Mario Laghos is a political analyst and the editor of Just Debate.
Atop a hill, in a quiet corner of sleepy Somerset, the thirteenth century church of St Michael cuts a lonely figure. But look down into the valley below and you’ll find Raddington, an ancient parish, within which the Church is a relatively young fixture.
Excavations have turned up Viking bridles, musket balls from a long-forgotten English Civil War battle, and coins of every sort. Raddington’s historical record begins proper in the year 891, when King Alfred gifted the land to his friend, Berthulph.
For a thousand years the land passed between thegns, lords and knights. Throughout the centuries of tumult, there remained one constant: the viable farming of the land for beef and lamb. Raddington’s Domesday estates are known to have had ‘128 sheep and 37 she-goats’; by 1537 a single tenant is known to have supported ‘at least seven bullocks and about 140 sheep’; and by the 1700s, Richard Yeandle, probably of Upcott, could boast of 160 sheep, and 57 cheeses from his many dairy cows.
To this day, farms are peppered across the landscape. With the exception of equestrian training yards, and a solitary inn, they are the only workplaces and centres of industry in the area.
Tucked away in the valley is John’s farm. Before him, his father, also named John, farmed the land. Five hundred years ago, a farm likely stood on the same site, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the then-steward was too called John.
The methods here are not backwards; a visitor might be surprised to see how modern the machinery is. From rearing to slaughter, the farming of animals in Britain is as efficient as it is viable. The proof of the pudding, or the main, is in the eating.
And the eating is the fact that Britons spend an average of just eight per cent of their income on food. This is less than any country on the planet, with the exception of the US, and Singapore. The average Greek spends 16 per cent of their income on food, a Ukrainian almost 38 per cent and a Nigerian a whopping per cent.
But this industry, which employs some half a million workers, is in danger. The prospect of a tariff-free, quota-free trade deal with Australia poses an existential threat to British farmers, from the valleys of Somerset to the Scottish Highlands.
Australia, unlike us, cleans its chickens with chlorine. Unlike us, it cultivates hormone-treated beef. Unlike us, it cages its sows in cruel metal stalls. Abdicating protections on British industry is neither free nor fair if the standards are so grossly misaligned, as they are in this case.
Those who favour the deal pray in aid the ingenuity of the British farmer, and of his ability to overcome all odds. But such a prayer is made in vain.
Anna Creek is Australia’s largest cattle ranch. At 23,677 square kilometres, it is 10 per cent of the size of the entire United Kingdom. Our family farms, whose land is dotted by old oaks, latticed by hedgerows, contained by country lanes and cut across by bridle paths cannot compete with the sheer industrial scale of the Australian industry. Aussies don’t have a comparative advantage; they have an absolute advantage.
To enter such an unequal relationship would be to herald, as Minette Batters, the President of the National Farmers’ Union put it, “[the] slow, withering death of family farms throughout the four nations of these isles”. It’s not talking down Scottish crofters or Welsh shepherds to point out the blindingly obvious.
It has been argued that Australia is preoccupied with servicing the demand from Asia’s growing middle class, and that may be true – for now. It does beg the question though: why does it so desperately want the access to our market? But that aside, it’s the cumulative effect which is most concerning. If we so carelessly abandon our defences at the first time of asking, these surrender terms will be demanded of us by the United States, Brazil, India and elsewhere. And for what?
Daniel Hannan, appearing on Newsnight this week, talked up the opportunities for Edinburgh’s financial sector as part of this deal. No doubt that’s true, and for the City of London too. It might even increase our GDP, perhaps by as much as 0.02 per cent, according to the Government’s own estimates.
The prospective cheapening of our already inexpensive food prices, and the further expansion of the financial services sector is being offered up in exchange for our farming industry. This pandemic illustrated well the long-term consequences of deindustrialisation, and the costs of dependency on others for strategic assets. How mad we must be to do it all again, and with the most precious of resources, food.
To trade away our heritage so lackadaisically would be to know well the price of everything and the value of nothing. Ask yourself: will it be a better Britain when our countryside is barren, devoid of sheep and cows who beckon you on your hikes, deprived of farmers who tend this green and pleasant land, and when our supermarket shelves are unburdened by British beef? We should be diversifying our economy, not consolidating our might in the financial services sector, whose dominance leaves us open to catastrophic and regular recession. This deal isn’t levelling up, it’s levelling down.