Unlike the rest of Europe, the UK is currently suffering a shortage of salad crops. The supercilious Desmond Swayne MP, taking his lead from Thérèse ‘let them eat turnips’ Coffey – the less than impressive Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs – stooped to the increasingly familiar zealot disingenuity by aggressively refuting the fallacy that he himself created. He declared, to a bemused House of Commons, that those attempting to hold the government responsible for food shortages were in fact blaming Brexit for the inclement weather in the Iberian Peninsula and North Africa. Mr Swayne’s antagonistic interjection reflects, I suspect, a frustration that he can never publicly admit to what even the dimmest of the zealots must by now privately realise; namely, that Brexit has proved a colossal error of judgement that has wrought serious and lasting damage on the country’s economy and living standards. Consequently, following the well-trodden path adopted by Brexit scoundrels in error, Mr Swayne resorts to attacking those who attack Brexit.
While it is the case that unusually cold weather has reduced production of salad crops in southern Europe and hence exports from that region to the UK, the bombastic Mr Swayne, conveniently overlooks – did he ever understand – that the decision by the disgraced Boris Johnson to take Great Britain out of the single market would make the country more vulnerable to supply chain disruptions. As we are now seeing, when shortages occur, entities within the single market will be given preference over Britain. There is however other, and potentially far more damaging consequence of Brexit for future food supplies and in particular horticultural produce.
As set out in its March 2022 report, the House of Commons, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, explained that the agri-food sector was suffering from acute labour shortages due principally to Brexit. The report did not mince its words, stating, ‘we found clear evidence that labour shortages [are] threatening food security’. It went on to opine that the food sector – the UK’s largest manufacturing sector – faces permanent shrinkage if it fails to address its acute labour shortages. The report noted that in the horticultural sector the shortage of labour was resulting in unharvested crops and reduced plantings. The damage however goes beyond labour shortages.
In its election campaign the Tories set out the commitment that as a newly elected government it would aim to strike trade deals with a wide range of countries but principally the USA, Australia, and New Zealand. The countries lined up all have in common large agricultural sectors and any free-trade agreement would necessarily involve increased volumes of imported foodstuff from these countries. The logic, as apparent in the government’s emphasis on an environmental strategy rather than a food production strategy, is a smaller domestic agricultural industry. The realities of this neglect are now only too apparent. Worse, as made clear by one of Ms Coffey’s predecessors, George Eustice, so desperate is the government to do trade deals that it was prepared to settle for a very poor deal with Australia. Freed of the need to put ‘a positive gloss on what was agreed,’ Mr Eustice pointed out that the deal gives Australia (and shortly New Zealand) – indeed sets a precedent for future deals – full access to the UK market to sell beef and sheep after a transitional period while Australia will still ban the import of British beef. The deal hailed by Mr Johnson as ‘Global Britain at its best’ will according to the government eventually add just 0.02 per cent to GDP. In short, the benefits are spread thinly whereas the costs will fall primarily on British farmers.
The governments disinterest in a food production strategy is mirrored in its general approach to the dire state of the economy. In a recent speech the Chancellor declared that the government needed to be ‘straight about the economy’s weaknesses i.e., poor productivity and low business investment. As ever, being unable to be straight by admitting that both of these weaknesses have been compounded by Brexit, Mr Hunt argued that ‘recovery – more accurately an improved performance – demands a focus on sectors such as digital technology, green products, and life sciences. In essence, Mr Hunt is making the case for an industrial strategy – something his government rejected just three years ago – in the knowledge that the UK is be lagging in the race to secure the benefits of the fourth industrial revolution. One sector that should be at the heart of this revolution, which combines bio-, digital- and engineering-technologies, is agriculture. Based on her recent pronouncements, Ms Coffey seems more intent on encouraging reductions in the area of land producing food – presumably with the exception of land growing turnips – yet further evidence of a strategy to shrink agriculture.
At the time of writing Mr Sunak is desperately attempting to secure a deal on the long-running post-Brexit row between the UK and EU over Northern Ireland. Rational people would welcome such a deal as a necessary step towards a closer relationship with the EU but the zealots within his own party together with the intolerant Democratic Unionist Party are unsurprisingly kicking-up rough. What is needed from the Prime Minister is some firm leadership and statesmanship. It is high time that the zealots and the bigots were faced down. The vast majority of MPs on both sides of the House, let alone the thousands of businesses/organisations penalised in their dealings with the EU by the animosity Johnson and his hangers-on seem intent on whipping up whenever an opportunity presents itself, want the issue settled. Incapable or insensitive to the fact that most voters now believe they were misled and deceived, the zealots seek only to prolong their fantasies regardless of the mounting damage to the UK economy, Britain’s global reputation and the evidence that the country has had enough of them. To misquote Michael Gove, we’ve had enough of Brexiters, it’s time for the ‘turnip heads’ to fall silent.