Boris Johnson’s free trade deal with Australia could cause devastation on a scale with the Highland Clearances, a former Scottish Government minister has claimed.
Scottish farmers are concerned that a free-trade deal with the Commonwealth nation could result in small family farms being unable to compete with a flood of cheap food imports.
National Farmers Union Scotland President Martin Kennedy said last week that any deal which gave unfettered access to the British market would be viewed as a “betrayal” of the industry.
Former Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill evoked the memory of the Highland Clearances when quizzing UK ministers on the matter today.
The Alba MP said: “Over 200 years ago the Highland Clearances saw people shamefully replaced by sheep for landlord profits, now this trade deal threatens to supplant those sheep with cheap imports for Tory dogma.
“What does it say about this Tory government that they don’t even care about Scottish sheep, let alone Scottish crofters and farmers.”
Trade Minister Greg Hands batted off the comments, telling MPs that UK farmers should be “positive, not fearful” of the free trade agreement.
Mr Hands said the deal would represent a “major prize” for the UK’s newly independent trade policy.
He added in the Commons: “This will be a great deal for the UK and our farmers will continue to thrive. The agreement is a gateway into the massive CPTPP (Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership) free trade area in Asia and Pacific, opening doors for our farmers into some of the biggest economics of now and the future.
“Our food is among the best in the world and incredibly competitive. We should be positive, not fearful, of the opportunities that exist for our agriculture and our farmers.”
Mr Hands went on: “Any deal we strike will continue protections for our farmers, any liberalisation will be staged over time and any agreement is likely to include safeguards to defend against import surges.”
The minister also took aim at the SNP, accusing the party of being “isolationist”.
He said: “Never in 20 years has the SNP supported any trade done by either the UK or the EU, even though key sectors of the Scottish economy like whisky, like apparel, like fisheries are dependent on trade.
“I don’t think that whatever assurances I’d given him today would make him and the SNP support this deal, when it comes to trade the SNP are isolationist and against the best interests of Scotland.”
The potential deal was also raised at Holyrood where First Minister Nicola Sturgeon claimed the UK Government wants to “shut out” the Scottish Government.
“We are extremely concerned that yet again a crucial decision affecting Scotland’s future is being taken by this Tory Government.”
She responded to concerns raised by Perthshire South and Kinross-shire MSP Jim Fairlie during First Minister’s Questions.
Ms Sturgeon said: “The UK Government seems determined to shut the Scottish Government out of this decision-making process, just as it has ignored our interests throughout the Brexit process.
“We are extremely concerned that yet again a crucial decision affecting Scotland’s future is being taken by this Tory Government – not just against the wishes of people who live here, but fundamentally against the interests of people who live here.”
The First Minister claimed the UK Government has already “betrayed” the fishing industry in Scotland through Brexit and is about to do the same on farming.
Food imports, she said, must meet the same standards as Scottish produce and be controlled by tariff rate quotas.
“Anything short of that, short of what the Tories promised, will be a betrayal of our farmers and will be deeply damaging to the Scottish economy,” she said.
“We hear a lot of rhetoric from the Conservatives about standing up for Scottish business – we’ve heard it again today – perhaps it’s about time they actually stood up for our farming community and told their bosses in the UK Government that what is proposed is simply not acceptable.”
Farmers, backed by UK Environment Secretary George Eustice have raised fears they could be wiped out if there is a complete liberalisation of trade.
UK Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove is also said to oppose the deal, amid concern it will increase support for Scottish and Welsh independence – but the Prime Minister backed the proposal in a meeting with ministers last week.