Leading article: Farmers must go to the market

IMAGINE. The chairman of the British Phonographic Recording Association demands to see the Prime Minister. A press conference is summoned, to hear complaints about persisting French subsidies to Johnny Hallyday. The Government, it is asserted, has a moral obligation to support record producers and studios. What nonsense, we would say. Here is a self-interested group trying to suborn tax payments and buck consumer trends. Why can't they make a living in the market, like the rest of us?

Yesterday farmers were at something similar, bleating like a spring lamb. Farm incomes have been falling. BSE has struck hard at livestock farmers. The last year has confirmed the way agriculture has been shrinking as an employer and as a proportion of national product; taken as a whole the leisure industries do indeed bulk larger.

We live (at least in the West) in a world awash in food. Self-sufficiency is an anachronistic notion. Trees and housing head the long list of alternative uses of land currently used - often enough abused - for arable and pastoral production. The British farming industry could continue shrinking (a decline which, oddly, has not shown through in land prices) and consumers would not feel a thing - except lower prices. As for rural employment, it depends less and less on farming, and Labour has bright ideas on how to diversify.

So why should not market logic apply to this sector, as it has - mercilessly - to steel, coal and financial services? It is true that the countryside occupies a special place in the national psyche. Our economic destiny is urban but our identity and imagination feed off the idea of a deep, green and pleasant England, with its Welsh and Scottish variants. The trouble with farmers is that they have too often proved the worst enemy of that idealised countryside; they spray it, chop it down, pollute it. Townspeople are more solicitous, as ramblers, visitors and taxpayers.

Over the years farmers have sought to exempt themselves from modernity by exercising their peculiar leverage on the right of politics. They have used it to fend off market forces which in other contexts the right approved of. It is one of the markers of the Conservative Party's present confused discontents that its leaders cannot see a germ of contradiction here. European agricultural support remains a cesspit. Farmers do have a case on beef - for swifter acceptance by the European Commission that monitoring procedures have improved, and a swifter timetable for reintroducing British beef exports. Groups in distress, such as the hill farmers of the Welsh and English uplands, deserve sympathy. For the rest, the Government should treat farmers for what they are: another interest group with a keen appetite for the contents of the public trough.