Strength of public opinion around food and farming standards should not be underestimated when it comes to securing new trade deals which have the potential to undermine British standards, former Conservative party leader William Hague has said.
While he admitted the majority of British politicians did not understand the importance of agriculture, they did listen to the electorate and politics was entering a period where the sector would become ‘more politically sensitive and important’.
Speaking at the NFU’s Henry Plumb lecture, Lord Hague, who left the Government four years ago, said: “[We have] never really had to worry about security of our food supply until the analysis of a no-deal Brexit. We have not had to worry in decades.
“Expect more political engagement in the next year regarding food.”
Asked whether he thought agriculture could be a ‘sacrificial lamb’ in the pursuit of trade deals with countries such as the US, he said the industry would find ‘sympathetic ears’ in Government.
He added: “Do not underestimate British public opinion on this, for example animal welfare and pesticides etc.
“You will have to demonstrate to public opinion, what is the right course of action.
“There is no point is setting very high standards and then undermining them by importing food where those standards are not met.
“You may have more allies on that than you think.”
The former Foreign Secretary, who served as an MP for Richmond, North Yorkshire, for 26 years, said there was a lack of expertise in Government when it came to negotiating trade deals, because it was such a long time since it had been forced to do so.
He likened the civil service to a dented Rolls-Royce which needed to polish up its skills and ‘learn new tricks quickly’.
Lord Hague said the climate change emergency was one the biggest concerns globally and paid tribute to the NFU’s aspirations to become net zero by 2040.
“It is vital that agriculture is at the forefront of responding to this and is not swept away by it,” he said, adding it also brought opportunities for the industry to forge closer links with the UK’s world leading academics and research institutions.
Agri tech, including the use of gene editing, vertical farming and artificial intelligence also made the industry an ‘exciting prospect’ for young people looking to carve out their future careers.
William Hague talks about life as an MP in a rural seat
Regaling tales of speaking to farmers in his constituency in Richmond, North Yorkshire, Lord Hague said early on in his career he was asked to speak at an NFU branch meeting in Northallerton.
After sitting through the committee’s business, including various reports, he asked how long they would like him to speak for.
He was told: “You can speak for as long as you like but in four minutes’ time we are leaving."
He also recalled meeting a farmer in Billsdale where he was asked, ‘what are you doing for us farmers?’
“I told him I had been very busy negotiating the suckler cow premium. We have had a debate in Parliament and we have had the suckler cow premium increased to 42 per cent.
“He looked at me and said, ‘I’ve just come out of sucklers’.”