‘This is certain – for I have noted it several times – some parts of England are becoming almost as lonesome as the African veld.’ This was Rider Haggard’s conclusion after two years’ gruelling travel across the farming counties of England in 1901 and 1902. Only the odd Irish tinker trudged the dusty roads. Thistles and rushes invaded the untilled fields. The impression of desolation prompted Haggard to quote Isaiah: ‘The highways lay waste, the wayfaring man ceaseth.’ Rural England left nothing like the same mark on posterity as She or King Solomon’s Mines, but he said it cost him more labour than anything else.
This wasn’t the first time that arable farmers had fallen victim to abrupt economic and technological change against which they proved powerless, both individually and collectively. In fact, the history of farming in Britain over the past three centuries has been a sequence of precipitous falls and rises for which the word ‘rollercoaster’ seems too feeble. Haggard bore witness to an agricultural depression that had been deepening since the mid-1870s. Royal commission after royal commission pointed to the obvious causes. Competition from the American prairies, slow in arriving, became irresistible in the wake of the huge expansion of the US railway system, the reduction in shipping costs that followed the switch from sail to steam (the rate for the journey from Chicago to Liverpool dropped by two-thirds between 1873 and 1884) and the advances in reaping and binding machinery that solved the nagging labour shortage in the Midwest. Grain imports rose from only 2 per cent of Britain’s total supply in the 1830s to 45 per cent in the 1880s (65 per cent for wheat) and went on rising remorselessly. Already by 1900, wheatfields covered only half the acreage of 1872. The First World War and German U-boats temporarily restored the fortunes of British growers, but between the wars the decline of British agriculture was if anything even more drastic. By the mid-1930s, land was selling for little more than a quarter of the prices it had fetched in the Victorian era.
Nobody had a viable answer. When in 1879 Disraeli was twitted that all his warnings in the 1840s about the dire effects of repealing the Corn Laws had finally been proved right, he responded wearily that it was all very well to quote ‘rusty phrases of mine forty years ago’, but the issue was settled. Free trade and cheap food were here to stay. Any revival of protection was politically impossible. Other major European countries went on to introduce some form of agricultural tariffs; Britain stayed loyal to free trade.
Then came the most startling reversal. The Second World War provoked a far more spectacular and long-lasting revival of agriculture than in 1914-18. ‘Dig for Victory’ was followed by the Labour government’s Agriculture Act of 1947 and a system of deficiency payments, topping up the incomes of farmers while ensuring consumers accessed food at world-market prices. It was only a short step from there to the Common Agricultural Policy, when Britain joined the EEC in 1973. Combined, these interventions produced such enormous results that, by 1983, the then minister for agriculture, Peter Walker, was able to claim that the UK was now 75 per cent self-sufficient in temperate foodstuffs and, more remarkable still, according to the boast of the Conservative Campaign Guide that year, 100 per cent self-sufficient in wheat.
Free trade zealots retorted that this was nothing to be proud of. I remember Norman Tebbit, a former industry minister, telling Walker that ‘if I had had a Common Automobile Policy, we could be self-sufficient in motor cars.’ But public opinion at the time seemed reconciled to the need for some form of protection against the natural advantages enjoyed by farmers in Australia, New Zealand and the US, not to mention Brazil and Argentina. Even during the EU referendum campaign five years ago, the equanimity (if not relish) with which Brexiter economists such as Patrick Minford contemplated the possibility that Brexit might mean the disappearance of British agriculture and the British motor industry was regarded with horror.
Not any more. Farming is now regarded as politically expendable, even by the Conservative Party, its supposedly traditional ally and friend. There are at least two reasons for this. The story has often been told, notably by David Cannadine, of how the long agricultural depression broke the power of the British aristocracy, but it also drove tenant famers and labourers off the land and into the cities and suburbs; a million or more had emigrated by 1914. As a legacy of this flight from the land and of ongoing mechanisation, agriculture can now muster only a handful of votes, peanuts compared to, say, the ever expanding millions of pensioners. At the same time, mechanised and chemicalised farming has become increasingly unloveable. The fashion for rewilding has spread from a few landowners rich enough to experiment and now encompasses a broader mass of bien-pensants who regard farmers as money-grubbing vulgarians polluting the countryside.
All this carries curious echoes of those critics in the late 18th century who deplored rural depopulation and agricultural ‘improvement’, which they saw merely as rapacious capitalism in action. ‘Ill fares the land, to hast’ning ills a prey,/Where wealth accumulates, and men decay.’ Oliver Goldsmith’s targets in ‘The Deserted Village’ were men like Coke of Norfolk, ruthless not only in pursuit of higher crop yields but in their propensity to demolish cottages and whole villages so that Capability Brown and Humphry Repton had clean slates on which to work their magic. Coke himself was not unaware of the cost. When congratulated on completing the park at Holkham Hall, he responded: ‘It is a melancholy thing to stand alone in one’s country. I look around, not a house is to be seen but my own. I am the Giant of Giant’s Castle, and have ate up all my neighbours. My nearest neighbour is the King of Denmark.’ This was a reflection so piquant in its rarity and ruefulness that Karl Marx quoted it in a footnote to Das Kapital.
The truth is that for all the supposed power of the agricultural interest, the Tories have never effectively protected farmers in peacetime. Not in 1846, not in 1879, not in 1921, when the price guarantees imposed in 1917 were swept away by the Tory-dominated coalition (this was known for years afterwards as the ‘great betrayal’). The Tories on that occasion included Stanley Baldwin, soon to be prime minister and a passionate countryman (though he was a Birmingham steel manufacturer who spent his summers in Aix-les-Bains). A few years later, he famously rhapsodised over
the sight of a plough team coming over the brow of a hill, the sight that has been seen in England since England was a land, and may be seen in England long after the empire has perished and every works in England has ceased to function, for centuries the one eternal sight of England.
In fact, at the time Baldwin spoke that heart-stopping sight had not been seen for decades in large parts of England, and for all his long-standing enthusiasm for tariff reform, would not be seen again until protection reappeared in the 1930s.
So, why should we expect Boris Johnson to defend the interests of British farmers any more stoutly than he has defended the interests of the people of Northern Ireland or the fishing industry? What has struck me over the past few weeks is how little public stir there has been over Johnson’s proposed free trade deal with Australia. The possible threat to British farmers has caused minimal ‘kerfuffle’, to use his pet phrase. We are told that the deal will be hedged with safeguards, but these look about as likely to survive as the British hedgerow. Zero tariffs on food are to be phased in over fifteen years, but that is only half the time it took to destroy the wheat-growers of England after 1846.
The potential damage to British farmers starts tomorrow, because the tariff-free quotas, of Australian lamb and beef for example, are to rise each year during the interim, and the quotas are set so high that the levies are virtually meaningless. Nor is there much hope to be had from the new Trade Remedies Authority. Its chairman, Simon Walker, formerly head of the Institute of Directors, says quite accurately that the legislation establishing the authority is ‘suited to a buccaneering, global Britain’ that believes in free trade. The TRA, launched on 1 June, will apply a purely economic-interest test in deciding whether tariffs are justifiable, protecting British producers only against shameless dumping or state-subsidised competitors. Johnson’s blithe rhetoric about this ‘fantastic opportunity’ for the British farmer rings just as hollow as it did when deployed by Disraeli (and by Gladstone too).
Clearly the thrust of Johnson’s policy is to build on this first deal to make larger deals with America, Brazil and South-East Asia. And why not? Isn’t this exactly as Adam Smith prescribed: every nation ought to pursue its own comparative advantage at every opportunity? Yet Smith himself was decidedly more cautious than many of his latter-day admirers. ‘Humanity may require,’ he warned, ‘that the freedom of trade should be restored only by slow gradations, and with a good deal of reserve and circumspection. Were those high duties and prohibitions taken away all at once, cheaper foreign goods of the same kind might be poured so fast into the home market as to deprive all at once many thousands of our people of their ordinary employment and means of subsistence.’
Something else, too, runs through The Wealth of Nations and makes for rather bumpy reading. On the one hand, Smith has no illusions about the rapacity and cunning of businessmen, their endless conspiring between themselves and with equally crafty and unscrupulous politicians to diddle the public. As a result, the commercial system of his day was a jungle of taxes and regulations, excise duties and import taxes and actual embargoes, all of them combining to stifle or misdirect the natural flow of trade. But at the same time Smith never stops telling us that Georgian Britain is a terrific place to live. Tracing the progress of Britain since Julius Caesar, he describes the present as ‘the happiest and most fortunate period of them all’. The division of labour had produced ‘that universal opulence which extends itself to the lowest ranks of the people’. In fact, it was now ‘a common complaint that luxury extends itself even to the lowest ranks of the people’.
Smith was obviously conscious of a certain contradiction here. He freely concedes that nations can make progress even under a regime of harmful tariffs. Perfect liberty and perfect justice were not essential for progress (in any case, they were not attainable). He accepts, for example, the case for the protection of new experimental businesses: ‘A temporary monopoly of this kind may be vindicated upon the same principles upon which a like monopoly of a new machine is granted to an inventor, and that of a new book to its author.’ But is this ‘start-up’ exemption enough? It’s embarrassingly clear that almost every nation that has risen to pre-eminence has been generally protectionist in its build-up phase, often for many decades – Britain in the early 19th century, the US up to 1945 (at least), China today. The net costs to society as a whole of this or that protectionist measure are easy to discern, but it’s not so easy to dismiss the suspicion that there may be countervailing gains from nurturing industrial and commercial hubs, or that conventional free-trade calculations may undervalue the ‘frictional costs’, in both human and money terms, of letting disadvantaged industries go to the wall. The arguments for free trade are as compelling as ever. But they are not the only principles that have a part to play in human flourishing. Smith understood this, too, when he outlined the duties of government, which included the education of the poor.
The Johnson government is mustard-keen to spaff public money up the Red Wall, or wherever it will help to cement votes. So it is not impossible that farmers, if they make enough fuss, will also be ‘levelled up’. The farmers’ unions of the four nations of the UK have submitted separate post-Brexit proposals, which more or less boil down to a return to the old system of deficiency payments. In theory at least, things may go on much as they did before we joined the CAP. But nothing is certain with a government so prone to mood swings and sudden reversals. It is even conceivable that farmers will prosper in the devolved nations where they have a bigger voice, while in England we shall see once again our rolling uplands as ‘lonesome as the veld’ – a thrilling landscape of bees and bee orchids, of red kites and Red Admirals. The roar and clatter of the combine will be a thing of the past. As a nation, we shall no longer make any pretence of feeding ourselves. Are we bothered?