Last week I gave the annual lecture to the William Cobbett Society. It seemed too much of an honour to decline when Sir Richard Body, the former Conservative MP, asked me 18 months ago, although as the day approached I became uneasily aware of never having actually read any Cobbett.
That has now changed; Cobbett is my hero. I am in awe of him: a plough boy who grew up with disadvantages of the kind one can barely imagine in the 21st Century, he learnt to write in the army and subsequently became a journalist on the epic scale. If, in an attempt to achieve solvency Cobbett, had not sold his interest in his reporting of parliamentary debates to his printer, what we know today as Hansard would have been called Cobbett.
A stream of opinions poured from Cobbett’s self-published pen, some practical, some utopian, some dotty, all entertaining – and quite a few that are eerily relevant today. Hear him go on about the "Scotch feelosophers and Scotch feenanciers" who seem to run everything. Nothing much seems to have changed. He has a horror of the national debt, which stood at eye-popping levels following the Napoleonic Wars. He loathes bankers and lambasts politicians. Heavens, we need him now.
Imagine what he would have made of the Single Farm Payment fiasco, Defra’s management of which, under the less-than-inspired leadership of Margaret Beckett, was slammed by the National Audit Office last week. After mismanaging the system so badly that Britain was fined hundreds of millions of pounds by the European Union for incompetence, Beckett was appointed Foreign Secretary. How Cobbett would have got his teeth into that.
It might be difficult to return to the kind of small government advocated by Cobbett; in his day, Whitehall departments were run with just a handful of clerks, and he thought that even they were too many. But it would be nice to try. It would appall him that, of all the over-regulated industries in Britain, agriculture is the most beset with red tape.
The Single Farm Payment demonstrates a sad principle: this Government would rather spend money on bureaucracy and inspection regimes, rather than projects that would benefit both farmers and the countryside-visiting public. When the Conservative Party gets to power, it should reverse this trend and turn it on its head. Rather than laboriously checking each step of a process, the method favoured at present, judge by outcomes: assume that most farmers are honest, and come down ferociously on those caught breaking the rules. After all, the Inland Revenue takes this approach with our income tax. It would reduce costs and improve morale on the farm.
Labour has done its best to ruin farming. Foot and Mouth saw millions of healthy animals, destroyed for no reason, in circumstances that would have put the Middle Ages to shame. By expecting higher standards from British farmers than those of competitor nations, they have all but destroyed the pig industry.
Gordon Brown sides with the near-monopolistic supermarkets, one bully perhaps being attracted to others. He has made it clear that he would be happy to sacrifice our farmers to imports from Africa and elsewhere, as part of the Super-Gordo plan for saving the world. But you don’t have to be Cobbett – happy to characterize himself as a bluff English yeoman – to realize that food production is one of the big issues on the horizon.
Climate change and population growth make a hideous cocktail. While the weather in Britain is likely to become warmer but wetter, other parts of the world – previously productive – are suffering catastrophic droughts. Global productivity seems to be reaching a ceiling (unless GM shows a way to break through it), just as the world’s population is about to increase by 50%. Malthus (whom Cobbett hated, incidentally) has not been definitively proved wrong – merely not right so far.
As a country, we would be rash to trust any government that thought we could rely on food imports from overseas. At the same time, agriculture generates as much as 20% of the greenhouse gases that climate change forces us to reduce. Huge amounts of fossil fuels are required to make fertilizer. Tractors make Ferraris look fuel efficient.
We are entering a world in which the countryside will, once again, be as important to feeding the population as it was in Cobbett’s day, but in which the uncertainties of doing so are very great. Two years ago, the price of wheat more than doubled and land prices went through the roof. Now wheat prices have fallen back, but the cost of inputs is at dizzying levels; fertilizer, for example, has gone up by 300% over the past year. Farmers are facing huge volatilities: a situation never before known.
What can an incoming Conservative government do to help? Taking a sensible view about badgers, which are over-running some western counties and spreading bovine TB among dairy herds, would be a start. We must also ensure that skills are passed on. God bless the Poles and Lithuanians for coming over to take the jobs as turkey packers and strawberry pickers that British people won’t do any more – but it would be as well to train up some of our own youngsters, too.
Above all, the presumption in favour of farmland that used to be part of the planning process should be replaced. Build on farmland, or concrete it over, and it will remain out of production forever.