Protestors gather in Cardiff (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

March 11, 2024   6 mins

In The Shepherd’s Life, his memoir about following the family tradition of Cumbrian hill farming, James Rebanks highlights the obsession of “modern industrial communities” with the importance of “going somewhere”. “The implication,” he observes, “is an idea I have come to hate, that staying local and doing physical work doesn’t count for much.” At best, city dwellers regard the countryside as a place for their recreation; at worst, it is a place full of backward knuckle-dragging ingrates to be avoided and marginalised.

Almost a decade after his book was published, the latter view seems to have become embedded in our institutions, encouraged by the excesses of progressive sociology. The recent Wildlife and Countryside Link report submitted to MPs suggested that “racist colonial legacies continue to frame nature in the UK as a ‘white space’”. “Colonialism has driven the exploitation and erasure of the rights and knowledge of indigenous people, and the assertion of white, Western values and knowledge at the expense of other values and knowledges.” For this sort of unsympathetic account, the people of the countryside are not valuable members of a national community, but imposters and enemies whose very presence harms others.

Now, British farmers’ anger is starting to boil over, joining their counterparts from within the EU who have been in open revolt for months over low prices, cheap imports and environmental regulations. Britain’s farmers are traditionally more quiescent, but have been mounting their first public protests in recent weeks: including choking traffic at the port of Dover and 3,000 turning up at the Welsh Government building in Cardiff to get their voices heard. Meanwhile,  there are increasing signs that the Conservatives, the traditional party of the countryside, is losing traction in rural areas. A recent Survation poll concluded that 51 of the 100 most rural constituencies are set to switch to Labour at the next election, while a poll last year found only 36% of voters in rural seats agreed that the Tories “understand and respect rural communities and their way of life”.

Into this fractious atmosphere comes a timely Green Paper from the Social Democratic Party, the old SDP that just about survived the Eighties and has had a mini-revival lately under the leadership of William Clouston. Entitled Farms Fields & Food, its core theme is that, as Clouston puts it: “Cheap food is very expensive.” We may welcome it in the supermarket, but we pay for it in other ways: through suffering farm animals and poor public health, through degraded fields, rivers and wildlife. And through farmers giving up, their children leaving the family business rather than soldiering on. Margins are too small, the paperwork too gruelling, the lack of respect galling. And now, to top it off, they are facing organised gangs roaming the countryside and stealing their equipment, something to which they have no response; the police likewise.

The resulting reality is grim. One in five farms in England closed down between 2005 and 2015, with one in three of them classified as smaller farms. If trends continue, British family farms could virtually die out in the next 30 years — and with them the rural communities they support and the landscape they have created.

The story, as the report notes, is a familiar one from across British society: “Free trade and open labour markets have deterred investment in training and innovation, increased our reliance on over-extended global supply chains, forced food producers to prioritise yield over sustainability, and sold swathes of our countryside into foreign ownership.” As in the cities, the ground has started to erode under the feet from those whose families have lived there for generations. Others are moving in with other interests and priorities, more money and little familiarity with traditional ways of life.

The SDP proposes a host of semi-radical, statist measures to address the situation. It wants Charter Co-operatives and Regional Marketing Boards to give more heft to small-scale producers. It wants an independent regulatory body for supermarkets to prevent the practices that often leave farmers stranded with suddenly unwanted produce. It wants a Royal Commission into conserving the British countryside. It wants affordable housing to be reserved for farm workers. And it wants to ban stuff: the routine use of antibiotics; junk food advertisements on TV and online; and imports of food and drink not produced to the UK’s environmental and animal welfare standards.

This is all quite a contrast to the establishment parties; perhaps playing that classic role of a smaller party in pushing the boat out on an issue, making it easier for others to jump in later. Amid the increasing alarm in country areas, Rishi Sunak came out with a new grant scheme and food security index recently, but this looks like more dancing to the tune of polls and headlines, a desperate move to mollify yet another group of restless natives.

“This looks like more dancing to the tune of polls and headlines.”

For ultimately, the Conservative Party’s attitude to the land and farming is really subservient to their wider economic assumptions and the interest groups that feed into them, notably in finance and property development, sectors that are very much global in scale and urban in origin. They treat the land of Britain as “UK plc” or Atlantic Zone Production Unit No. 325: a place to be managed not for the sake of the people who live on it but as a business whose purpose is to maximise returns for shareholders. Today’s Tories understand land primarily as an economic resource open to market forces. If it does not pay economically, then it should be sold to someone who can make a better fist of it, perhaps by building houses for the growing population rather than trying to feed them. Competition, trading and development will solve problems naturally over time according to this perspective.

But this account is detached from any specific valuation of farmers and their work, of the origins of food and of rural community. It regards land as a tradeable asset with no wider meaning. And its most immediate, visible costs are defrayed onto places and people who are relatively few in number and/or have relatively little lobbying power: such as those family farmers and working-class consumers seeking the cheapest food. If the approach means further large slugs of farmland being taken out of farming use, then so be it. Global Britain will fill in the shortfall with cheaper imports as a result of post-Brexit trade deals. This is part of a wider story of neoliberalism that we might call the Glazerisation of Britain, by which the country’s territory serves like Manchester United has for the Glazer family of Florida: as a distant resource to be tapped for income, without reference to its meaning and significance for those who live and breathe it.

Contrasted with this, the SDP’s Green Paper is a refreshing reminder of the reality on the ground. It refers to, for instance, how “population density has increased by over 15% since 2000 and is predicted to keep rising”. Quite simply, as many progressive campaigners have warned us in recent years, Britain is a small rainy island drifting in the Atlantic Ocean: our space is strictly limited. The population of England alone increased by 6.5% between 2011 and 2021 to an estimated 56,536,000, giving the country a population density of 434 per square km. Only tiny Malta and the flat Netherlands have a larger density in Europe.

Yet our rulers, think tanks and indeed those same campaigners treat the territory as if it is boundless. We need more workers, more houses, more energy production and transmission, more water reservoirs, more roads and railways and schools and hospitals and GP surgeries. We need more factories and distribution centres, more technology centres and the rest. And we also need more trees and better protection of wildlife.

All these require space. Yet in a small and already crowded piece of land, they are competing with each other. And so choices must be made. But how?

At the moment, they are made through an incoherent combination of market, local and national decision-making, with plans signed off in isolation. But leaving land use to the market and the current patchwork of isolated state interventions means certain types of life and community dying off. There is only so much love to go around. And the same goes for land. To give more weight to the interests and opinions of farmers and rural communities means reducing that of others who currently have more prominence.

To justify such a re-allocation will require some serious politics, but also some serious strategic thinking. We need to decide what our limited land is for and take the steps needed to apportion it rather than rushing headlong to meet one set of needs, like housing a rapidly growing population, without thinking about energy, water and food provision. We need a full-scale land strategy, a major piece of work to lay out what our priorities are and how to meet them. “Joined-up government” is a bit of a joke term in Westminster, but it really is time for some of it now.

Of course, that doesn’t mean we’ll get it. Although Labour is sizing up the curtains in No. 10, the recent protests by farmers against its administration in Wales suggest a relative lack of understanding and interest in the party for rural concerns. Indeed, Labour seems even more detached than the Tories from the interests and rhythms of the countryside. If rural voters want to be heard, it seems they will have to continue their revolt — and might want to abandon the establishment parties altogether.

Ben Cobley writes the blog A Free Left Blog and is author of The Tribe: the Liberal-Left and the System of Diversity. He is a journalist by trade and a former Labour Party activist.