Last week, the silliness reached new heights. Asda, the supermarket chain run by Archie Norman, chief executive of the Conservative Party, cancelled a contract with New Zealand and banned all foreign lamb from its shelves; this, apparently, in response to a report from NatWest claiming that 25,000 farmers will be forced out of business by the economic crisis. Customers who normally turn to more succulent New Zealand lamb around Christmas will thus be forced to eat British lamb, which is by then older and more stringy.
It is amazing how many supposed free-marketeers who were so vociferous in rejecting the case of the miners during the pit closures should have suddenly changed tack when it comes to farmers. Farmers, it seems, are good wholesome patriotic chaps who must be defended to the last, pesticide- soaked ditch. But why should farmers be treated any differently from miners, steelmakers, or car-assembly workers? It is always sad when an old way of life goes to the wall, but it is an inevitable process in a modern economy. The fact that many people admire the physical hardship that many farmers have to bear in rearing their lambs on an inhospitable moor is no excuse for distorting the economy with ever-increasing handouts.
It is not as if bailing out the farmers is a case of handing them a one-off cheque. No industry in Britain has received such a mountain of subsidy for so prolonged a period. Last year 84 per cent of the pounds 3.4bn earned by British farmers came in subsidies, direct or indirect. This year it will be even more. Hill sheep farmers are reportedly selling carcasses for 5p each. A farmer who looks after just 500 sheep will receive a hand- out of about pounds 13,000 and still manage to lose money. We are giving money to them to no economic or social purpose whatsoever: in spite of each receiving pounds 13,000 out of the taxpayer's pocket for their farms many of them are still personally reliant on social security. It is time to admit that British hill farming is no longer a viable industry; it is just a welfare state for sheep.
Ostensibly, the farmers are in crisis because the high pound is making it harder for them to export their goods and harder also to sell their goods at home because they are up against cheap imports. But this is only half the story. The other half is that farmers' subsidies automatically fall when the pound goes up because the European Union calculates the payments in ecus rather than in a member state's own currency. While it may seem unfair to cut a farmer's subsidy for reasons beyond his control, the flipside of the deal is that when the pound is low, such as when it dropped out of the exchange rate mechanism in 1992, farmers' subsidies soar. When the rest of the country was still shivering from the recession in the early 1990s, farmers were rolling in subsidies. As late as 1996 four British farmers received cheques in excess of pounds 1m each and 1,800 farmers received cheques worth more than pounds 100,000. If they didn't have the good sense to save when receiving such a chronic excess, it is hard to find sympathy for them now. If they can't make their land pay, they should sell it.
The truth is that the rallying cry to help British farmers through the slump is not inspired by good economics. It is part of a Little England philosophy which includes a distrust of officialdom, a hatred of the European Union, and the crazy idea that somehow "urban values" are oppressing freedom- loving rural folk. Hear someone extolling the virtues of the good old English farmer and you can bet your bottom euro that next minute he'll be railing against metric measurements, drink-driving laws and the bullies of Brussels. Listening to farmers moan about Brussels is the most galling of the lot; who do they think writes their cheques? The common complaint that somehow efficient British farmers are helping to subsidise inefficient French ones is a falsehood. In fact, the rules of the common agricultural policy discriminate in favour of large farms which are people-efficient, which is why the East Anglian barley barons who farm several hundred acres all by themselves tend to drive flash cars.
The Little Englander mentality is seen at its silliest in the "Buy British Beef" campaign. Why should we, if French or Argentinian beef is cheaper, safer and tastes better? Countries become rich by specialising in the fields in which they have a comparative economic advantage, not by dabbling in things that other countries do more efficiently. With the best will in the world, Northumbrian sheep farming and west country cattle farming are never going to compete with the ranches of the new world. The Buy British Beef campaign reminds me of the "Buy British" campaigns of the 1970s, which fooled many a poor patriot into buying a sub-standard Austin Allegro; for several of them the patriotic experiment ended abruptly when the wheels fell off.
At least the Austin Allegro never gave anyone a degenerative brain disease, which is more than can be said for British beef - and all because of negligence on the part of those good old British farmers. Farmers are always telling us that urban people don't understand the ways of the countryside, don't understand that ramblers can't just wander at will through flocks of sheep, don't understand that the only way to control foxes is to don a red coat and hunt the things down with a pack of dogs. The clear implication is that farmers themselves know everything there is to be known about God's creatures. But if that is so, why did they think it such a good idea to feed their cattle on the remains of sheep and other cattle, thus bringing mad cow disease into being? I don't know any urbanite who isn't aware that cattle are natural vegetarians; unfortunately this basic piece of wisdom seems to have been lost on the farmers.
As if to compound their folly, the farmers now expect sympathy as if they were the victims of BSE rather than the creators. The victims of BSE are those poor souls writhing in agony in the hospital wards, incapable of reading that empty slogan flapping in the back windows of Land Rovers: "Eat British Beef". The farmers are only victims of BSE in the sense that the captain of the Titanic was a victim of the iceberg. Were they in an industry that featured less favourably in the nation's psyche, the beef farmers would long since have been driven out of business and accused of mass poisoning. As it is, beef sales in this country have returned to the levels they were before the BSE crisis broke.
Consumer loyalty seems to have been poorly rewarded, however. Last week, former chief medical officer Sir Kenneth Calman told the BSE inquiry that he had found the attitude of farmers towards early efforts to stamp out BSE "astonishing". A ban on offal in cattle feed was still being flouted after it became known that humans were dying of a mysterious new variant of CJD, the human equivalent of mad cow disease. Had beef farmers co-operated better in the early stages, they might have avoided the EU ban on British beef exports.
If we are going to pay our farmers to stay on their land, then we ought to demand a better service from them than poisoning the public. There is an argument for keeping unprofitable farmers on the land, not as producers of masses of stringy lamb that no one will buy except under duress, but as custodians of the landscape. The more marginal farmers will have to recognise they are glorified park keepers, stop bleating about urban values and welcome all those ramblers, picknickers and campers they grumble about. Who knows, a bit of human company might even cheer them up.
Ross Clark lives in the country, and is the author of 'Cambridgeshire' published by Pimlico.