Lord Hannan of Kingsclere is a Conservative peer, writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.
One of the downsides of these leadership races is that they encourage candidates to proclaim things that they know to be false, but that are immediately popular.
It is easier to say, “I’ll protect the green belt” than to say:
“The green belt isn’t what you think it is – much of it is scrubland bisected by motorways and studded with petrol stations. Banning all new development there means we have to build more houses on genuinely green land”.
It is easier to say, “I’ll pay our front-line public sector heroes properly” than to say, “The money has run out, and we’re all going to have to tighten our belts.”
It is easier to say, “I’ll raise the defence budget” than to say, “No Tory should ever pledge to raise budgets as an end in itself – what counts is the outcome, not the money”.
And, of course, it is easier to say, “I want Britain to be able to feed itself” than to say, “You know which country is most obsessed with being able to feed itself? North Korea. How’s that working out?”
Conservatives have an understandable soft spot for farmers. We know that Britain is blessed with the finest countryside in the world and, unlike most countries, its loveliest spaces are cultivated.
Ask a Swede to think of a beautiful landscape, and he will conjure a picture of lakes and birch forests. Ask a Canadian and he will think of snow-capped Rockies. But we think of the holts and hedgerows that shaped our land as it co-evolved with us.
The Tory soft spot for farmers has no more to do with their economic importance than has Labour’s soft spot for coalminers. Agriculture accounts for around one per cent of Britain’s work force, and around half of one per cent of its GDP. But farmers look after around 70 per cent of our land surface area, and have a commensurate claim on our gratitude.
We irrationally dislike of the idea of imported food – a maladaptation from our hunter-gatherer past, when we wanted to know that we had a ready stash at hand. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation, setting aside micro-states, Argentina is the biggest per capita food producer on the planet, and Norway the smallest. I know whose economic company I’d rather be in.
Even when we accept, logically, that global markets have made food supplies cheaper, more plentiful and more reliable, we struggle to accept it emotionally. Last week Minette Batters, the National Farmers Union (NFU) President, wrote about “the terrifying problem of where our food will come from,” and complained of the “abject failure by government to take seriously the pressing problem of feeding our nation.”
Never mind that malnutrition has never been less of an issue in Britain, that obesity is a far worse problem than hunger, and that households discard more than six million tonnes of edible food a year. Claims like hers speak to our Palaeolithic instincts, not to our modern intellects.
So, how have the two leadership candidates responded? Both sit for agrarian constituencies. Both understand that Tory members are disproportionately rural and prone to food nationalism.
Yet both are also free-marketeers who know damn well that the worst thing to do, during a cost of living crisis, is artificially to push up the price of groceries. So have they stuck to their principles?
Rishi Sunak says: “I will make sure that farmers are a priority in trade deals”. OK, fine; we can all agree with that. But does he mean that he wants to win them new export markets, or that he intends to protect inefficient domestic producers by keeping out foreign food and thus raising prices?
The accompanying briefing from his campaign spokesman was not encouraging: “The fallout from the Australia trade deal demonstrated how much the public wants to support our farmers.”
Actually, that’s not true. There was overwhelming public support for the Australia trade deal – including among those supposedly dirigiste Red Wall voters. Indeed, most farmers seem to have supported it.
The only real opposition came from irreconcilable Remainers, who can’t stand the thought of Brexit succeeding, and from NFU bigwigs, who have now got themselves into the ludicrous position of wanting unrestricted trade with the EU but not with anyone else – despite the fact that many Australian products are counter-seasonal to our own.
Leadership sometimes involves setting out the facts rather than indulging people’s misconceptions. Food security does not depend on growing everything yourself. On the contrary, food security means being able to source from the widest diversity of global suppliers so that you are not vulnerable to a local shock or disruption, which might as easily happen in your own country as anywhere else.
Liz Truss, author of that Australia deal (along with five dozen others) has, so far, impressively refused to pander to the protectionists. Instead, she talks of removing regulations and letting British farmers compete more freely.
It makes sense. As long as we were in the EU, we had to apply a series of rules that often had nothing whatever to do with science, ranging from restrictions on GM to a ban on imported beef for which the EU’s own scientific advisory body could find no justification.
When British farmers say that they want a level playing field, they have a point. But why assume that this means maximum regulation? Couldn’t we level the playing field by scrapping some of the more obviously self-serving and expensive restrictions under which they operate?
I’m not just talking about food regulations, by the way. The same goes for imported seasonal labour (Truss is for letting in fruit-pickers, Sunak is against).
The same goes, too, for rural planning rules. When Jeremy Clarkson spoke to a recent meeting at the House of Lords about his challenges as a farmer, he was clear that he wanted neither subsidies nor protection (though, if I had to choose, subsidies are far less harmful to the economy than tariffs). What Clarkson wanted was permission to adapt his barns and to operate a farm shop. What he sought, in other words, was not intervention, but non-intervention.
That, of course, is very different from what the NFU seeks. Like all producer lobbies, it wants to keep most of the existing rules and then to ban people – generally those outside the EU – who don’t meet them. It’s how protectionism works. But it does not serve the interest of British farming, let alone of the UK overall.
Kudos to the Truss campaign for holding the line on this issue rather than panicking in the face of the news cycle. And a plea, once again, to look again at these leadership rules, which were patently not designed for a party in office.
We have already seen one perfectly sensible policy – regional pay boards, which boost the private sector in the provinces – dropped because it was misrepresented. We have seen all the candidates promise more restrictive policies on housebuilding while ruling out some obvious savings opportunities.
If this carries on for much longer, the eventual winner will be so hemmed in that there will be almost nothing left to change.