May 19, 2020

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.

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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.