By Richard Wright.
I have to confess to not liking mainstream television programmes about farming. With their relentless focus on the environment and social issues, they leave farming a bit player rather than the main act.
Clarkson's Farm on Amazon Prime is however a memorable exception. It is crafted to reflect his unique abilities as a presenter – but the hard work, frustration, disappointment and good days in farming all come across. That makes it the perfect vehicle to spread a positive message to those watching it because of Clarkson.
In one episode, just as the 2020 lockdown and the driest weather for years arrived, Clarkson said this had blown the government's plans off course. Before lockdown threatened food supplies, he believed the plan was to import food and turn farms green and away from food production. He may not be the deepest thinker about the details of agriculture, but he got that one right.
This was a post-Brexit vision that would have seen farming following other once great industries onto the scrapheap of progress and a green agenda. Now that people are attaching more importance to food security, politicians have had to rein in their ambitions. For Scotland, a key question is how free it will be to pursue a radically different agricultural policy – and whether the paymasters at Westminster will allow whatever devolution does to show them up. This radical change of approach is only possible because of Brexit and the removal of the UK from the CAP system. The EU is also pursuing a green agenda in agriculture, known as Farm to Fork, but a key issue prompted by that Clarkson comment is whether the farming industry has more friends in Brussels or London.
In London, the party of government is now irrelevant. The Conservatives are no longer natural allies of farmers, and the days of the great Tory agriculture ministers, with a commitment to the industry, are long gone. Labour concluded long ago that farmers could not change the result in any English parliamentary seat and the Conservatives have now apparently come to the same conclusion. That robs the industry of power and political influence. On that basis, it does not have a lot of friends at Westminster, although this is not the case in Holyrood. Given that somewhere between 40 and 50% of the EU budget goes to agriculture, Brussels has no option other than to like the industry. This is further boosted by the number of key member states that view agriculture as economically crucial. France and Ireland are leaders of that pack, but countries like Germany, Netherlands, Denmark, Italy, Spain and Poland are not far behind. That gives the industry and its lobby organisations significant influence that is now a lot less apparent at Westminster.
In the past, UK farmers achieved things because they were lobbied for in the EU and as a member state the UK had to implement them. That is no longer the case. Westminster sees votes in green policies and it will drive these ideas. Sadly its approach is a predictably carbon-focussed simplistic one. It does not get the reality that a secure food supply produced close to home is as green a policy as you can get for the countryside. The EU does get that, but then it is undermining it with its ill-conceived plan to make a third of farm land organic by 2030.
That claim by Clarkson that the government wanted to import cheap food has an element of exaggeration, but it contains a significant element of truth. Ministers are desperate to secure trade deals to prove that Brexit is a sound economic policy. It has produced some outline deals, but these are not as good as the equivalent in most cases the UK already enjoyed via EU free trade deals – the most significant example being Japan.
Australia is the UK's big go-it-alone deal where it is breaking away from the EU. All the signs are that this will be about importing cheap food. By contrast the EU says its southern hemisphere free trade deals will happen, possibly by the end of the year, but only if they protect EU agricultural interests.
Clarkson is a master of sound-bite television, a great writer and presenter, who does not let too many facts get in the way. In this case however his message that the government cares little about farming as we know it hit the nail very firmly on the head.
About the Author: Richard Wright, is a Journalist for the Scottish Farmer.