Why Governments Always Sell Agriculture Short and Why We – People at Large – Need to Take Control

Colin Tudge on why

The case for an Agrarian Renaissance becomes more and more urgent

All governments are inadequate, for no collection of human beings or probably even of demi-gods could ever live up to what is theoretically desirable. None can satisfy everybody, and life is so unpredictable (non-linearity applies) that no government, however well-informed, can ever be sure that its policies will produce the desired results (even assuming that the desired results are indeed desirable). Nothing that the most socially conscious human beings might want to see happen – including the best possible health care and education – can be afforded. An NHS that met everyone’s highest standards would cost more than the total GDP. And so on. However well-intentioned they may be, governments must always fall short.

But some are more inadequate than others – and the last eight governments that the UK has endured have all in their different ways been dreadful, going on unspeakable. Thatcher, while daring to cite St Francis, did her best to undermine the whole concept of “society” and introduced the world (via Regan) to the moral wasteland of neoliberal economics. Crucially – fatally indeed, for many people – she all-but killed off public housing. Major’s quarrelsome makeshift government was essentially a filler-in. Blair and Brown succeeded by placing the term “socialism” on their Index Expurgatorius and embracing neoliberalism. Blair should never be forgiven for his role in the Iraq war, which scarred the world forever. Brown tried to square socialist principles (though not by that name) with neoliberalism and thereby showed that it cannot be done. The uneasy Tory-Lib Dem coalition almost killed off the Lib Dems. Then came Cameron and Osborne who, Thatcher-style, dared to speak of compassion while squeezing public services “till the pips squeaked” (as Denis Healey said in a different context), and flogging off whatever was most profitable. They also took us out of the EU, apparently by mistake, but we’re out nonetheless. I suppose, charitably, we could say that Theresa May did her best to pick up the pieces but she lacked the intellectual wherewithal and the charisma to carry it through. Thatcher did a reasonable imitation of Boadicea but May is one of nature’s school-ma’ams. Besides, she should never be allowed to live down her earlier role in Windrush.

But Boris and his collection of spivs and dinosaurs, taking their lead from Cummings the archetypal eminence grise, is surely the worst UK government since records began. For the misconceptions they sowed and the lies they spun in their Brexit campaign the leading Brexiteers deserve to be tried for treason, for they have done us far more harm than any spy. As James Meek observed in the London Review of Books (August 1 2019), for the past few years the Tories have lived in fear of Nigel Farage and succeeded in the last election only by embracing his policies so that he became redundant. They out-Faraged Farage. The present Tories leaders are neoliberal to the hilt, which is as great a departure from the Macmillan-Heath style of traditional Toryism as Blairism was and is from traditional Labour. “Let the market decide” is the neoliberal motto – whatever is most profitable is good, and whatever is intended merely to support human beings and look after the biosphere, is left to fall by the wayside, or sold off to whoever thinks they can make a buck out of it. The chauvinism and xenophobia of the present leadership is not overtly racist since they despise most mainland Europeans with almost equal vehemence. But blame is always seen to rest with Johnny Foreigner – apart from the rapidly diminishing shortlist of Johnny Foreigners with whom the present government hopes to do business, faute de mieux, after Brexit.

Whatever goes wrong with the world – whether climate change, economic collapse, or bad government – agriculture is always in the frontline. It always takes the brunt. Agriculture is the thing we all rely upon, absolutely, and our fellow creatures have no chance unless we farm in wildlife-friendly ways. Truly, agriculture is the sine qua non. Yet ultra-urbanized governments like ours aren’t interested in it, don’t even try to understand it, and are content to leave its affairs to the corporates and their intellectual and expert advisers, kept on retainers though cosily and respectably ensconced in academe. This indifference or fear of the agricultural unknown is reflected in the quality of the various Secretaries of State these past few decades – Secretaries of State not specifically for agriculture but for “the environment” and “rural affairs”, of which farming is seen to be just one. Thus Owen Patterson advised farmers to raise more beef to sell to the Chinese; Liz Truss urged farmers to raise more pork to sell to the Chinese (while berating them for not making more cheese); and Andrea Leadsom in her temporary role as protector of the natural world declared (though I paraphrase) that the lowlands are for farming and the uplands are for butterflies (though I’m not sure most butterflies would agree. They do like warmth and are not at their best in high winds). Overall, agricultural policy this past half century has been designed not to provide the British people with good food and to contribute to the wellbeing of the biosphere, or to look after the farming community, or to deal fairly with would-be trading partners, but to ram the square peg of agriculture into the round hole of neoliberal doctrine and dogma. Agriculture has been perceived as “a business like any other” and business has been re-conceived simply as a way of maximizing wealth, and concentrating that wealth in fewer and fewer hands.

It won’t do. Truly, people at large the world over, in every country, need to take control of farming. We need a people-led Agrarian Renaissance as a matter of urgency – with farmers and cooks (of the kind who really care about food) leading the charge. From there, with luck and concerted effort, the idea of a people’s takeover should be encouraged to spread to all areas of life. None of this would work, though, of course, unless people at large take more interest in agriculture and in the world at large than most seem to do at present.

In short, farming is obviously vital in its own right. But it is vital too in all aspects of all life on Earth and must be treated accordingly. Governments like ours are a million miles from understanding this. We should not simply try to persuade them to pay attention and to change their ways. We need to by-pass them, now and forever. We won’t put food and farming to rights unless we re-think the economy and the whole concept of governance; and we need to do the re-thinking. We cannot afford to leave it to the powers-that-be.

Colin Tudge’s latest book, The Great Re-Think, published by Pari Publishing, should be available later this year.

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