I was puzzled by material I stumbled upon recently promoting gin exports. The adverts were being punted by the Scotland Office (or the “UK Government in Scotland” as it now calls itself) and featured Forest Gin, distilled in the Peak District. Now that’s a wonderful part of England and I’m sure a tasty drink, but it did make me wonder whether Scotland’s champion, our man in the cabinet David Mundell, was even aware of the disproportionate export success being enjoyed by thriving gin distilleries in Scotland. Two-thirds of the UK’s gin is produced here, accounting for more than half the total exports in the globe. We’re not slouches on the quality front either, with Edinburgh Gin in my constituency scooping plenty of international awards.
The growth has much to do with the Scottish Government’s strategic efforts to build our good name as a land of food and drink – linking the country’s reputation for unspoiled landscapes with quality natural produce. It’s no coincidence that exports have risen by 55 per cent since the SNP came to power, hitting a record £6 billion in 2017. Scotland’s larder has also become an important part of a now-booming tourist industry, moving us on from self-deprecating jokes about deep-fried Mars bars.
I’m sure the last thing any government representing Scotland would want to do is to tamper with this success.
Yet erasing Scotland the Brand seems to be exactly what the “UK Government in Scotland” has in mind. We already see more and more locally sourced fruit and veg being subsumed under one big homogeneous British label in our supermarkets. The recent Brexit bill made sure food labelling powers would go to Westminster, risking the Scottish Government’s ability to effectively market Scottish produce and provenance. Names such as Scotch whisky, Arbroath Smokies or Stornoway Black Pudding were given protected status by the EU, but in recent trade talks the UK Government did hee-haw to protect even a single product. We already know the US wants to brand their whiskey as “Scotch” and I don’t have high hopes that the UK negotiators will go out of their way to stop them.
This is not a nationalist point – many farmers who discussed these worries with me at the Royal Highland Show would proudly call themselves British, but they understand the need to protect their brand identity. As we hurtle towards Brexit the industry is already facing the severe threat of losing tariff-free access to the EU single market, where 40 per cent of Scotland’s food and drinks are exported. If the UK Government wants to help they could start by supporting the Scottish Government’s work to promote our food and drink instead of working against it. If they can’t see the wood from the trees, or the Shetland wool from the Orkney cheddar, then we will have to make sure it remains clearly labelled for them.
Deidre Brock is the SNP MP for Edinburgh North and Leith