Fat lady singing Defra’s and Scottish Government’s song

Farmers seem to have taken to heart the saying that “It ain’t over till the fat lady sings” as arguments continue about how EU subsidies are to be allocated over the next few years.

In England, the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) intends to put 15% of annual common agricultural policy (CAP) payments, up from the present 9%, into rural development, environment and conservation; in Scotland the planned allocation is to rise about a third to 9.5%.

In both countries the farmers’ unions are unhappy about losing support for productive farming, while conservation and environmental bodies believe the increase in support to save and/or improve wildlife habitats and encourage conservation is only a step in the right direction.

The farmers’ unions argue that CAP support payments should be for producing food, not for having to make separate applications for environmental projects, such as taking land out of cropping to provide wildlife habitats. The English NFU also, apparently, fear that the diverted money – modulation from Pillar 1 to Pillar 2 in CAP terminology – could be used for non-food or wildlife projects such as installing and improving broadband in rural areas. They claim to be “at a complete loss” about what Defra intends to do with the 15%.

In Scotland Richard Lochhead said on behalf of the government that his vision is for an “ambitious rural development programme that will deliver our key priorities of sustainable economic growth, environmental sustainability and vibrant rural communities.” That covered pretty well every political cliché in a sentence, a masterly performance in its way, while leaving farmers and public none the wiser. We can only assume Mr Lochhead’s intentions are honorable without having a clue of how the 9.5% will be spent. But if NFU Scotland wins the argument it won’t be 9.5%, but at most 7.5%. That doesn’t seem a lot to argue about, but we’re talking about £1.3 billion of CAP support payments over five years. The fat lady saying is based on no opera ending until the lead soprano – until recent years, and still occasionally, a lady of ample proportions – has put heart and soul into her final aria. In spite of NFU protests, I suspect she’s singing Defra’s, and the Scottish government’s, song now.

The Scottish Association of Young Farmers Clubs celebrated its 75th anniversary recently with a concert in Glasgow Hydro performed by club members before an audience of more than 5,000. I wasn’t there, but as someone with fairly extensive knowledge of local amateur productions, including young farmers, I was not convinced by reviews that included words such as stupendous, awesome and unbelievable. I would have believed tried hard, did their best, and loyally supported by friends and family. Excessive praise for moderate efforts does no one any good.