One man's dog of an argument

Listen carefully to the farmers, and you get a sense that they realise how weak their case is
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The Independent Culture
THERE IS only one activity that can wreck a European summit, put France and Germany at each other's throats for the first time in a generation, bring violent protesters from all over Europe into the centre of Brussels and even cause outrage when a BBC television programme that portrays one aspect of its work is axed. I refer, of course, to farming.

Only farming can make otherwise intelligent people write silly letters to newspapers, such as the one published 10 days ago signed by Lord Buxton, former chairman of Anglia Television, Miriam Rothschild, the distinguished zoologist, and the farmer and broadcaster Oliver Walston. Writing about the BBC's plans to stop broadcasting the long-running programme One Man and his Dog, they stated that many of our upland livestock farmers are feeling "forgotten, isolated and ignored; the disappearance of One Man and his Dog will worsen that feeling of isolation."

As a matter of fact, because it's farming, their economic difficulties receive more sustained attention in newspapers and broadcasts than many other, larger groups of workers who currently fear for their livelihoods. I cannot imagine that a letter about the bleak prospects for Rover car workers would either collect such establishment signatures or be published as top letter in a national newspaper. Are distraught hill farmers really running into their kitchens holding copies of the newspaper and saying to their wives: "dreadful news - the BBC is going to cease showing One Man and his Dog"? I very much doubt it, frankly.

Moreover, what is never mentioned in polite society is the sheer cost of maintaining farmers in business. It is colossal. The subsidies are created by keeping food prices artificially high, so that the average family pays many more pounds a week for its supplies than it should do and, by taxation, about pounds 1 a week for every taxpayer.

As a result we - yes, all of us, the poor and the rich alike - were able to provide last year an average subsidy to Welsh farms of pounds 18,300 each, which is equivalent to 98 per cent of their net income.

But because it is the countryside that we are financing, we must never grumble. It would be like talking during a church service. Last week, for instance, the BBC's Newsnight programme rang me to ask whether I would be prepared to do a bit of complaining on air. The producer patiently explained to me that it was very difficult to find anybody to express sceptical, urban views about farming.

The root cause of farming's present difficulties is a worldwide depression in commodity markets. The crisis is not confined to agriculture. On top of an adverse relationship between supply and demand, part of the normal cyclical fluctuation, the situation has been made worse by the Asian and Russian financial crises.

These have led to a substantial reduction in the demand for raw materials, as well as for food. Oil is at its lowest level for 25 years. Prices of agricultural products have been similarly affected. Russia, for instance, used to take a third of Europe's meat exports; now those orders are minimal.

Within the European Union, there are further difficulties. To achieve a successful launch of the single currency, the euro, member countries are required to observe strict limits on government spending. This explains Germany's attempt to force through reductions in its net contribution to the European budget, much of which comprises the cost of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). It is this that has caused such a row with her French neighbour.

At the same time, enlarging the European Union to the east, by including countries such as Poland where as many as 27 per cent of the population still work on the land, would break the back of the CAP unless it were first made leaner and fitter. Hence the plans to reduce, or at least contain, the growth of farm subsidies and the row which such proposals have now generated.

However, if you listen carefully to the protests of farmers and their supporters you get a sense that they themselves realise how weak is their case.

In a typical outburst, Robin Page, presenter of One Man and his Dog, said, "There is an immense prejudice against rural people. If you have got a rural accent, people think that you are thick. People think that we are semi-literate... they see us as reactionary, unsophisticated, thick, white and working-class."

I don't understand this. We know that racial prejudice exists, what it comprises and how it is expressed. But where is the evidence that there is rural prejudice, and what are its marks?

Furthermore, there is no such thing as a rural accent per se, only regional accents. A Yorkshire farmer sounds very different from somebody who is working the land in the West Country. The accents of a Norfolk farm worker and a Norwich factory worker are indistinguishable. And Mr Page must be the first person to claim that there is prejudice against white people in this country. What he is really expressing are the self-doubts of his community.

If we are not prejudiced, then we are ignorant. This is implied in the silly letter. Buxton, Rothschild and Walston state that One Man and his Dog gives townspeople "a view of the real living and working countryside, so helping to bridge the gap between town and country". In fact, the programme presents an idealised snapshot of one aspect of hill farming.

Its real value for the rural community is that it contributes to the myth of a tranquil, nature-loving rural society, supposedly mysterious to the rest of us, which we are asked to preserve at all costs.

Franz Fischler, the EU's Agricultural Commissioner, tells us that the CAP is the price of preserving the countryside. Protesting farmers in Brussels say that what is at stake is a whole way of life. Hard as I try, I cannot see what is so special about the rural workers' way of life which sets it on a higher plane than, say, the shipyard workers' or British seafarers' styles of living, about the disappearance of which few tears were shed or letters written. The spokesman for the National Farmers Union in Wales, Keith Jones, says that "without adequate funding much of what we love about the countryside would be lost".

Let us tread carefully here. What preserves the extent of the countryside are the planning regulations. Landowners who find that their agricultural acres can be sold at a profit to a housebuilder rarely pass up the opportunity. What gives the countryside a particular arrangement, its particular flora and fauna, its pattern, style, hue and scent, all that we may love, is the interplay between nature on the one hand and local land use and farming tradition on the other.

It follows that, if farming were to be financed in a new way, then the nature of farming and rural land use would change, and, in due course, so would the countryside itself. But would that be necessarily worse?

Surely it would only be different. But I had forgotten. Farming is sacred and nothing must change.