidate in Banff & Buchan and himself a farmer, has gathered representatives of the agricultural industry. The big issue is a defective computing system for registering CAP funding applications, which the Scots Government claims is just fine. Farmers are being told by Mr Lochhead that “all is well, just a few more tweaks and it will work this time”. Farmers aren’t buying that line any more. In the words of one farmer, the system is, to quote: ‘buggered’. I’m not buying Lochhead’s line either and I promised to investigate.
The next stop is the Broch, where Jimmy Buchan, one time Banff & Buchan candidate, and star of ‘Trawlermen’ greets us. Jimmy secured an impressive 11.4% vote swing to the Tories at the last election. A star in more ways than one! After a quick stop in the Fishermen’s Mission to meet the Tory activists, we retire to the Fraserburgh Harbour Building to talk about the discard ban.
Fishermen are always on the outside of European discussions, and the discard ban is no exception. I was able to moderate some of the more destructive proposals as the law as it passed throughout the Fisheries Committee, but there are challenges ahead. I tried to delay the introduction of the ban for the white fish sector entirely, to allow lessons to be learned from its introduction into the pelagic sector, but I was unsuccessful. After a heated debate in Fraserburgh, I agree to try to bring together Scotland’s six MEPs to hear the concerns of the industry and convey them directly to the Commission.
And we are back on the road, heading west. The candidate in Inverness, Edward Mountain, has agreed to put us up for the night. With a glass in hand, we settle in to watch the first Scottish Leaders’ debate. Ruth is on fire. And Nicola feels the heat!
Wednesday, 8 April 2015
Up and at ‘em. First stop. Door knocking in Elgin with Moray candidate Douglas Ross. Councillor, football referee, and local champion; folks on the doorsteps know who Douglas is, which is a huge advantage. Given his role in attempting to halt the routing of the controversial by-pass through the centre of Elgin, he is a popular figure. I have the best day of canvassing I have had in quite a while (and I have had a number of good days of late!).
Next stop is Inverness. Edward Mountain has gathered a number of concerned citizens. Top of the list is central-beltism. The Scottish Government is not a friend of the Highlands & Islands. It seems that wherever possible the SNP has chosen to pull services ever closer to Edinburgh. Edward’s citizens are rightly concerned. As we left, Edward was about to shin up the lamp-posts of Inverness with his poster boards.
Thursday, 9 April 2015
After a night in my own bed in Edinburgh, the first stop is Eyemouth harbour with local MSP John Lamont. John is our candidate for the Westminster seat which he currently holds at Holyrood. John had gathered a number of local fishermen, and it was good to catch up with old friends. Just as in Fraserburgh, the concern is the impending discard ban. Back when I used to visit Eyemouth, the harbour was home to some 80 vessels. Today it is just over 10. The fishermen were concerned that this ban could all but end fishing at Eyemouth.
I left John, who was just about to hit the doors and headed north to East Linton to join David Roach, our candidate in East Lothian. David is a Musselburgh boy and his knowledge of the area was well received on the doorsteps. We had a warm reception throughout the afternoon, and that wasn’t just because the sun was shining!
After a couple of hours it was back to Edinburgh for the second Scottish leaders’ debate. Once again Ruth was feisty and forensic in her analysis. She left the others flailing and failing. It was good to see and to hear our message being delivered so well.
Friday, 10 April 2015
A short hop today to join Miles Briggs in Edinburgh South to launch his campaign. Back in 2003, he was a student at Robert Gordon’s University and helped me campaign in Aberdeen South. I was more than glad to return the favour. There was quite a turnout: MSPs Liz Smith, Gavin Brown and Nanette Milne; Cllr Cameron Rose and a number of his colleagues and of course, most importantly of all, a good number of activists.
It is clear that Miles has quite a team behind him. I have already been round the doors of Buckstone and Morningside and the response was warm and heartening.
Saturday, 11 April 2015
The day starts in East Renfrewshire, with our candidate Dr David Montgomery. Despite the hail storms and chill winds, our street stall in Eaglesham is busy. We are in the heart of Murphy country, and it is clear that his support is melting away like the hail blowing about us. David has his shoulder to the wheel, but as he explained, he loves campaigning. That is half the battle.
We depart East Ren, chilled but not downhearted. Our next stop is Hamilton, and the redoubtable Alex Allison, our candidate in Lanark & Hamilton East. Alex is a farmer, and was taking a break from the lambing to set up his stall in the centre of town. We were joined by Eric Holford, our candidate in Airdrie & Shotts. We spent a couple of hours, in sunshine, wind and showers and managed to hand out bundles of Alex’s ‘In Touch’ leaflets. The occasional appearance of the sun did much to warm our spirits.
All in all it was quite a week, from the snowcapped Grampians to the banks of the Ness, from Auld Reekie to the Renfrew Heights. The one abiding message is that the candidates on the ground are working hard. They still need all the support you can give, so if you can spare an hour to deliver leaflets or join a street stall I know you will be warmly welcomed. I certainly was.