With less than 48 hours to go before Scotland decides whether to remain part of the United Kingdom on Thursday 19 September, The Grocer spoke to Scotland’s food minister Richard Lochhead, on the issues for the food and drink industry including price hikes, intimidation and exports.
The Scottish food and drink industry is thriving, the Yes camp firmly believe independence will make things even better. What do you think?
The big advantage of an independent government is that we can focus on Scotland’s national interests and priorities and food and drink is right up there with oil and gas and other key sectors. The growing success of our food and drink industry shows that we have what it takes to make a success of an independent Scotland.
What would you say to members of the food and drink industry when their pens hover over the ballot paper on Thursday?
Independence is the perfect platform to promote Scottish brands across the globe and independence will mean we will have a government that will make food and drink a priority. In terms of overseas promotion, Scottish food and drink will be elevated and we will target key markets in partnership with the industry where we will remain resolutely focused on the big opportunity that is there for Scottish food and drink produce.
What are those key markets?
When I was leading the Scottish food and drink delegation to Asia two years ago the British consul in Tokyo told me that getting Scotch beef into the Japanese market was not a UK priority. Yet its these premium markets that we have to aim for. We can’t compete with commodities but we can offer premium products, so its premium markets that we have to target.
Recently businesses, including grocers, have warned that prices would rise in an independent Scotland, because the cost of logistics would rise, among other reasons. What is your take on that?
The Scottish government in an independent country will very much support competition among retailers, and that very competition that will ensure prices will remain competitive. It’s also worth noting that many retailers, including Tesco, have not suggested there will be any direct implication for prices. Even those that have been on the news and are being quoted by the no campaign have simply indicated in many cases that they would want to look closely at the policies any Scottish government adopted. That same rationale applies in any general election where every retailer looks at the policies of the competing political parties. And any Scottish government is going to do what is best for consumers and make sure the country is attractive for business.
The food and drink industry has been shy to nail its colours to the mast. One of the reasons put forward is that they feel intimidated by the Yes camp. What have you heard?
Many of Scotland’s biggest businesses are supporting a Yes vote because they believe that is the best route to a prosperous dynamic economy.
And what about the rumours of intimidation from the Yes camp?
Quite honestly, given the scaremongering and fearmongering that the No campaign has been injecting into the campaign I would be surprised if any business was pointing the finger at Yes. It was David Cameron who called the supermarkets into Downing Street and urged them to leave the room and go out and suggest that prices may increase if people vote yes. Thankfully many of the retailers didn’t do that, they did not abide by David Cameron’s wishes. And I think that tactic by the UK government sums up more than anything else how the better together campaign, because they can’t win the arguments, are trying to win the fear campaign.
Fast forward to Friday morning, and let’s say Scotland is now an independent country. What do the next five years hold for Scottish Food and Drink?
As we have seen since the SNP came to office in 2007, food and drink industry has rocketed and is now approaching £14bn in terms of turnover. Exports are up by over 50% in both food and drink. The momentum is there to build this industry even more in the coming five years and will be a key national priority for any Scottish government. The rest of the world, as well as Scottish consumers, is demanding more and more of our larder and that is a big challenge we can rise to, which will bring more jobs and prosperity to the country
It’s been a fascinating campaign. What’s it like being right in the middle of it?
It’s an incredibly exciting experience that Scotland is having this major national debate about our future. The level of engagement is unprecedented in modern times and the amount of imagining and vision-making going on across communities and all sectors of society is absolutely fascinating. And it’s energising the country. A yes vote will keep up that momentum and allow us to build a better future for both people living here and the wider economy.
Finally, this afternoon Betfair started paying out on a No vote.
Yes. Does that surprise you?
Well I’ve put a bet on Yes to win. And I’m confident that I’m going to picking up my winnings.