DONALD Dewar told Number 10 he’d get “tough” with Scottish farmers after the BSE crisis brought the sector to its knees, newly declassified government files show.

The pledge was made in private six months before the first-ever Scottish Parliament elections in May 1999, The National can reveal.

Downing Street figures said they’d “do the dirty” on Scottish hill farmers if there weren’t votes at stake.

The material has come to light in a clutch of papers that have been declassified today, more than 20 years after UK meat prices hit rock bottom as international import bans continued in the wake of the BSE crisis.

Farmers said they were living on 1982-level salaries despite inflation and staged protests calling on the government to do more. ­Dewar, who was Scottish secretary at the time, said he was “fully committed” to helping those affected.

But in private, senior government figures praised what they referred to as ­Scottish willingness to “hold the line” with farmers.

And, in a letter backing settlement proposals, he told the chief secretary to the Treasury: “If necessary, I am prepared to take a very tough line indeed with my farmers over this.”

The National:

Meanwhile, in a confidential three-page letter to prime minister Tony Blair, the Labour leader’s private secretary Angus Lapsley told how the UK Government could “do the dirty” on hill farmers in Scotland and Wales “if it were not for the elections”.

He wrote that “agriculture is ­probably the flashpoint for the ­devolution settlement” and both ­Ministry for Agriculture, ­Fisheries and Food (Maff) secretary Nick Brown and chancellor Gordon Brown were “playing around with the territorials in a way that could yet turn out to be very bad politics”.


More than four million cows were culled due to an outbreak of BSE ­(bovine spongiform encephalopathy), which also heralded major reforms to practices and controls in agriculture.

Around 180 people are known to have died after contracting the variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease from ­eating meat.

The illness was passed through the food chain because the remains of infected cattle had been turned into meat and bone meal and given to cows, but BSE can occur spontaneously in animals.

An isolated case was detected in Somerset in September and Scottish vets check around 20,000 ­deceased animals ­every year for signs of the condition.

The National:

A government briefing paper from 1998 told how farming income had dropped by 35% in the previous year and was predicted to plummet again, with the strength of sterling and the collapse of some international export markets given as reasons.

Beef farmer Peter McKilligin was one of six farmers to meet with Dewar in late 1998 to warn that farmers could not ­continue without government intervention.

He told The Herald: “We have a government that keeps putting up our costs, like extra slaughterhouse costs since BSE, plus a high pound, so we are ­being hit on all sides.”

A secret briefing paper prepared for Blair said that a “large part” of money set to be used to aid farmers “will actually come out of the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish budgets”.

Those departments were to be kept “out of the discussions” and it was said that Dewar “who has never pushed so hard for the money anyway (the Scots actually believe to an extent in holding the line with farmers)” was going to “wake-up to a large chunk of his budget having been pre-empted” by Maff.

“Ultimately of course the territorials will be able to absorb this money within their generous settlements,” the restricted paper went on.

Scottish Labour was contacted for comment.

Dewar was the first person to become first minister. He died in October 2000 as a result of a brain haemorrhage.