The rural revolution : Brexit is a life-saving opportunity for our farmers

Economic
Saturday, August 24, 2019
Nic Conner

 

If you believe the mainstream media the only people who voted in the EU referendum were the globetrotting snobs and the xenphobic slobs. The lack of any true analysis to dig into the views from anyone who is not from those conflicting Brexit hubs has debased the national debate over the past three years. 


A major part of our nation that has been woefully under-represented in the Brexit debate and most others is rural Britain; which overwhelmingly voted to leave. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the talking heads on TV and on the green benches have overlooked Britain’s countryside, they’ve been doing it for decades. A leading reason for lack of attention from Westminster is that most areas of policy affecting our countryside were outsourced to Brussels. British politicians have little to no control over the decisions which affect Britain’s agriculture, and by extension rural life.   


As a result of having to yield to the EU’s French cheese protectorate and one size fits all policies, Britain’s farms have been disappearing. One third of farms closed during the ten years between 1995 to 2015. Our green and pleasant land has become nothing more than an ever growing housing estate or at best a playground for the rich, with agricultural land rapidly being turned turned into residential property. At the ballot box in 2016 the countryside spoke up and gave a clear message that they wanted to take back control. 


One of the reasons Vote Leave won over the countryside was the prospect of what the future had in store outside of the EU for our rural communities. Yes, of course, if the EU refuses to re-open negotiations and we leave without a deal there are some serious short term concerns.   I wrote about these concerns myself in the Times in February, it can’t be avoided, no deal will put pressure on farmers, particularly with the agriculture tariff barriers which comes with GATT XXIV, and the potential labour shortages with seasonal workers. 


Even with these concerns the Gilt yield, the price the Government borrows money, is almost at a record low. To draw comparison the Gilt yield is currently at 0.44%, in 2012 it was above 120%. This means Boris Johnson can borrow and spend without damaging the economy, and how Boris Johnson uses this to support farmers will be key to making our exit an immediate success. We can take reassurance that the team that Johnson has put in place to prepare for no deal, and particularly the impact it may have on rural Britain, is up to the task. 


The former DEFRA Secretary of State, Micheal Gove, is leading the Government's overall ‘no deal’ preparations. The current DEFRA Minister, Theresa Villiers, brings her intimate understanding of Northern Ireland agriculture ecosystem after four years with the Cabinet Northern Ireland brief.


The most important appointment by the Prime Minister for the UK agriculture sector however was to bring back the Cornish MP, George Eustice, as Farming Minister. Eustice who is from farming stock himself, is the foremost authority on farming policy in the House of Commons. 


Eustice quit as Farming Minister earlier this year after Theresa May’s first Article 50 extension. In an email chat I had with him shortly after he resigned, George Eustice summed up the importance of Brexit and how the idea of not leaving the EU was unacceptable to many in the agriculture sector, “Vote Leave did so much to open up an opportunity for our country to embrace democracy and embark on a different course and I am saddened that the government and parliament has squandered that opportunity''. This is exactly it, even with no deal concerns, Brexit is a calculated opportunity for the UK’s farmers to halt the death spiral they have been in.


It is more than just scrapping the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy or the farm-killing bureaucratic rules. When we are out of the UK we will have the opportunity to trade with the rest of the world, as well as the EU. The EU is an important trading block, but let's also have trade deals with other countries as well. Just imagine the opportunity a trade deal with China would bring to UK farming. 


Currently only nine UK pork producers are allowed to export to China. These nine sold more net worth of goods to China than entire Scotch whisky trade did in 2017. China is a net importer of pork, and their reliance on importing their favoured meat will only grow in the coming years due to an outbreak of the incurable African swine fever.


Boris introducing a fast-track visas for academics could be the opportunity to make the UK the hub for Agitech and Biotech. It is not too hard to imagine, with Cambridge University's scientific muscle and nearby farmlands, that East Anglia could become the ‘Silicon Farm’, leading the world in innovative farming technology and advancements in things like GMO crops. Silicon farm could strike the match of a rural hi-tech revolution.


The result of the referendum was decisive mandate to leave the EU. The referendum was the second largest democratic exercise in British history; strangely second only to John Major's victorious 1992 General Election in terms of actual votes cast and turnout. Just under 1.3 million more people voted to Leave than. That is equivalent to the total populations of Birmingham and Belfast. If you look at the referendum results constituency by constituency, then Vote Leave would have won 416 seats, two less than what Tony Blair got during his record-breaking 1997 landslide victory.  


Of course leaving with a deal is the prefered option for rural Britain, but if the EU does not re-open negotiations then the UK needs to leave without a deal. The UK being out of the EU opens the opportunity to kick start the rural revolution, with de-regulation, new innovation and new markets to our farmers. Most importantly it will bring jobs to resuscitate our rural communities. The future outside the EU is one of the opportunities and positive changes for the countryside and this is why rural Britain wants to leave despite any short term challenges with “no ifs or buts.'' 


Nic Conner

Nic Conner is a former Vote Leave staff member and senior research fellow of the Bow Group.