UK Tories on a crooked path to protectionism?

I realise that opposition politicians have to say all things to all persons and jump on any bandgwagon that’s going on, but I must say that I found an interview with Nick Herbert, the shadow Defra secretary, in Farmers Weekly a bit disappointing. It remains to be seen whether the MP for Arundel and South Downs will be Defra secretary in David Cameron’s Conservative government, or even whether Defra will remain in his present form. However, if his thinking is typical of that in the shadow cabinet on agriculture and food matters, it’s a bit worrying. It looks as if we could be lurching back towards productionism.

Perhaps that is not entirely surprising as there has always been quite a close informal relationship between large-scale farmers and the Conservative Party. Unlike smaller farmers (who often vote for the Lib Dems or the Nationalists or even Labour), they are overwhelmingly Conservative voters. Many of them hold office in local Conservative associations.

Herbert thus goes for a badger cull, even though the scientific evidence is contradictory and culling can actually spread Bovine TB by disturbing social groups of badgers. It is also unlikely to win the Conservatives friends among the well-organised badger lobby. I would not rule out culling in any circumstances, and it will be interesting to see whether the proposed policy experiment in Wales goes ahead and, if it does, what its effects are. Herbert is chair of the all-party group on badger TB and one would have hoped that he could have been a bit more cautious before trying to score a few partisan points over Hilary Benn, whatever the latter’s shortcomings.

What really concerns me is the following set of statements:

‘We need to re-address the balance of food production. Total self-sufficiency isn’t the right objective, but we do need increased production on the foods we can grow and rear domestically. We are a trading nation with important export markets and, while I’m not a protectionist, it’s madness to import food we could be producing … We should be maximising food production in a sustainable manner.’

Let’s try and deconstruct these statements:

1. Addressing the balance of food production. This is part of the current fashion for re-balancing the economy, but I am far from sure that governments should set targets for the share of the economy undertaken by particular sectors.

2. Autarchy is impossible (good), but we should maximise domestic production. How? At a cost to the taxpayer or to the environment?

3. It’s madness to import food we could be producing. Supposing that food is cheaper and of an equivalent quality or offers a better price/quality mix. The only way to keep that food out of the UK market is through protectionism which is what the CAP does at the moment.

4. How does one maximise food production in a sustainable manner? Of course, there are policies like Integrated Pest Management that need to be pursued, but there is something of a contradiction in this statement.

On the CAP, Herbert says,

‘I would rather make decisions here. There’s too much nonsense coming out of Europe and we need to minimise here.’

Of course, the Conservatives are Eurosceptic, but I have never heard them advocating withdrawal from the CAP (unlike the CFP).

To be fair, there is a possibility of greater co-responsibility in the post-2013 CAP. Member states might be able to vary the level of subsidy provided. The problem with that approach is that it undermines the internal market which is one of the major achievements of the EU. Herbert’s own answer is to have greater scrutiny of regulations in the Commons. There’s nothing wrong in that, but I don’t think it’s the answer.

More thinking needs to be done between now and the election.

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