A new Prime Minister
As a lobbyist, it is always worth taking victories – however small – where you can get them.
So, with all the turmoil that is to come in her Premiership, it is worth remembering that we now have a Prime Minister who knows about salmon farming.
Liz Truss not only visited the main processing plant of one of our members last year, but she also engaged with the export issues our members were facing.
The UK’s new Prime Minister is going to face a torrid autumn and winter. She will be assailed from all sides over the cost of living crisis and will have to face down mounting union anger and strikes.
But she knows about salmon farming, she knows how important Scottish salmon is to UK exports, and she has shown a willingness to help us overcome the barriers we face in generating further overseas sales.
Ms Truss came to Mowi’s Rosyth plant when she was Secretary of State for International Trade.
We would have liked to have showed her more, to have got her out to a farm but, as ever when dealing with civil servants, getting a venue close to the central belt was their main concern.
In the end, we were just grateful to secure an hour of her time to talk through what we do and the issues we face on the international scene.
But even then, the meeting wasn’t an especially easy one. The International Trade Secretary flipped from subject to subject, from issue to issue, skating over ones she didn’t think were important to focus instead on the ones she really wanted to get her teeth into.
She seemed either to have a loathing for slide deck presentations (which is entirely possible) or was determined purely to focus on the issues which she felt were important, regardless of the views of those who were hosting her.
As it was, it was almost impossible for us to stick to the prepared agenda and, if that is an indication of how she is going to govern, then her civil servants will be in for a challenging time.
But for us in the Scottish salmon sector, that determination to set the agenda may be no bad thing. She is aware of what we do and how important we are. If she thinks there is a shortcut – through civil service stodginess – to get what she wants, she will take it. And she is a passionate advocate for growing UK exports.
And, despite her refusal to stick to our agenda, during that meeting she remained focused and totally engaged. Some politicians find it difficult to hide their boredom and go into autopilot mode when presented with yet another factory or yet another slide deck. Ms Truss was not like that. Yes, she hopped around from issue to issue but she kept her eyes and ears focused sharply on what she was being told and listened to the answers to all her questions.
What should also help us through her premiership is the wider realisation within government that it would really help if the UK was self-sufficient: self-sufficient in energy certainly, but also in food. Our farmers produce enough to keep the whole of the UK in salmon and while half of that is exported, the fact that we are able to produce enough to satisfy UK demand is definitely a plus as far as the government is concerned.
Governments must work together
However, our job as a trade body is made more difficult whenever there is tension, distrust and animosity between the UK and Scottish governments and, at the moment, there is little evidence that Prime Minister Truss is going to improve matters on this score.
Any goodwill that was engendered by the Cameron administration’s respect agenda towards the Scottish Government was tossed to the ground and smashed like an empty wine glass by the Johnson leadership.
And Ms Truss’s campaign pledge to “ignore” Nicola Sturgeon has hardly helped get relations between the new Number 10 team and Bute House off to a good start.
It can only be hoped that the shared nature of the cost of living crises forces a willingness to work together that has not been there to date. But that may be a forlorn hope. As has happened so often in the past, when things go wrong, the Scottish Government will blame Westminster and vice versa.
Our farmers and supply chain partners face the same problems as the rest of the food and drink sector: steepling energy prices driving up costs, rocketing prices for raw materials for feed and consumers cutting back at home.
But what is crucial – and this is the one message I hope Ms Truss took from her meeting with us last year – is that we can also be part of the solution.
We produce a protein with a tiny carbon footprint compared with other main livestock and we use less water. Our product is also home grown so it does not need to be imported at a time when there are huge questions around self-sufficiency.
Also, and probably most importantly, we generate substantial foreign export earnings at a time when the pound is struggling against the dollar and the Government is having to borrow more and more, getting itself into even deeper debt on the international markets.
Prime Minister Truss is unlikely to thaw relations with the Scottish Government. She is going to have to navigate the country through the biggest domestic crisis for a century and there are certainly some of her colleagues at Westminster who question her ability to juggle such a big and daunting brief.
But she has shown, in the brief time we have had with her, to be focused and engaged.
And, most importantly of all, we now have an incumbent in Number 10 who knows about salmon farming, has visited the biggest salmon processing plant in the country, and has engaged positively and constructively with key figures in our sector.
A small victory? Yes. But it is certainly one that I, as a lobbyist, would take at this stage of the political cycle.
This article went to press ahead of the sad news of the death of Her Majesty the Queen, on 8 September.