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Britain’s farmers need to revolt Both Labour and the Tories have betrayed rural voters

Protestors gather in Cardiff (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

Protestors gather in Cardiff (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)


March 11, 2024   6 mins

In The Shepherd’s Life, his memoir about following the family tradition of Cumbrian hill farming, James Rebanks highlights the obsession of “modern industrial communities” with the importance of “going somewhere”. “The implication,” he observes, “is an idea I have come to hate, that staying local and doing physical work doesn’t count for much.” At best, city dwellers regard the countryside as a place for their recreation; at worst, it is a place full of backward knuckle-dragging ingrates to be avoided and marginalised.

Almost a decade after his book was published, the latter view seems to have become embedded in our institutions, encouraged by the excesses of progressive sociology. The recent Wildlife and Countryside Link report submitted to MPs suggested that “racist colonial legacies continue to frame nature in the UK as a ‘white space’”. “Colonialism has driven the exploitation and erasure of the rights and knowledge of indigenous people, and the assertion of white, Western values and knowledge at the expense of other values and knowledges.” For this sort of unsympathetic account, the people of the countryside are not valuable members of a national community, but imposters and enemies whose very presence harms others.

Now, British farmers’ anger is starting to boil over, joining their counterparts from within the EU who have been in open revolt for months over low prices, cheap imports and environmental regulations. Britain’s farmers are traditionally more quiescent, but have been mounting their first public protests in recent weeks: including choking traffic at the port of Dover and 3,000 turning up at the Welsh Government building in Cardiff to get their voices heard. Meanwhile,  there are increasing signs that the Conservatives, the traditional party of the countryside, is losing traction in rural areas. A recent Survation poll concluded that 51 of the 100 most rural constituencies are set to switch to Labour at the next election, while a poll last year found only 36% of voters in rural seats agreed that the Tories “understand and respect rural communities and their way of life”.

Into this fractious atmosphere comes a timely Green Paper from the Social Democratic Party, the old SDP that just about survived the Eighties and has had a mini-revival lately under the leadership of William Clouston. Entitled Farms Fields & Food, its core theme is that, as Clouston puts it: “Cheap food is very expensive.” We may welcome it in the supermarket, but we pay for it in other ways: through suffering farm animals and poor public health, through degraded fields, rivers and wildlife. And through farmers giving up, their children leaving the family business rather than soldiering on. Margins are too small, the paperwork too gruelling, the lack of respect galling. And now, to top it off, they are facing organised gangs roaming the countryside and stealing their equipment, something to which they have no response; the police likewise.

The resulting reality is grim. One in five farms in England closed down between 2005 and 2015, with one in three of them classified as smaller farms. If trends continue, British family farms could virtually die out in the next 30 years — and with them the rural communities they support and the landscape they have created.

The story, as the report notes, is a familiar one from across British society: “Free trade and open labour markets have deterred investment in training and innovation, increased our reliance on over-extended global supply chains, forced food producers to prioritise yield over sustainability, and sold swathes of our countryside into foreign ownership.” As in the cities, the ground has started to erode under the feet from those whose families have lived there for generations. Others are moving in with other interests and priorities, more money and little familiarity with traditional ways of life.

The SDP proposes a host of semi-radical, statist measures to address the situation. It wants Charter Co-operatives and Regional Marketing Boards to give more heft to small-scale producers. It wants an independent regulatory body for supermarkets to prevent the practices that often leave farmers stranded with suddenly unwanted produce. It wants a Royal Commission into conserving the British countryside. It wants affordable housing to be reserved for farm workers. And it wants to ban stuff: the routine use of antibiotics; junk food advertisements on TV and online; and imports of food and drink not produced to the UK’s environmental and animal welfare standards.

This is all quite a contrast to the establishment parties; perhaps playing that classic role of a smaller party in pushing the boat out on an issue, making it easier for others to jump in later. Amid the increasing alarm in country areas, Rishi Sunak came out with a new grant scheme and food security index recently, but this looks like more dancing to the tune of polls and headlines, a desperate move to mollify yet another group of restless natives.

“This looks like more dancing to the tune of polls and headlines.”

For ultimately, the Conservative Party’s attitude to the land and farming is really subservient to their wider economic assumptions and the interest groups that feed into them, notably in finance and property development, sectors that are very much global in scale and urban in origin. They treat the land of Britain as “UK plc” or Atlantic Zone Production Unit No. 325: a place to be managed not for the sake of the people who live on it but as a business whose purpose is to maximise returns for shareholders. Today’s Tories understand land primarily as an economic resource open to market forces. If it does not pay economically, then it should be sold to someone who can make a better fist of it, perhaps by building houses for the growing population rather than trying to feed them. Competition, trading and development will solve problems naturally over time according to this perspective.

But this account is detached from any specific valuation of farmers and their work, of the origins of food and of rural community. It regards land as a tradeable asset with no wider meaning. And its most immediate, visible costs are defrayed onto places and people who are relatively few in number and/or have relatively little lobbying power: such as those family farmers and working-class consumers seeking the cheapest food. If the approach means further large slugs of farmland being taken out of farming use, then so be it. Global Britain will fill in the shortfall with cheaper imports as a result of post-Brexit trade deals. This is part of a wider story of neoliberalism that we might call the Glazerisation of Britain, by which the country’s territory serves like Manchester United has for the Glazer family of Florida: as a distant resource to be tapped for income, without reference to its meaning and significance for those who live and breathe it.

Contrasted with this, the SDP’s Green Paper is a refreshing reminder of the reality on the ground. It refers to, for instance, how “population density has increased by over 15% since 2000 and is predicted to keep rising”. Quite simply, as many progressive campaigners have warned us in recent years, Britain is a small rainy island drifting in the Atlantic Ocean: our space is strictly limited. The population of England alone increased by 6.5% between 2011 and 2021 to an estimated 56,536,000, giving the country a population density of 434 per square km. Only tiny Malta and the flat Netherlands have a larger density in Europe.

Yet our rulers, think tanks and indeed those same campaigners treat the territory as if it is boundless. We need more workers, more houses, more energy production and transmission, more water reservoirs, more roads and railways and schools and hospitals and GP surgeries. We need more factories and distribution centres, more technology centres and the rest. And we also need more trees and better protection of wildlife.

All these require space. Yet in a small and already crowded piece of land, they are competing with each other. And so choices must be made. But how?

At the moment, they are made through an incoherent combination of market, local and national decision-making, with plans signed off in isolation. But leaving land use to the market and the current patchwork of isolated state interventions means certain types of life and community dying off. There is only so much love to go around. And the same goes for land. To give more weight to the interests and opinions of farmers and rural communities means reducing that of others who currently have more prominence.

To justify such a re-allocation will require some serious politics, but also some serious strategic thinking. We need to decide what our limited land is for and take the steps needed to apportion it rather than rushing headlong to meet one set of needs, like housing a rapidly growing population, without thinking about energy, water and food provision. We need a full-scale land strategy, a major piece of work to lay out what our priorities are and how to meet them. “Joined-up government” is a bit of a joke term in Westminster, but it really is time for some of it now.

Of course, that doesn’t mean we’ll get it. Although Labour is sizing up the curtains in No. 10, the recent protests by farmers against its administration in Wales suggest a relative lack of understanding and interest in the party for rural concerns. Indeed, Labour seems even more detached than the Tories from the interests and rhythms of the countryside. If rural voters want to be heard, it seems they will have to continue their revolt — and might want to abandon the establishment parties altogether.


Ben Cobley writes the blog A Free Left Blog and is author of The Tribe: the Liberal-Left and the System of Diversity. He is a journalist by trade and a former Labour Party activist.

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Billy Bob
Billy Bob
4 months ago

SDP would be getting my vote if I still lived in England. Hopefully Reform and the Greens can take large chunks off the established parties and force them into finally abandoning FPTP

ChilblainEdwardOlmos
ChilblainEdwardOlmos
4 months ago

“And now, to top it off, they are facing organised gangs roaming the countryside and stealing their equipment, something to which they have no response; the police likewise.”
This is the first I have heard of that. Link? Not sceptical, just curious.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
4 months ago

It’s common knowledge out in the sticks. The Albanians act with impunity, threatening extreme violence if anybody tries to stop them

Steve Maynard
Steve Maynard
4 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

twas ever this, farming friends were telling me about travelers doing this 25+ years ago. Nothing is safe from being stolen on a farm

Jake Raven
Jake Raven
4 months ago

It has always been thus. I have a smallholding in a very rural area. Metal farm gates were regularly taken if not secured, and I wouldn’t dream of leaving my outbuildings unlocked. The police do nothing if a crime is reported.
An increase in tourism has been an increase of petty theft, it seems some holidaymakers see nothing wrong in taking a memento of their stay in the countryside.

Timothy Baker
Timothy Baker
4 months ago
Reply to  Jake Raven

My brother farmed and regularly had red diesel stolen. Padlocks on the tank would just be smashed. The worst theft of all was his water. He turned off his water for a major construction, only to have a neighbour complain. It turned out that that a previous occupant of the neighbouring farm had tapped into his water supply and my brother had been paying through his meter for some years.
Walkers showed no respect for rights of way and would wander through the farm yard and anything not tied down would be stolen. It was not uncommon to find “ sportsmen “ in some of the more distant fields carrying shotguns. It was also a problem with marauding dogs. I have seen up to half a dozen ewes with their throats ripped open.
He was fortunate that he was also a Chartered Surveyor, he sold the farm and had a much easier life.

Roger Sponge
Roger Sponge
4 months ago

Regularly reported in local media.

Paul Castle
Paul Castle
4 months ago

Police are not interested they will just shrug and say , “Too difficult to to find evidence and anyway we are snowed under with complaints from people who have been offended by some trivial thing on social media.

Robbie K
Robbie K
4 months ago

A very reasonable article, and very reasonable suggestions from the SDP. I’m uncertain that protests will achieve the aims however, since it will be difficult for many to grasp the complexities of the decline and indeed the solutions.

Jake Raven
Jake Raven
4 months ago

“Cheap food is very expensive.” We may welcome it in the supermarket, but we pay for it in other ways: through suffering farm animals and poor public health, through degraded fields, rivers and wildlife.

We also pay through taxpayer funded subsidies, an indirect cost rarely considered.
While I try to buy British produce, I dislike the lack of competition and protectionism afforded to agriculture.
I’m more concerned with the creeping coverage of farmland with solar panels and wind turbines and the growing of food crops for biofuel.
Net zero policies are having a big impact on farming in many different ways, I’d like to see net zero 2050 legislation repealed (I know it won’t happen) and let’s start growing the economy and food.
This article and the SDP paper calls for more state intervention, more regulations, less choice and more expense for consumers.
No thanks.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
4 months ago
Reply to  Jake Raven

Because leaving it to the market has worked wonders hasn’t it!

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
4 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Uhh yes? We have access to a wider range of foods at prices more accessible than at any other time in human history.
I’m totally in favour of domestic protectionism and making Brits pay British prices for British food (and labour!) but we have to be honest about the costs.
We also need to be honest about who will benefit. We have this image of the everyman farmer rising at 4am every day to do the cows and corn and deliver for the blood and soil british public. But in reality if we erect protectionist barriers the overwhelming beneficiaries will be wealthy landowners who still own most of england’s land.

Jake Raven
Jake Raven
4 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Actually it has, food in real terms and as a percentage of household budget has never been cheaper. There is a greater variety of food and choice for consumers.
I’ll be interested to hear your counterargument.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
4 months ago
Reply to  Jake Raven

The counter argument is that it’s putting many domestic farms out of business. A nation that can’t feed itself is always in danger and at the mercy of world events.
At least during the war we had one of the worlds strongest navies and an empire to keep the food coming in, if a similar conflict ever kicked off now there’d be no hope of something similar happening.
The pandemic taught is that being totally reliant on global supply chains is a fools errand.
Cheap food also isn’t much use if we put thousands on the dole to get it, it ends up costing the country more in the long run

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
4 months ago
Reply to  Jake Raven

You won against the Corn Laws but you won’t win this time around.

Adam M
Adam M
4 months ago

Very good article that reaches beyond the scope of it’s premise. The commodification of land in the UK is one of the greatest (largely unreported) crimes that’s being committed against our poor country atm. The self justifying loop of importing more people, building more houses and forcing up the cost of everything else in the process for ordinary people is horrendous, and slowly ruining all of our lives.
The area I currently live in was once a rural community but over the last decade has become a perpetual building site. As broke farmers sell up their land to make way for more dystopianly uniform, soulless blocks of bright orange, supposedly affordable housing. All of which are about a half a days walk from any kind of shop or public service.

Ben Scott
Ben Scott
4 months ago
Reply to  Adam M

Well said!

Matt Jarrett
Matt Jarrett
4 months ago

The Free Market has always worked well. Avoids all those costs of silly central planning & the need for long term strategy.
Certainly a game changer in healthcare, as I see at work everyday.
And in every copy of Private Eye that I pick up.
Gotta go- Michelle Mone’s at the door…

Charles Levett-Scrivener
Charles Levett-Scrivener
4 months ago

Across the world, over the last 30 years, the ratio of the costs of purchased inputs (sprays, fertilizers, seeds, machinery etc.) compared to output prices ( crop prices, milk, finished live animals) (and not offset by rising yields except in former communist countries) has risen greatly cutting gross margins severely.
This is why protests have occurred globally e.g. India.
However, in the UK and in the EU farmers are also hit by non-scientific bans of sprays and GMO crops and now are being hit with “anti-climate change” actions e.g. higher taxes on fuels, more set aside and enforced lower stocking levels e.g. Ireland and the Netherlands.

Sayantani Gupta
Sayantani Gupta
4 months ago

I can’t speak for the UK, but the Indian situation is completely different. The ” protests” were confined to the Punjab and were entirely of rich billionaire farmers who wanted more subsidies and pampering by a continuation of an outdated socialist agricultural marketing system.
Farming in India is not subject to income tax. Farmers get free electricity and water. They don’t pay any taxes. They hardly have any input costs other than paying farm labour where too the Government picks up most of the tabs.
It is based on archaic Socialist legislation similar to the Soviet Union and Maoist China- fixed subsidies, inflated guaranteed prices, monopolistic markets etc
Read Ashok Gulati the renowned agricultural economist to know more if interested.

Matt M
Matt M
4 months ago

As always I recommend Harry’s Farm on this issue of farming regulation. Here is his latest video from yesterday. As far as I can tell, the farmers in Wales are revolting because of the daft regulations that the Welsh government is trying to impose in the name of environmentalism. English farmers are not revolting and are reasonably happy with the new post-Brexit Countryside Stewardship payment scheme.

Bobs Yeruncle
Bobs Yeruncle
4 months ago
Reply to  Matt M

I agree but to say Welsh farmers are more revolting than English farmers is a bit racist.

David Collier
David Collier
4 months ago

I think we can treat this article as an SDP promotional leaflet. ‘Now, British farmers’ anger is starting to boil over’ Is it? Who says? What evidence have we for that? ‘ joining their counterparts from within the EU who have been in open revolt for months over low prices, cheap imports and environmental regulations. ‘. In Britain it’s different, the gripe framers have that has been manifested in protests at Dover is lower, or less controlled, food standards from overseas and vastly increased bureaucracy costs as a result of Brexit and the highly disadvantageous trade agreements with Australia and New Zealand signed by politicians desperate to prove Brexit was worthwhile at whatever cost. Some unkind souls say it serves the farmers right, they were the ones so keen to put Vote Leave posters up in their fields, but be that as it may, they shot themselves seriously in the foot and gloating isn’t going to do any good. And quite what the current-day SDP plans doing about all this? Like so much they propound, all rather a mystery.

David Walters
David Walters
4 months ago

The UK is rapidly becoming a country that I no longer recognise. I get the feeling that whichever of the two main parties get in at the next election there will be no change in direction either for our countryside or towns/cities. Nongovernmental organisations with their own agendas determine what is going to happen and our elected representatives just fall into line. It’s probably the same in most countries now. Quite scary really.

Archibald Tennyson
Archibald Tennyson
4 months ago
Reply to  David Walters

My suggestion is to abandon the thought that humanity will fix these problems. We need Jesus for a reason.