February 3, 2024 - 8:00am

From Ireland to Poland, farmers are out on the streets. Most recently, tractors have been blocking the boulevards of Brussels and Berlin in a continent-wide expression of agricultural outrage. Yet there is one curious exception. British tractors, and the farmers who pilot them, remain in the fields.

It would be tempting to assume the relative passivity of the British farmer must be a boon of Brexit, but it doesn’t take long to unearth the unhappiness and anxiety that characterises UK agriculture. Our streets are not clear of John Deeres because the post-Brexit countryside is a land of milk and honey. Recent polling suggests that 49% of UK fruit and veg-growers and 32% of UK dairy farmers fear their businesses won’t survive to the end of 2025.

So why are British farmers not protesting? The answer may lie as much in psychology and politics as in policy and economics. European farmers seem to experience these pressures as a more immediate, existential threat. Their farms tend to be smaller than UK farms, with two-thirds of the UK farmed by enterprises of over 50 hectares in size while two-thirds of the EU is farmed by businesses a tenth that size. When plugged into a supply chain much bigger than themselves, smallness can magnify the feeling of menace.

And there is much to menace European farmers and heighten their sense of alarm. The Ukraine war has inflicted high fuel costs across the continent, but it is the Eastern European farmers at the landfall of a tsunami of Ukrainian grain imports. German farmers are objecting to taxes on red diesel, while Dutch farmers have been in the grip of a nitrogen crisis for five years. So as the EU introduces a raft of new (and some might say, essential) environmental demands, the pressure became too much to bear and the protests began.

In the UK, the protest conversation among farmers tends to draw out two themes: a fear of far-Right or populist “infiltration” or “exploitation”, and low confidence that the British public would support or even tolerate farmer demonstrations. 

The former concern can be interpreted in a couple of ways. Many European countries have an insurgent populist party willing to speak up for farmers, which gives them a voice. Whether or not these parties are far-Right, the charge of exploitation or infiltration misses the mark. Farming has always formed a part of the populist platform: the US Populist Party grew out of the Farmer’s Alliance, the Finns Party came from the Finnish Rural Party, and Italy’s Lega Nord and Poland’s Law and Justice have long maintained links to farmers and farmers’ unions. 

What is true is that the UK’s brand of Right-populists at Reform aren’t cut from the same agricultural cloth, given their free market enthusiasm. Even if Reform were in the mould of the agrarian populist, our first-past-the-post system hampers their clout compared to their European counterparts, so their support does little to boost the political confidence of the farming community. 

This lack of political confidence is key to understanding what British farmers might do next. The political leadership of UK agriculture will say that protests are a last resort and point to the risk of unpleasant populist manipulation, but that sentiment may also reflect a widespread suspicion that the British public don’t appreciate the link between the land and their dinner plates. The cultural ties between the farming and the non-farming communities are stronger in Europe, so British farmers fear that they would lack public support if they turn out to protest. 

None of this reluctance to demonstrate works to British farming’s disadvantage. UK farmers have always been more likely to adapt and overcome challenges set by buyers and regulators, rather than leaping straight onto the streets. For now, British agriculture seems to be innovating to meet the twin demands of production and environmental stewardship, while waiting for the policy framework to settle. Someone needs to work out how farmers are getting paid for everything society needs them to do, and it remains to be seen how long UK farmers will wait.

Liam Stokes is the CEO of the British Game Alliance.