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Tories have to choose between beef and liberty Post-Brexit, Britain's farmers must come before free trade

This is Britain, and everything is ok (Photo by: Farm Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

This is Britain, and everything is ok (Photo by: Farm Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)


May 19, 2020   5 mins

Tories were rebels once. And in morphing from Franco-Scottish, krypto-Catholic revolutionaries to Anglican English conservatives, they found a way to express both their patriotism and their independence: by the eating of beef.

Beef stood for courage, manliness and the fighting spirit; indeed, as Ben Rogers mentions in his sparkling book on the subject, Georgian British sailors consumed a ration of over 200 pounds of beef a year. It also stood for freedom, the independence of landowner and smallholder and tenant. In those marbled veins ran the blood of John Bull, the political antidote to the pettifogging high-taxing Whiggish government and the corrupt effeminate Hanoverian court.

To be a Tory, then and now, was and is to believe in these two things: beef and liberty. We like eating cows and we don’t like big government. What wasn’t an issue then, however, but is now, is the question of where the cows come from.

Among the many reasons for supporting Brexit were the freedom us to manage our own countryside, and the ability to negotiate international commerce for ourselves. So last week the Agriculture Bill passed the Commons, the first proper piece of agricultural legislation for 50 years. And coming down the track are the trade deals we can now strike with other countries.

But these two fruits of emancipation are in tension. The Agriculture Bill’s purpose was to protect the environment, ensure high standards of domestic food production, and improve the support system for farmers. The purpose of the trade deals is to open Britain to the markets of the world.

The danger is that, having legislated for top-quality British food standards, and set ourselves aggressive targets for carbon reduction, we simply offshore our environmental exploitation, our carbon emissions and our animal cruelty to other countries who are not so squeamish as us, and import their food once it’s neatly packaged.

As Daniel Zeichner MP, the Labour shadow farming minister, said in the Committee stages of the Bill, we could end up with a two-tier market in the UK: lovely sustainably-farmed British food for the rich, and cheap foreign muck for the masses.

How to reconcile the Agriculture Bill and the trade deals — British beef and liberty? Mr Zeichner’s solution, backed by the NFU and a number of my Conservative colleagues, was to attempt an amendment to the Bill that would impose restrictions on our future trade deals: no food could be imported to the UK that is produced to lower standards than food made in Britain.

This sounds good, till you realise it would criminalise a lot of current imports from Europe and Africa, and impose an impossible expectation on our trading partners. As I cleverly tweeted last week, “are Labour proposing that we’ll only deal with countries that adopt our farming methods? Are we telling the Americans they should accept British rules, without having a say in making them? We tried something similar once and it ended up with a lot of British tea in Boston harbour.”

In the wrangle between the Agriculture Bill and the trade deals Conservatism needs to resolve what some call its essential contradiction, and others (including me) its fruitful tension. Which comes first, rural tradition or economic dynamism? Beef or liberty?

Libertarians remind us that trade and prosperity depend on comparative advantage. Different countries exploit their differences to specialise and compete, and the ‘loser’ in the race to make a particular product (say, food) wins too, getting cheaper food to buy and a wealthy foreign market to sell different products to (say, financial services and computer games). Global trade is an Olympics in which all get prizes: what you lose on the track you win in the velodrome.

And while we might have lost some of the agricultural races, we won’t lose all. As Owen Paterson has argued, we should be selling our beef to the US and our chicken feet (which we currently just bury, domestic demand being limited) to China, where demand is huge.

Surely British beef farmers should have the confidence in their product to pit it against all comers in the global market? To libertarians, the job of government in the food market is simply to enable frictionless free exchange across borders, so that the food people want — which usually means the cheapest food possible — is available on the shelves. Dan Hannan put this argument powerfully here. He would also say (I know, because he is a Wiltshire neighbour of mine and the proud possessor of a cloth cap and tweed jacket) that the rural way of life is best preserved by a small government.

And yet, and yet. Land is not a commodity like other commodities. It is finite, and they’re not making it anymore; and while the production of food may be best managed through the free market the other roles of the countryside — its somewhat central contribution to the health and wellbeing of the planet, and of people — are not. Nor is food really a commodity like other commodities, but a vital national resource we can’t trust entirely to vulnerable global supply chains.

These factors force us to disapply the usual market logic, and acknowledge that government has a role to play in setting the terms of trade and the management of the rural economy. In free market theory the interests of producers are subordinate to those of consumers. In agriculture things are not so simple. The objective of food policy should not be ever-cheaper food: we already have the third-cheapest food in the world, after the US and Singapore (what is called ‘food poverty’ has nothing to do with food and everything to do with poverty, and should be addressed through family, welfare and employment policy).

The objective of food policy is more complex than product prices: it involves a complicated mix of security, environment and consumer interests, as well as respect for the almost spiritual identification of the nation with the land, its look and feel.

How, then, can we look after these interests? The Agriculture Bill paves the way for a new system of farm support, with payments for farmers for taking care of externalities like wildlife and water quality as well as food production: “public money for public goods”. The next imperative is to stop our farmers being too badly undercut by inferior cheap imports.

We can do this by insisting on high food safety standards, especially on pesticides; by good labelling so shoppers can clearly see what production values went into the food on offer; and by ad hoc bans on real horrors like chlorinated chicken and hormone-fed beef. We should put massive moral and regulatory pressure on the supermarkets to take responsibility for the food they offer us, and to be very scared of being discovered in a supply chain scandal.

But this might not be enough. And if not, we may need to reappraise the governing doctrine of conservative (really liberal) economic thought: frictionless trade. If necessary, tariff schedules in the trade deals should be used to drive up the prices of imports on food made with practices we don’t use here.

Before Dan Hannan chokes on his Peruvian ceviche, I emphasise that tariffs should not be used to eliminate real comparative advantages. We musn’t hike the price of Spanish oranges because they get more sunlight than we do; and it could be argued that if American farmers can get Mexican labour cheaper than British pickers, good for them. But we can use tariffs to discourage the most egregious behaviours: the pesticides and stocking densities that drive up yields at the expense of good husbandry and animal welfare.

Of course the obstacle here is not just the free marketeers among my Tory colleagues but the World Trade Organisation, which does not recognise animal welfare or environmental damage as reasons to restrict trade.

Here, then, is a noble mission for global Britain: to use our influence as the world’s third largest food import market to press for higher standards in global food production, both directly through our trade deals and indirectly through reform of the WTO. Let the world’s farmers compete on comparative advantages that are good and natural — soil and sunlight, tradition and expertise, the value of local techniques and supply chains — not on the advantages achieved by the abuse of nature.

Many rural Conservartive MPs, like me, voted for the Agriculture Bill last week on the understanding that our farming constituents would not be sacrificed in the coming trade deals. This is the great opportunity and challenge for British conservatism: to create a strong domestic base for our bold international ventures. Let us power our foreign conquests, as the Royal Navy did in the 18th century, on prodigious quantities of British cow. Beef before liberty.


Danny Kruger is the Conservative MP for Devizes.


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Mark Corby
Mark Corby
4 years ago

“As I cleverly tweeted last week “; Did Eton not hammer into you that “self praise is no recommendation”? If not, you must ask for your money back.
You seem to suggest something like the reimposition of the Corn Laws, solely to protect the most pampered minority this country has ever known, Landowners and Farmers.
Farm land in Wiltshire currently sells for about
£9,000 per acre. These people do not need subsidies in any form whatsoever. They are an obscenity left over from the dreadful EU and its
CAP.
Farming, thanks to mechanisation hardly employs anyone. Our farming standards are not a gold standard, as revealed by the fiasco over Mad Cow Disease, followed by Foot and Mouth. Most of the countryside is a ‘chemical desert’ devoid of wildlife. The rapacious greed of Landowners/Farmers have made
‘Silent Spring’ almost inevitable.
Food security is another old canard, and the scenes that are daily enacted in our Slaughterhouses make even Auschwitz, benign by comparison. In fact so bad is that, we prefer to hide behind the French word, Abattoir!
Sadly, many of us adore Roast Beef, but in all frankness, are totally indifferent as to where it comes from.

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
4 years ago
Reply to  Mark Corby

And don’t forget the cynical con that is the Red Tractor scheme.

Allan Dawson
Allan Dawson
4 years ago
Reply to  Mark Corby

“You seem to suggest something like the reimposition of the Corn Laws, solely to protect the most pampered minority this country has ever known, Landowners and Farmers.”

Spot on…time those farming subsidies were spent to get steel and shipbuilding in the UK going again…and better housing and proper vocational education.

Farmers have had tens of billions of pounds over the years to protect ’em from the world market…

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago
Reply to  Allan Dawson

Sir James Dyson, one our most successful businessmen is reported to have invested in 33,0000 acres or 51 square miles of England.This also brings with it enormous IHT benefits.
Yet he is a passionate believer in Farm Subsidies! A classic case of “I’m worth it”.
No doubt there is a case to subsidise some ‘farmers’, but I am not convinced.
They either fall into the mega rich bracket, such as Dyson and clearly don’t need it, or they are so small that what they are doing is vocational, and why should we indulge them?
The economic chaos caused by Chinese Death Flu gives us an ideal opportunity to decide who to help and who not to.
As one of the richest groups in the country is seems bonkers to keep “stuffing their mouths with gold”.
(apologies to the late N Bevan MP).

Simon Adams
Simon Adams
4 years ago

Good article. The agriculture bill sounds positive. I didn’t hear about it, as I guess the media are too busy screaming about graphs that I’ve given up on most of them.

With trade deals we should certainly ban the likes of food produced with routine hormone and antibiotic use.

I still don’t know how you stop cruelly produced cheap meat flooding places where labelling makes no difference, such as markets, restaurants, fast food etc. Not only does that undercut british producers, it leaves us very vulnerable in a crisis or war once our low end mass producers have gone out of business.

opop anax
opop anax
4 years ago
Reply to  Simon Adams

Halal slaughter, which has become ubiquitous for economic reasons, must be stopped. I mean actually stopped – it is, after all, inhumane and illegal but, like other practices associated with this particular religion, outside law enforcement in the UK.

Iliya Kuryakin
Iliya Kuryakin
3 years ago
Reply to  opop anax

At the very least, all meat should be labelled to show if it is halal/kosher.

Allan Dawson
Allan Dawson
4 years ago
Reply to  Simon Adams

“With trade deals we should certainly ban the likes of food produced with routine hormone and antibiotic use.”

So no trade deal then with the US…

davidtncl
davidtncl
4 years ago

Corn laws V2, Beef laws, basically. Protectionist twaddle. Arguing for regulatory barriers is anti free choice, anti consumer stuff designed to make farmers richer at the expense of the poor.

Allan Dawson
Allan Dawson
4 years ago
Reply to  davidtncl

Nah, he’s the mouthpiece for his client group…that’s all..

Madas A. Hatter
Madas A. Hatter
4 years ago

Spoken like that rare beast, a Tory who is a true conservative. What a burst of sunshine.

Allan Dawson
Allan Dawson
4 years ago

He wants billions of pounds to keep flowing to his farmer voters…time those billions were hosed over the Northern industrial towns…

milton.travesty
milton.travesty
4 years ago

Interesting words but what are we after? If I’m reading this correctly:

* Impose environmental standards via the WTO so we can:
* Impose tariffs based on environmental and animal rights reasons

Which then brings us to the impact of:

* Raising food prices
* Trading “something” for the political weight of imposing something at the WTO.

A lot of this seems to hinge on the US election result this year because if Trump wins again then its plausible that the WTO isn’t going to mean much anymore.
On top of that a lot of this appears to hinge upon us being able to agree deals with countries like the US as well as influence them. Given that agri is high up on the US’s interests we’re going to need something to trade to win that fight which brings us back around to that big massive elephant in the room of what will _actually_ pay for Brexit.

Someone at some point is going to have to choose a poison and if we keep hot potatoing then we’ll just end up back at austerity where an underpaid council worker has to make the choice about what actually gets cut.
The Conservatives have a majority of 80 so they should be able to boldly pick the losers yet all I hear is “not the….” and “not the…..”. This being a “not the farmers” article.

Well you have five years to work it out I guess…

David Brown
David Brown
4 years ago

Much the same arguments were made about wheat, but the Corn Laws were still repealed, and eventually British wheat farmers grew richer as a result of free trade.

Paul Ridley-Smith
Paul Ridley-Smith
4 years ago

There’s always someone making these sorts of arguments: “I believe in and support free trade BUT” (and we know that whatever comes before the BUT is weakly held) and then pick a range of reasons that reflect whatever special interest or bias is held. More honest to say that I believe in free trade when it suits me and not when when it doesn’t. The real fear here is that agricultural industries outside of the UK can produce sufficiently comparable products cheaper than the UK. Non-tariff trade barriers to deny consumers these products, or raise the price of them, hurt lower income people. Be comforted that those with means can still buy premium local……

andy9
andy9
4 years ago

The Coronavirus situation raises another dimension to this issue, on the vulnerability created when nations lose essential industries and supply chains.

When a nation allows itself to become dependent on the import of essential goods and products, it is highly vulnerable to any external events which cause an interruption. At which point, the costs and impacts of that interruption come into sharp focus and the benefits of those modest cost savings seem rather inconsequential by comparison.

There is some value in the security provided by producing essential goods domestically.

sv cop
sv cop
4 years ago

A British business will rob you blind, if given half a chance, in the same way as Chinese or US one will. Probably worse. The only way to keep the whole bunch of crooks in check is competition. So this piece and the bill is deluded nonsense.

simon taylor
simon taylor
4 years ago

Thoughtful and interesting article, wish Danny Kruger was my MP. Food security is key to sovereignty, and has been much ignored by globalist elites.

Allan Dawson
Allan Dawson
4 years ago
Reply to  simon taylor

Danny K…reliant on farmer voters determined to keep soaking up cash from poorer voters….

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
4 years ago

A thoughtful article that deserves a considered response. I’m largely supportive of Danny’s arguments but would like to offer a few ideas.
First, Danny, Danny, Danny, can we give the tired old chlorine-washed chicken thing a rest? First, the European food safety authority says it’s completely safe to eat, just like the chlorine-washed fruit and veg we import from the EU without a murmur from anyone. Second, I realise there is a supposed animal welfare issue but, since 5/6ths of US chicken production no longer uses chlorine washing, I don’t suppose much will be coming our way. If it does, proper labelling is the appropriate response. (Hormone-fed beef, different thing entirely.)
Now, to more substantive things. Food security is very important but there is no chance that British farmers and fishermen can supply 100% of our food requirements, either in the near future or, indeed, ever. It’s also not actually secure to have all one’s eggs in the UK-produced basket. We need alternatives in the event of rare but not impossible events such as failed harvests etc.
Given the above, food imports are not a threat to UK producers of high-quality food, especially with the consumer ever more conscious of quality, provenance and food miles. Imports may be of “lower” quality but this certainly doesn’t mean poor quality. There is nothing wrong with the quality of the large quantities of Irish beef that you will find in the Tesco meat aisles, not to mention in pies and pasties from UK producers big and small, and UK producers can’t supply all that demand in any case. However, Brexit now allows us to, for example, replace Irish beef with cheaper but equally good Argentinian or US beef. That will help the consumer without damaging UK farmers. (I note that this article was written before today’s announcement that we are, regrettably, planning to keep tariffs in the agriculture sector.)
Danny deals well with Mr Zeichner’s objections to the Agriculture Bill. The poor diet of the disadvantaged has little to do with the cost of food and much more to do with the spending priorities of the people in question. There is also the difficulty of defining what “lower” means in the context of regulations forbidding the import of food produced to lower standards.
While it may be true that the objective of food policy should not be ever-cheaper food, there is no reason why the objective should instead be to keep food prices needlessly high. By removing tariffs on agricultural imports, price competition between EU and non-EU exporters to the UK will act to reduce prices. There is no reason to think EU producers would suddenly reduce their quality standards along with their prices.
British farmers have shown themselves to be innovative, creative and industrious, as well as committed to high-quality food and environmental practices. They are well able to cope with competition from overseas and we should be encouraging them to do so, trusting in British consumers to value their efforts and their produce.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
4 years ago

Cogently put, but should we be subsidising them?
Surely not all of them? My charming neighbour who farms 16,000 acres (25 square miles) certainly doesn’t need subsidy, nor does HM the Queen.
Until this absurd situation is resolved there will be little sympathy for farmers. It is all rather reminiscent of the Dissolution of the Monasteries and the sterling work of the late Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex.

George Wells
George Wells
3 years ago

We don’t have the third cheapest food in the world. Cheaper than Brazil?

If your facts are wrong, what price your opinions?
There’s too much journalism from people who have no feel for numbers or the tremendous differences across the world.
And yes, Mark Corby, and all others making similar points, our agricultural policy is the poor subsidising the rich and there’s too much of that too.