SCOTLAND’S rural areas are not only some of the picturesque parts of our country but also some of our most vital areas for future prosperity and opportunities.

So it was a pleasure to welcome a group of Scotland’s rural leaders to Westminster last week to talk about how politics and rural affairs interlink. I had helped with sponsoring the programme during my time in the European Parliament and I was delighted to help again – albeit in a more archaic environment!

The Scottish Rural Leadership Programme is funded by Scottish enterprise agencies and takes a group of people who are heading up businesses and organisations in rural areas through a personal and professional development programme.

As part of the six-month experience, they also participate in a three-day visit to Edinburgh and London to learn more about the world of government and politics, meeting with representatives from both governments. (They also used to visit Brussels too, but then the UK decided to leave the European Union – yet another example of where the UK leaving the room is harming our businesses and opportunities).


After they had been shown around Westminster, we sat down with the group for an in-depth cross-party discussion. If time had allowed us, I think we would all have been happy to stay there all day helping answer their questions, queries and concerns.

As I reiterated to them, shy weans get no sweeties, and it can only be a good thing for further engagement between Scotland’s politicians and rural areas.

I then had to hot-foot it from one great group of rural leaders to another in Glasgow for the National Farmers Union of Scotland’s conference. Again, it was great to see familiar faces and meet new ones too.

Why though am I talking about rural affairs? Not only because Stirling has a large rural contingent (my constituency covers an area bigger than Luxembourg) but because I passionately believe our rural areas play a vital role in the economy and security of our country.

I spent a lot of time on the European Parliament’s agricultural committee back in my Brussels days.

Call it agriculture and only so many people are interested; call it food security, call it land management, call it science and technology, and all of a sudden you realise that rural issues should be much higher up the political agenda.

This is especially so after the pandemic and Putin’s renewed invasion of Ukraine. The UK imports the majority of its food, while fertiliser and fuel for machinery are also subject to global price swings.

Scotland may not have as much agricultural land as other parts of Europe, but the products we produce are often of excellent quality, commanding high prices.

Equally, the pandemic resulted in a population shift as people moved out of the cities into the countryside. Not only did this equate to an increase in house prices outside large cities but it also showed it was possible for many jobs to be done remotely or through hybrid working.

Many came to realise remote working could spell an end to their need to commute, and the higher costs associated with city living.

All of this means our rural communities are at a pivotal moment. The cost of living crisis is also a cost of business crisis for many of our farmers and rural businesses. The loss of EU funding only serves to exacerbate this situation.

When we were part of the EU, under the Common Agricultural Policy there was a seven-year multi-annual financial framework, so governments and farmers could plan ahead. Now it is yearly budgets – and the UK is giving no clarity whatsoever on how much will be available to Edinburgh to support these vital industries.

An alternative is possible – but it won’t happen under a UK Government which prioritises the economy of a small part of the UK. The potential is there with sound investment in our telecoms and infrastructure, but the meagre powers of devolution reluctantly handed to us by the UK are insufficient for the task at hand.

In the past, EU funding was transformative in opening up our rural areas and improving infrastructure. In the future, an independent Scotland in Europe will be well-placed to take advantage of the opportunities of the ongoing digital revolution.

Whether it is farmers getting a fair price for their food, hospitality services delivering a rip-roaring tourism trade or our rural communities being reinvigorated with an expanded population bringing wealth, jobs and families, independence in Europe will help deliver a better future for Scotland’s rural areas.