Imagine a future for British farming in which the principle of free trade was maximised to the exclusion of all else – including all but the most basic safety standards, care for the quality of produce or the welfare of animals, the use of treatments harmful to the environment or any consideration for food security at all.
Consumers would gain from lower prices, in all likelihood, but our own producers would lose out – doubly, if other countries found ways of shutting doors to them while Britain was flinging our own open to their competitors.
Now turn that vision on its head, and ponder the opposite – the elevation of protection to a supreme principle, garnished doubtless by an insistence that all importers of food meet British standards of human and animal welfare.
Producers who export would find themselves hit by counter-action from government abroad, but would win more from the domestic swings than they would lose on foreign roundabouts. Insulated from competition, they would be exalted over the more numerous consumers – especially poorer ones, raising profound social justice questions.
You might say, with justice, that the Conservative Party has had two tangles with protection, and did even worse from the first than the second – since the Party suffered its biggest-ever split in consequence, and didn’t form a majority government again for the best part of a quarter of a century.
You could add that free trade is, in general terms, the best outcome to aim for – because, like mercy for Shakespeare, “it is twice blessed: It blesseth him that gives and him that takes”.
But you will also come to see swiftly that neither approach is sustainable, and not simply because of the overlap, less total than in Disraeli’s day but still substantial, between the Conservatives and the farming interest.
The fatal flaw in both takes lies in presuming at the start that people are simply either producers or consumers. For they are sometimes both (this site finds it hard to imagine a British farmer who consumes only his own produce), and always other things, such as members of families and communities and nations.
And as citizens, we don’t, as it were, paint in the black-and-white beloved of economic reductionists. We view farming policy on a canvas that is painted in many colours.
One of these is green – almost literally. What policy does to agriculture is what policy does to landscape. Who is going to help to shape ours if farmers are cut out of the picture?
We will spare our readers too much Constable and Vaughan Williams, Ruskin and Scruton. But the idea of a green and pleasant land is a talismanic one for conservatives – small “c”, please – and farmers will always be bound up with sustaining it.
Which is why, in the Government’s post-Brexit countryside policy, there is a stress on farmers as stewards of the environment. And why the Agriculture Bill, recently considered in the Commons, sought to balance free trade with fair trade – as enshrined in Ministers’ “agriculture narrative”.
On the one hand, this proclaims what a trade agreement with America could do for exports of British beef and lamb, and what free trade more broadly (though it is shy of using the term) does for farming resilience.
On the other, it stresses that trade deals must be “fair and reciprocal” (the statement also avoids the fair trade label), and says that British farmers won’t face “unbalanced competition”.
Mock if you will this artful squaring of the interests of the International Trade Department, which naturally leans to free trade, with those of the Environment Department, which go the other way. Liz Truss and George Eustice, like Rishi Sunak and Matt Hancock over the Coronavirus, represent different institutional viewpoints.
Harold Macmillan’s “Middle Way” has fallen out of fashion – and since it leant leftwards on the economy, reflecting a period of emerging Big State thinking, rightly so. But the concept has a lot to recommend it when it comes to farming policy.
For this will always contain tensions and trade-offs between prices, animal welfare, food standards, landscape enhancement, and so on.
If you want a Tory expression of it, look no further than Danny Kruger’s recent piece for UnHerd, in which the Devizes MP explains why he voted as he did on the Bill.
Kruger opposed Neil Parish’s amendments, which their mover made a case for on this site, while also not being in quite the same space as Liam Fox, who put a case against them here. He is up for better labelling (who isn’t), pressure on supermarkets, and bans plus tariffs if necessary.
One of the benefits of Brexit is that we will have a freedom to take action in all these areas which we didn’t have before. The proponents of free trade are very front of house and the champions of protection rather less do. Neither should gain a stranglehood on policy – or could, in anything like the real world that Ministers must deal with.