With the volatility of our national politics showing no sign of abating, we thought it would be a good idea to look at Agri politics over the years – and specifically the Ministers and Secretaries who have presided over farming’s ups and downs in the postwar era.

The drama and skullduggery of Westminster politics can seem a world away from everyday life in the country. But government actions and policy have profoundly shaped our farming landscape, and in turn what happens in farms large and small affects and alters our broader society and politics. The fates of town and country are entwined and interdependent, even if it might not seem so at first glance.

Last month the Prime Minister Rishi Sunak reshuffled his government. Buried beneath the headlines about the sacking of Home Secretary Suella Braverman and the return of former PM David Cameron as Foreign Secretary was the news of a change at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), the government department responsible for farming and rural policy. Steve Barclay the Health Secretary has taken on the role, replacing Therese Coffey, the close ally and confidante of Liz Truss, herself a former DEFRA Secretary as well as short-lived PM.

Changes at the top of DEFRA are nothing new. Since its creation just 22 years ago in 2001 there have been 13 Secretaries of State and counting. And since the Brexit referendum seven years ago there have been eight Secretaries, with an average term of under a year. Cynics might say that it would take some politicians considerably longer than a year to master the intricacies of the job! Before DEFRA, the old Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, later the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, had 22 Ministers in the postwar period from 1945 to 2001, a span of 56 years, so the average term in office was considerably longer.

Funnily enough, the longest term of office in the role was held by the very first postwar Minister, and arguably the most influential, Tom Williams. Starting his working life in 1899 down a Yorkshire coal mine, Williams became a Labour MP and served six years as Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries in the Atlee governments from 1945 to 1951. His Agricultural Act of 1947 established minimum prices for cereal and animal products, with the government guaranteeing “Deficiency Payments” to producers if the market price dipped under the minimum.

The Act was successful in expanding farm output; it gave farmers the financial security to invest in new production techniques which increased agricultural productivity; and national marketing and distribution systems encouraged strong domestic demand. Interested readers can find out more in an earlier blog HERE.

The 1947 Act provided the basic framework for agricultural policy during what has been seen as a golden age for British farming. Crucially, the costs of the subsidies to farmers were shouldered by the government (and society as a whole through taxation) rather than consumers, as had been the case with agricultural protection policies in earlier periods, and consumers retained access to imported produce if they wanted it. But budgetary constraints in the 1950s and 60s chipped away at the policy, and started to transfer some of the cost to consumers in place of the government.

In 1973 Britain joined the European Economic Community (EEC), later to become the European Union. The Agriculture Minister during the negotiations for British accession was Jim Prior. An avuncular countryman with a florid complexion and a genial manner, Prior kept pigs as a schoolboy at Charterhouse during the war, and was said to be driving a tractor on his Suffolk farm when he was asked to stand as a Conservative candidate!

Membership of the EEC meant signing up to the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which at the time encouraged further expansion of production. The CAP used price support rather than Deficiency Payments, and so transferred more of the subsidy cost to consumers. The National Farmers Union supported joining in the 1970s, and the prospect of higher prices and the boom in world commodity prices led to capital investment and the intensification of agricultural production in the UK. But overproduction across the EEC (hence the “wine lakes” and “butter mountains” of unsold goods) and a harsher economic climate and environmental concerns saw the introduction of production quotas by the 1980s, which were naturally unpopular with farmers who had invested heavily to increase output.

The CAP was associated with higher food prices, and hence unpopular with consumers. Leading the charge against it was John Silkin, Minister of Agriculture from 1976 to 1979 in the Callaghan administration. Silkin, a leftwing Labour MP representing Deptford, an inner-city constituency in London, was fiercely Eurosceptic, and sought to mobilise public opinion against the EEC. Reform of the CAP became a battle for the incoming Conservative government led by Margaret Thatcher, leading to her famous “handbagging” of European leaders at the Fontainebleau summit in 1984 and the subsequent Budget Rebate agreement.

Some have argued that a legitimate internal British debate between farmers and consumers about the benefits and costs of agricultural policy became distorted and polarised when it was transferred to the European stage, and that the toxicity of this debate has hindered a clear-sighted assessment of British interests in Europe.

Tony Blair’s New Labour administrations were seen by many as representing an urban viewpoint hostile to rural interests, with the Countryside Alliance leading a Countryside March of hundreds of thousands in London in 2002. The Ministry of Agriculture breathed its last under New Labour in 2001, following concerns over its performance handling BSE (“mad cow disease”) and the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease earlier in 2001. In the Commons debate about its abolition, one MP said:

“Farmers and others told me that they wanted to do to MAFF what it was doing to the animals: burn it on a pyre or bury it in a pit … MAFF had become, perhaps, the least efficient and effective Department within Government.”

When Nick Brown, the final Minister to lead the department, was appointed to the role, it was widely viewed as a demotion from the job of party Chief Whip for disloyalty. Still an MP for Newcastle, he currently sits as an independent after his suspension from the Labour Party following undisclosed allegations. The replacement department, DEFRA, was initially led by Margaret Beckett, the first woman in charge of agricultural policy, although DEFRA does not have agriculture in its title, and puts the environment and food before rural affairs.

So what does the future hold? Accepting the many reasons to support agriculture means we need someone to pay for it, government or the consumer. Current agricultural policy is firmly focused on protecting and enhancing the environment through Environmental Land Management schemes (ELMS). But if Brexit means a global British policy of reduced public expenditure and lower barriers to cheaper agricultural imports, then it is hard to see where the money to pay for everything we want will come from. Policy muddle may be the result, so let us hope that the resourcefulness and creativity of the farming community, and the benefits of new technologies, will find a way through.




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