In the 80s, Thatcherism tore the heart out of British manufacturing, with long-term social consequences. We cannot let the same thing happen now to English farming, says Labour Shadow Defra Minister Daniel Zeichner.
‘Disappointing’. ‘Lack of detail’. ‘An announcement about a series of announcements’.
These were the reactions from a panel of farmers and land managers to the Secretary of State George Eustice’s recent presentation to an Oxford Farming Conference event on the future of farming.
Hardly surprising, given the pressing need for clarity just a few weeks away from new trade relationships and the biggest shake-up of farm support in decades.
And where there was certainty, it was unwelcome.
Rumours about the new Tier 1 payments have been circulating for months, with talk of a ‘Sustainable Farming Incentive’ to make up the immediate cuts to basic payments, and to act as a bridge to the new Environmental Land Management (ELM) schemes.
Eustice did indeed announce the SFI, but that will itself be the new Tier 1, and not until 2022 – so no bridge at all.
ELMs is not expected to be up and running until 2024, by which time basic payments will be halved – a hammer blow to the many farms in England that are operating on fine margins.
The Country Land and Business Association says Defra’s own figures show that on average, 75 per cent of English farms do not return any profit on agricultural activity.
But Eustice is unconcerned.
He is not worried about the prospect of tariffs in the event of a no-deal Brexit, which he describes as an opportunity, and he is relaxed about the halving of support payments over just three years.
This extreme free-market position has held sway in the Conservative Party before.
In the 1980s, Thatcherism tore the heart out of British manufacturing, with incalculable long-term social consequences.
Now they want to do the same to English farming.
There is a threat here that we must remain vigilant to.
The Secretary of State is a mild-mannered, pleasant man, knowledgeable about farming, but his is an extreme position that I do not believe is shared by many of his colleagues outside the hard Brexit clique, nor by the vast majority of people in England.
In the rest of the UK, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are going different ways on agricultural support, which will create new problems within a UK single market, but it is England that is subject to the radical experiment.
A shift to environmentally friendly farming is welcome, and goes with the grain of public opinion.
The destruction of English family farming does not.
Daniel can be found tweeting at @DanielZeichner