Battle for hearts and minds far from won at Westminster

It seemed bizarre at the start of the week to get notices that entries for the Balmoral Show were closing.

Saturday, 7th August 2021, 12:00 pm
Jeremy Clarkson’s message that the government cares little about farming is depressingly accurate
Jeremy Clarkson’s message that the government cares little about farming is depressingly accurate

This was followed up by news of the platinum sponsors and a reminder of the need for press accreditation.

All credit has to go to the RUAS for rising to the challenge of holding a 2021 show. Many others, across the UK, have admitted defeat for this year. That loss of shows means a loss of events that make agriculture more than just another industry. Shows and ploughing competitions underline that farming is still an industry firmly rooted in age-old skills. As we look towards new support policies coming from London it is unfortunate politicians there fail to see agriculture as the best way to deliver the green future the government wants.

When it comes to television programmes those about farming too often confirm that much of television is chewing gum for the eyes. This applies in particular to mainstream network programmes supposedly about farming, but in reality focussed on the environment. As a result they miss the point that the countryside people love is mainly a by-products of what farmers do as a business. There is however one recent exception to this cynical view and that is Clarkson’s Farm on Amazon Prime. Motormouth presenter he may be, but better than any other this programme this reflects how satisfying, frustrating and unprofitable farming can be – and all at the same time.

I reckon the Clarkson programme has created more laughs and done more for the image of agriculture with the general public than years of other supposedly more worthy television programmes. Love him or loathe him Clarkson is a skilled presenter and he is genuinely committed to making his farm work, despite his own massive farming failures as he crawls up a very steep learning curve. He has the ability to raise subjects that make people wonder about the status quo – and that is television gold.

In one episode, just as the 2020 lock-down and the driest weather for years arrived, Clarkson said this had blown the government’s plans off course. Before the pandemic 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 in terms of feeding the nation. But now that people are attaching more importance to food security politicians have had to rein in their ambitions.

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. The Conservatives are no longer natural allies of farmers, and the days of the great Tory agriculture ministers are long gone. Given that somewhere between 40 and 50 per cent 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. Politicians in the UK do 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. That hearts and minds battle may have been won in the devolved regions, but not at Westminster.

That claim by Clarkson that the government wanted to import cheap food contains a significant element of truth. Ministers are desperate to secure trade deals to prove that Brexit is a sound economic policy. Australia is the UK’s big go-it- alone deal where it is breaking away from the EU. This will certainly be about importing cheap food. By contrast the EU says its southern hemisphere free trade deals will happen soon, but only if they protect EU agricultural interests. Like Boris Johnson, when he was a journalist, Clarkson does not let too many facts get in the way of a good tale. But his message that the government cares little about farming is depressingly accurate.