Last Thursday (15th April 2021), Scottish animal welfare charity OneKind hosted a political hustings to allow the public to quiz candidates from the five main political parties on their animal welfare policies ahead of the election on 6th May.
The hustings was organised by More for Scotland’s Animals (MFSA), a coalition of 11 leading animal welfare organisations (see here).
The MSP candidates were:
- Maurice Golden (Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party)
- Alison Johnstone (Scottish Green Party)
- Ben Macpherson (SNP)
- Molly Nolan (Scottish Liberal Democrats)
- Colin Smyth (Scottish Labour)
I watched this hustings event and it was incredibly popular, with over 60 questions put forward for the candidates on a range of issues such as snaring, grouse shooting, fox hunting and greyhound racing but there simply wasn’t enough time for all the questions to be asked and answered.
I understand that OneKind is currently seeking permissions for a recording of the event to be posted online but in the meantime, journalist Mark Smith wrote an opinion piece for The Herald yesterday, focusing largely on the issue of grouse shooting. Mark’s opinions are his, of course, but where he reports on who said what, I think it’s an accurate account.
It is reproduced below:
IF you haven’t yet decided who to vote for, perhaps I can be of some assistance. Late last week, I put the same single question to five different politicians, one from each of the five main parties, and maybe their answers can tell us a little bit about the problems of modern Scottish politics. You can see familiar patterns at play in what they say – some new, some extremely old – and for voters trying to make up their minds, it’s very frustrating indeed.
What happened was that the charity OneKind asked the politicians along to an online hustings event to discuss the main issues around animal welfare and I took the opportunity to ask them about an issue I’ve written about many times: grouse shooting. My question was: do the candidates think there is a place for driven grouse shooting in Scotland or should it be banned? I was curious to see how far the parties would be willing to go.
Their answers were interesting, and in some cases passionate, but they also revealed something of the dilemmas that Scottish voters face, not only if they care about animal welfare but also if they care about the constitution. What if you’re a Scot who wants reform on animal welfare and other important issues – drugs, criminal justice, schools – but you’re also worried that voting for the SNP and the Greens (who have some good policies on these issues) could break up the UK? And what on earth are you to do if you’re concerned about independence but also not inclined to support the Conservatives? It’s not easy.
Alison Johnstone, the Green MSP, is a good example. She is a superb campaigner on animal welfare – informed, passionate, and committed – and her answers on driven grouse shooting were impressive. Her party, she said, want a complete ban on the practice, not only because there’s no justification for animals being killed for pleasure, but also because driven grouse shooting is an unproductive and inefficient way to use land. “We also see stink pits, snares and poor practice on every level,” she said. “I cannot wait to ban it.”
I have to say: I agree with every word Ms Johnstone says, having spoken to lots of people on every side of the argument over the years – gamekeepers, campaigners, police, lawyers, etc – and in any normal situation, she’d have my vote. The problem is that, for many people, the Greens’ policies – and there’s a lot to like in their manifesto – are tainted by the party’s stance on the constitution, meaning I could vote for animal welfare and end up with independence. Are there any unionists in the Scottish Greens, I wonder? And if so, how do they feel? If you’re out there, email me.
The other problem, obviously, is that the Greens are in bed with the SNP – all tucked up, nice ’n’ cosy – and this makes me doubt that anything significant will be done on animal welfare. The SNP representative at the hustings was the MSP Ben Macpherson who seems like a nice enough guy, but he’s saddled with defending what his party hasn’t done. In many ways, the SNP behave like a party in opposition, but Mr Macpherson also has to deal with the age-old problem of ruling parties during elections. They need to promise things are going to change (but not promise too hard in case they actually have to do it) but they also need to explain why they haven’t changed things already.
In the case of Mr Macpherson, this led to a lot of wibbly-wobbly government speak. On fox hunting, for example, the SNP “remain committed to closing the loopholes”. On cruelty to greyhounds, “we need to look at it very seriously”. On snares, “we accept the need for greater regulation”. And, sadly, there was the same lack of urgency on driven grouse shooting; Mr Macpherson said his party “remain committed” to bringing in a licensing system.
In any normal world, the SNP would be punished for all of this, for its lack of progress on important issues people care about – but Scottish politics is not a normal world. Alison Johnstone belongs to a party that has genuinely radical and transformative polices and Ben Macpherson belongs to a party that’s pretty much shagged-out on policy after 14 years in power, and yet neither party will be judged on any of that. They are the parties of Scottish independence and it means their promises on policy, and their delivery on those promises, doesn’t matter very much. How on earth did we get here?
The primacy of independence has also meant the banishment of the Lib-Dems and Labour to the outer reaches of Scottish politics, which is a pity. The Lib-Dems were represented at the hustings by Molly Nolan, the party’s candidate for Caithness, Sutherland and Ross, and she had some sensible stuff to say about how animal welfare can be improved, such as giving wildlife police officers the resources they need. She also pointed out that any licensing system for driven grouse shooting needs to be robust; there’s no point in introducing licences and then carrying on as normal.
But by far the most impressive performer was Labour’s Colin Smyth whose concern for animal welfare clearly comes from a genuine place. The legislation on fox hunting, he said, was “unfinished business” and, as for driven grouse shooting, he said the current situation was unsustainable and a licensing system was not good enough. I don’t know much about Mr Smyth – and it’s obviously easier to promise things when you’re a long way off from having to deliver them – but listening to his old-school campaigning politics, passionately delivered, was refreshing and pretty inspiring I have to say.
I wish I could say the same for the Tories. Their representative, the MSP Maurice Golden, said he wanted new legislation on pets, but he also said snares were “necessary land-management tools”. He said the laws on fox hunting don’t need changing. And as for my question about driven grouse moors, Mr Golden said the industry improves bio-diversity and is a “fulcrum for jobs”. His answers were deeply disappointing.
But maybe we shouldn’t be surprised by any of this: Tories defending vested interests and governments defending a lack of action. What makes it different, though, is that many Scottish voters will be guided by other factors. Some people who care about animal welfare will vote Tory and some people who think the nationalists have done poorly in government will vote SNP. That’s where we are now. It’s disappointing. It’s distorting. And it’s exhausting. One day, maybe, politics in Scotland will go back to normal.
UPDATE 24th April 2021: Political hustings on animal welfare in Scotland now available to view (here)