Suddenly, I care about the plight of Britain's farmers

'It is bad politics to drive large sections of normal British society into the arms of the paranoid right'

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Last week a dangerous-looking large white envelope dropped through the letter-box. It was covered with the marks of the enemy. One sticker demanded, "Don't Let Europe Rule Britannia!". "Leave the European Union," said another. Stamped on the envelope was the legend "Free Tony Martin!" My mind quickly supplied the other preoccupations of the sender: slash petrol taxes, more dosh for farmers, hands off hunting, townies out, keep Section 28, no French beef. Here was a gathering point for the British Black Hundreds, a collection of various deluded grievances together with antique nationalism, rural sentimentality, bourgeois self-pity and anti-progressive reaction. I opened the envelope carefully.

Last week a dangerous-looking large white envelope dropped through the letter-box. It was covered with the marks of the enemy. One sticker demanded, "Don't Let Europe Rule Britannia!". "Leave the European Union," said another. Stamped on the envelope was the legend "Free Tony Martin!" My mind quickly supplied the other preoccupations of the sender: slash petrol taxes, more dosh for farmers, hands off hunting, townies out, keep Section 28, no French beef. Here was a gathering point for the British Black Hundreds, a collection of various deluded grievances together with antique nationalism, rural sentimentality, bourgeois self-pity and anti-progressive reaction. I opened the envelope carefully.

The stickers and my reaction to them are a reminder of how politics can polarise, even in a time of relative prosperity. I sense and feel threatened by the spectre of a right-wing coalition, enraged by the threats to their ancient privileges and prejudices posed by the modern world. I feel blamed by country-folk for their own shortcomings, told to get out of their faces as a rambler or a lover of countryside, while simultaneously having the farming begging-bowl thrust in my tax-payer's face. Did I invent BSE, or was it caused by careless profiteering in the agricultural industry? Was the beef crisis (as some said then) really the fault of the shifty continentals? Are city-dwellers to blame for the Opec oil price rises? Did farmers offer to pay higher taxes in the period between 1990 and 1995 when farm incomes doubled?

Some of this may be satisfying, but it isn't serious. Just as one may rhetorically ask where the farmers were when miners, steel-workers or other heavy-industry employees were being laid off in their tens of thousands, so we may one day have to answer the question ourselves: where were we when small and family-run farms finally disappeared from the British countryside? Because that's what this week's Deloitte & Touche survey into farm incomes suggests is happening. The average-sized farm (many are smaller) is around 220 hectares, and where it would have earned £80,000 five years ago (which isn't bad), today that figure would be down to an impossible £8,000. Worse, apparently, is yet to come.

There are several mythologies surrounding why this catastrophic fall has happened. It has nothing to do with the urban proclivities of the Government, the perfidy of foreign peasants and their tame ministries, or the flooding of the market with insanitary meat from dirty Danish pig-farms. It isn't even, we discovered this week, a consequence of excessive profiteering by supermarkets. What is driving our farmers out of business is a calamitous coming together of the high pound, the regulation imposed in the wake of the BSE scandal, over-production and enhanced competition, and - for the last few months - the international oil price increases.

We could decide not to care about this. Why should agriculture be insulated against the shocks of change? After all, it really doesn't matter much to me, as a consumer, whether the apples or chops I eat originated in the Vale of Evesham or the Loire Valley. The consumer nationalism of "I'm Backing Britain" seems a long time ago now. But it does seem inconsistent to argue that the Thatcherites made too little provision for helping people through crises, and then to deny such help to other groups now. And when I contemplate a rural Britain without hill farmers or family farms (over-sentimentalised though these can be) I discover that I do care. I want there to be thousands of small farms maintaining meadows, milking cows, herding sheep, driving animals and produce to market and growing fruit. I want there to be farmyards with chickens and barking dogs and children growing up. It is - just as the rural lobby claims - a significant part of what we are.

That's the easy bit. As it happens, the Government has done all kinds of things to try to help farmers out. They haven't worked, the crisis has been too quick and the slump too deep. The agri-money available for the relief of farmers is limited by European agreement as part of the attempt to break the cycle of endless subsidies paid to uncompetitive farmers and agri-businesses. Meanwhile, it is clearly impossible to engineer a fall in the pound without risking a return to inflation and - ultimately - even worse competitive pressures. Let's just hope, for the farmers' sakes, that we can enter the euro quite soon.

Any farmer, incidentally, who believes in a quick fix, would be well advised to study Tory agriculture spokesman (and enthusiastic spliff-smoker) Tim Yeo's speech to the Conservative conference a fortnight ago. Soon, he told his audience, "the rural seats where Labour and the Liberal Democrats have been squatting will be Conservative once again." Given that raising farm incomes was - according to Mr Yeo - the cornerstone of a rural revival, one might have expected a list of concrete measures (over and above the opportunistic rants about rural post offices and buses) that a Hague administration would take. But no. The Common Agricultural Policy (a policy of subsidy) will be scrapped and British produce will be more clearly labelled. Bad labelling was, thundered Mr Yeo, "a fraud on consumers, a fraud that Labour refuse to stop, and a fraud that we will end."

So what can we do to help smaller and family farms, while not subsidising agri-business to be uncompetitive? We can do even more to assist small farmers to sell produce directly to the consumer, thus allowing farmers a greater share of the income generated from food production. We can encourage and publicise farmer's co-operatives and fairs. We can remove the cost of regulation from small abattoirs, thus boosting the keeping of specialist herds. We can give further help to organic farmers. We may even act to reduce fuel and other costs to those supplying or picking up from farms.

Quite apart from the humanitarian and aesthetic reasons for helping the farmers and the rural economy, there are sound political reasons too. The coalition represented by that horrid white envelope needs to be broken up, not consolidated. It is bad politics to drive large sections of normal British society into the arms of the paranoid right, and then loudly to complain about the spectre of Haiderism stalking our land. That's why I am unworried by the news that the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, is having talks with the hauliers, and would be relieved and happy to discover that some of my tax dollars were going on helping the farmers to go with the blows that they have been suffering in recent years.

Of course, farmers could help themselves a bit here. They, too, need to think about who they are consorting with. Just as I do not want them as part of some reactionary constituency, they may not want to push some of their potential allies into hostility towards their cause. A bit more of "The Farmer And The Rambler Can Be Friends" and a little less of the anti-urban rhetoric would go a long way. They don't need their stickers appearing on mad packages. And nor, if I'm sensible, do I.

David.Aaronovitch@btinternet.com

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