Mario Laghos: Covid reminds us of the dangers of depending on others. We would be mad to do so again – with food.

21 May

Mario Laghos is a political analyst and the editor of Just Debate.

Atop a hill, in a quiet corner of sleepy Somerset, the thirteenth century church of St Michael cuts a lonely figure. But look down into the valley below and you’ll find Raddington, an ancient parish, within which the Church is a relatively young fixture.

Excavations have turned up Viking bridles, musket balls from a long-forgotten English Civil War battle, and coins of every sort. Raddington’s historical record begins proper in the year 891, when King Alfred gifted the land to his friend, Berthulph.

For a thousand years the land passed between thegns, lords and knights. Throughout the centuries of tumult, there remained one constant: the viable farming of the land for beef and lamb. Raddington’s Domesday estates are known to have had ‘128 sheep and 37 she-goats’; by 1537 a single tenant is known to have supported ‘at least seven bullocks and about 140 sheep’; and by the 1700s, Richard Yeandle, probably of Upcott, could boast of 160 sheep, and 57 cheeses from his many dairy cows.

To this day, farms are peppered across the landscape. With the exception of equestrian training yards, and a solitary inn, they are the only workplaces and centres of industry in the area.

Tucked away in the valley is John’s farm. Before him, his father, also named John, farmed the land. Five hundred years ago, a farm likely stood on the same site, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the then-steward was too called John.

The methods here are not backwards; a visitor might be surprised to see how modern the machinery is. From rearing to slaughter, the farming of animals in Britain is as efficient as it is viable. The proof of the pudding, or the main, is in the eating.

And the eating is the fact that Britons spend an average of just eight per cent of their income on food. This is less than any country on the planet, with the exception of the US, and Singapore. The average Greek spends 16 per cent of their income on food, a Ukrainian almost 38 per cent and a Nigerian a whopping per cent.

But this industry, which employs some half a million workers, is in danger. The prospect of a tariff-free, quota-free trade deal with Australia poses an existential threat to British farmers, from the valleys of Somerset to the Scottish Highlands.

Australia, unlike us, cleans its chickens with chlorine. Unlike us, it cultivates hormone-treated beef. Unlike us, it cages its sows in cruel metal stalls. Abdicating protections on British industry is neither free nor fair if the standards are so grossly misaligned, as they are in this case.

Those who favour the deal pray in aid the ingenuity of the British farmer, and of his ability to overcome all odds. But such a prayer is made in vain.

Anna Creek is Australia’s largest cattle ranch. At 23,677 square kilometres, it is 10 per cent of the size of the entire United Kingdom. Our family farms, whose land is dotted by old oaks, latticed by hedgerows, contained by country lanes and cut across by bridle paths cannot compete with the sheer industrial scale of the Australian industry. Aussies don’t have a comparative advantage; they have an absolute advantage.

To enter such an unequal relationship would be to herald, as Minette Batters, the President of the National Farmers’ Union put it, “[the] slow, withering death of family farms throughout the four nations of these isles”. It’s not talking down Scottish crofters or Welsh shepherds to point out the blindingly obvious.

It has been argued that Australia is preoccupied with servicing the demand from Asia’s growing middle class, and that may be true – for now. It does beg the question though: why does it so desperately want the access to our market? But that aside, it’s the cumulative effect which is most concerning. If we so carelessly abandon our defences at the first time of asking, these surrender terms will be demanded of us by the United States, Brazil, India and elsewhere. And for what?

Daniel Hannan, appearing on Newsnight this week, talked up the opportunities for Edinburgh’s financial sector as part of this deal. No doubt that’s true, and for the City of London too. It might even increase our GDP, perhaps by as much as 0.02 per cent, according to the Government’s own estimates.

The prospective cheapening of our already inexpensive food prices, and the further expansion of the financial services sector is being offered up in exchange for our farming industry. This pandemic illustrated well the long-term consequences of deindustrialisation, and the costs of dependency on others for strategic assets. How mad we must be to do it all again, and with the most precious of resources, food.

To trade away our heritage so lackadaisically would be to know well the price of everything and the value of nothing. Ask yourself: will it be a better Britain when our countryside is barren, devoid of sheep and cows who beckon you on your hikes, deprived of farmers who tend this green and pleasant land, and when our supermarket shelves are unburdened by British beef? We should be diversifying our economy, not consolidating our might in the financial services sector, whose dominance leaves us open to catastrophic and regular recession. This deal isn’t levelling up, it’s levelling down.

Mario Laghos: More support, less regulation – how Government can help British industry thrive

23 Jan

Mario Laghos is a political analyst and the editor of Just Debate.

So many of our countryside towns, which are home to historic churches, school buildings and libraries, are increasingly blighted by the emergence of fresh-faced red brick town houses.

They buffet the existing architecture in the most jarring way, even though not too dissimilar in aesthetic quality to the sort of brown Soviet-style flats that were built in the 1970’s and 1980’s to facilitate those same town’s growing populations. Iconic villages are being swamped by the apathetic copy and pasting of dwellings whose one and only reason for existing is the cheapness involved in their construction.

In most if not all cases, however, these villages are sited next to quarries, from whence the original buildings’ constituent stone is derived. Yet those quarries sit dormant, even while so many of our youth suffer the indignity of precarious employment, or flee to cities for opportunity.

These sites could give meaningful work to the young whilst ensuring our historic towns are conserved by using local resources, local labour and local style. Why not honour our past, and capture its spirit for our future, by re-opening them?

Well, primarily because of cost, of course. It isn’t economical, prima facie. The steel we use for construction, and the coal required to forge it, are imported in such huge volumes – and from China no less – despite the fact that we sit atop a mountain of coal and are a nation home to some of the best steel workers in the world.

Our steel industry is essential to the defence of the realm. Much of our coal wealth sits beneath some of our most destitute regions. Yet we refuse to extract it for fear of emitting carbon. Far easier to have a freight ship carry it across the world, so as to keep the CO2 off of our books. After all, the cost of having to beautify the mine after it has been exhausted, erecting solar farms to offset emissions, and cutting all the red tape would no doubt be a costly and time-consuming affair.

Thus towns which were once the engines of the nation are resigned to destitution and sink into terminal decline, buoyed only by call centres, coffee houses, and betting shops.

In 1998, we imported 20 per cent of our energy. Today that figure stands at 40 per cent. We rely on Russia for the bulk of our solid fuel and much of our petroleum. Yet while many could be given high-skilled work and boundless opportunity by extracting energy via fracking, a technique which has made the US a net exporter of energy, we have placed a moratorium on it.

Worse, we are an island nation who continually fail to make good on our geographic gift; that we are surrounded by water. We are constantly told that we are set to become the Saudi Arabia of wind, but why not of tidal power, too?

We have become so infatuated with financial services and the City of London, we have lost sight of our nation’s traditions and its strengths. Thanks to the market economy we have become acutely aware of the price of everything: we know goods and materials from poor countries with inadequate labour laws are cheaper than those produced onshore. The start-up costs associated with brickmaking factories or quarries can be prohibitive – far better to buy them in then, and let balance of payments deficit grow further still.

The list goes on. We have found it convenient to be energy-dependent, particularly as self-sufficiency often necessitates government subsidies, a most unattractive proposition. And there is little profit in being readily prepared around the clock for a once-in-a-century medical crisis, as the state of our PPE warehouses attests.

But we must become more attuned to the virtue of value, rather than the seductive mistress of price. Rather than sending young people into the doldrum of recruitment agencies which recruit for recruitment agencies like Russian dolls, meaningful employment and national value can be found in traditional industry, and the kickstart costs incurred by the helping hand of governance will be paid back. High-wage taxpaying workers, the value added of energy self-sufficiency, the control of our destiny, and the improved social relations and reduced crime wrought by stable work and increased home ownership will pay back and more that which would be required to jumpstart dormant industries.

Of course, such work is not limited to simple labour, but will require the efforts of highly skilled engineers, architects and technicians, and administrators.

This rediscovery of the virtue of industry and meaningful work does not mean abandoning Conservative values. It should go hand-in-hand with a ferocious effort to cut the pointless regulation which holds back investment and development. Rishi Sunak’s task force should be just the start.

The UK is a leader in the global race to administer vaccines. But we could improve our lead, and once we finish in poll position could turn our resources over to benefit of the world.

But our programme, excellent though it is, was late off the blocks, its momentum partially scuppered by (now-scrapped) regulation which required vaccine givers to have completed 21 documents, including courses to combat terrorism and have adequate knowledge of human rights. It failed to move into fifth gear fast enough due to an evident reticence to involve the military. And it is set to be dealt a further blow still by our lack of onshore manufacturing capability, as Pfizer’s Belgium plant is having to ration its output.

Much like our dithering on extracting British coal, which has held up approval of a singular Cumbrian coal mine for years, and as with the moratorium on fracking, despite our willingness to import natural gas, it is another instance of tedious regulations which serve only to straightjacket Britain from fulfilling its potential – all while exacerbating the harms they are designed to mitigate.

It is time to throw a one-two punch. Market forces must no longer be allowed to hollow out towns, cities and villages with race-to-the-bottom-on-cost housing. Nor should they relegate to a footnote of history proud and noble industries with strategic value in favour of financial services and the City of London. And to achieve these ends the government must become adept in knowing when to step up and offer needed support, and when to step stand back by consigning counterproductive regulation to the dustbin.