If the Church of England was once the Tory party at prayer, then the nation’s shotgun-owning farmers were the party’s armed wing. I grew up on a farm in the Yorkshire Dales and must have been about 18 before I met someone who didn’t identify as TBC (True Blue Conservative). Ours was one of the safest Tory seats in the country, with the local MP being Leon Brittan and then William Hague. And Margaret Thatcher was considered a hero in our ‘community’ not because of the Falklands war or her defeat of Arthur Scargill but because she liked to greet the dawn by listening to Farming Today on Radio 4 (true).
But the Brexit debate is leaving our True Blue farmers deeply conflicted. On the one hand, without EU subsidies, many of them would go out of business. On the other, their Tory instincts tell them that subsidies are a socialist idea, the opposite of free trade, and therefore plain wrong. Until now, their approach has been to avoid examining their consciences too closely, because it’s not their fault if their counterparts in other EU countries, especially France, represent such an aggressive and powerful lobby.
And it’s not their fault either that a staggering 40 per cent of the EU budget is spunked away on the Common Agricultural Policy, that ingenious device for reducing Europe’s reliance on imported food and drink by first overproducing — those notorious grain mountains and wine lakes — and then underproducing: the equally notorious ‘set aside’ of land, in which farmers were paid not to farm. David Cameron tried to include reform of the CAP in his ‘new settlement’ the other day, but the other EU leaders just stared at him as if he were mad. Some things are sacrosanct.
It’s not even the farmers’ fault that they need subsidies to survive — it’s the fault of Britain’s supermarkets, which fight for market share by keeping food prices artificially low. How do they manage that? They simply pass on the cost to the farmers. A litre of milk, for example, costs a farmer about 30p to produce, but the supermarkets pay him (it’s usually a him) an average of 23p. This is why the number of dairy farmers has halved in the past decade, from 20,000 to 10,000, and why 2,000 more are expected to go bust this year.
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