A small flock of sheep is trotting down Whitehall today to join a meeting of farmers who are coming together to mark the launch of a devastating report on the impact of a no-deal Brexit. The report rings the death knell for upland hill farming, but sheep are only the first in the line of fire: it also warns that half of Britain’s farms would go out of business and calls for a public vote before any Brexit.
Today’s report, written by Séan Rickard, the former chief economist of the National Farmers’ Union – and launched by Farmers for a People’s Vote – is a forensic analysis of the effect of a crash-out Brexit, which the government will struggle to refute. The high proportion of UK farm exports to the EU would stop, barred by regulatory barriers and deterred by tariffs: 27% on chickens, 46% on lamb and 65% on beef. Cereals would be hit too. The government says it will remove or sharply lower all tariffs on imported food to keep prices down as the pound plunges. But this report shows how that import surge would wreck British farming.
WTO rules mean Britain must let in food from all over the world on the same tariffs and terms, no picking and choosing, open to all comers. Brazilian beef costs 50% less, US cereals 30% less. What leverage will the UK have for any future deals with the US or anyone, if we have already removed most tariffs?
Some 60% of farm incomes depend on subsidies from the EU’s basic payment scheme. Michael Gove promised to replace it with environmental subsidies – but only until 2022. Rickard rightly doubts that the same sums will be forthcoming in future when competing for funds with all the other urgent spending needs. The knock-on effect on Britain’s large food- and food-processing sector will be dramatic, with widespread redundancies. Farming land and rent prices will fall, but, Rickard finds, not nearly enough to compensate for the loss of sales.
Now there are varying views available on all this. Patrick Minford, the Brexiteers’ favoured economist, wants shops flooded with cheap imports floating free on global commodities markets, unfettered by regulatory checks, with no tariffs or protection for home produce. Cheap food, promised by Jacob Rees-Mogg, will please consumers and Minford is sanguine about farmers, fishers and most British manufacturers going to the wall. That’s a price worth paying, a valid trade-off for market extremists, who are careless about food security, happy for us to grow nothing ourselves, leaving us wholly dependent on world markets. Minfordites are untouched by the romance of farming or the pull of manufacturing – shrugging them off as relatively small parts of the economy. Finance and services are the only future.
But that was not the vision sold to the public by Brexiteers at the 2016 referendum. If it was their secret ideology, it was kept hidden from voters who backed Brexit. That dream of “taking back control” and restoring British sovereignty was coupled to nostalgic imagery of British farming, fishing and manufacturing. Homegrown things would flourish: no one said they would be thrown to the wolves of yet harsher globalisation. Backing Britishness – mainly Englishness – was the theme tune, not unleashing an agricultural Armageddon that would alter forever the old English landscape, with no sheep safely grazing the hillsides.
The tragedy is that so many farmers voted for this destruction of their own livelihoods: Rickard says they were seduced by Owen Paterson, who toured rural areas telling farmers that after Brexit they could have all the advantages of sales to the EU with none of the regulation and paperwork. Now, at the 11th hour, this report should be a wake-up call for what no deal means. “They can stop insulting us and calling this project fear. Let them come up with their own figures,” Rickard challenges the government.
This should galvanise farmers into action. The ones launching today’s report are taking it on a roadshow around the country to key agricultural constituencies, warning their fellow farmers and calling on Tory MPs in rural seats not to allow a no-deal Brexit without giving the public a vote.
If this were France, farmers confronted with a government about to destroy them wouldn’t be driving a few sheep down Whitehall. They’d barricade Westminster with battalions of muck-spreading tractors: maybe British farmers will in due course.
There are others, too, who should hurry to read this report – the scriptwriters of The Archers. Extraordinarily, Brexit barely gets a mention in the show, though it’s about to break over the dunderheads of David, Ruth, Brian, Helen, Eddie Grundy and all the rest of them. It’s time they woke up too.
• Poly Toynbee is a Guardian columnist