In a weird echo of his words about experts, just before the EU referendum in June 2016, Environment Secretary Michael Gove has once again asked ‘the people’ to voice their views about the future of farming in the UK, and overcome self-serving vested interests, writes Miles King
Back in June 2016 the then Justice Secretary and lead Brexiteer, Michael Gove, had a fiery TV interview with Sky News’ Faisal Islam. The interview was to go down in history as one of the pivotal points of the Brexit campaign, yet that historical significance was based on a misquote. Remain campaigners seized on Gove’s claim that Britons “have had enough of experts”. Islam went on to suggest Gove was adopting the language of the populist presidential candidate Donald Trump, who went on to win the Presidential Election - with a big helping hand from the Russians.
What Gove actually said was that “Britons had had enough of experts with organisations from acronyms saying they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong.” I guess what he meant to say was experts from organisations with acronyms.
Fast forward 18 months and Gove is leading the charge for a new agriculture policy for the UK, to replace the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, (CAP) which I have written about in a number of earlier columns.
This behemoth sucks up nearly half of the entire EU budget, though much of it ends up in the pockets of hyper-wealthy landowners like vacuum-cleaner magnate James Dyson, giant agri-food industry multinationals and supermarket profits.
As one would expect, Gove has been lobbied hard by the farmers unions - who are unions in name only. The leading lobbyist is the National Farmers Union - the NFU. The NFU has become accustomed to having the final say over agriculture policy in England, at least, for the past 70 odd years. Farm Ministers and their advisors have usually risen from the ranks of the NFU into political life, and naturally pick up the phone to chat through the latest threat or opportunity with their friends in the NFU. This is extremely cosy arrangement which has effectively excluded all other voices from any debates around food production; and its environmental and social impact.
The NFU is the very definition of a vested interest. This time last year I wrote about how farming and field sports organisations have undue access to Defra Ministers. The NFU and other farming unions are still regularly meeting with Defra ministers - and Farming Minister George Eustice is very cosy with the NFU. Eustice was a lobbyist at Portland (a major lobbying firm) before becoming an MP and the NFU use Portland to lobby MPs on its behalf.
The NFU confirmed this position as the Vested Interest, via an opinion piece by newly appointed NFU deputy president Guy Smith in the farming press. Smith opined that the current public consultation on the future of farming would be without value because the consultation would “drown in the avalanche of the responses it has encouraged.”
Smith’s view is that these things should be left to the experts - the farmers - and the views of “armchair experts” should be ignored. Smith picked out reports by the Pesticide Action Network and WWF for his opprobrium, while taking a pre-emptive side-swipe at RSPB and the RSPCA. After all, what could the RSPB tell him about farmland birds that he did not already know? And what has the RSPCA done to improve farm animal welfare, that the NFU would not have done without them.
Of course, both RSPB and RSPCA, alongside far smaller campaigning groups like the Pesticide Action Network, have successfully lobbied for changes to farming policy and practice, but it has been a long, hard slog, in the face of determined opposition from the NFU. Imagine how much more progress would have been made, and how much more quickly, without the NFU’s vested interests constantly blocking such progress.
Now Mr Gove (and those who presumably have his approval to speak for him) - notably the Goldsmith brothers Zac and Ben - have become increasingly vocal, echoing Gove’s previous sentiments about experts from organisations with acronyms. Shortly after Smith’s piece, Zac Goldsmith, at the launch of a Landworkers Alliance film, commented that the NFU has had “privileged access to Government” and “stood up for vested interests”. Goldsmith further commented that Gove “does not like vested interests.”
Last week I attended a consultation event to discuss the proposals for a new farm policy, where Michael Gove spoke. He spoke off the cuff, eloquently and with passion. He talked about challenging the vested interests - those who have the “money, influence and power to imprint their views on the public.” And he implored the organisations present at the event to marshal their forces and to get as many people as possible to respond to the consultation, to “show people’s opinions matter, and vested interests don’t win out.”
In truth, the consultation itself is woolly and some of the questions are poorly worded. But the important point is that people respond to it, so that Secretary of State Gove can go to his cabinet colleagues and argue that the people really have spoken. And he can go to the Treasury and argue that money really does need to be spent to help farmers produce high quality food in a way that minimises its impact on the environment.
If you would like to submit a response to the consultation, the excellent food/farming campaigning organisation Sustain has an e-action, which is very straightforward. For something slightly more tailored try this one by the RSPB.
And if you care about where your food comes from and how it is produced, then take this once in a lifetime opportunity to have your say, about how farmers are supported in the future.
Miles King is an Ecologist, founder of People Need Nature and a regular columnist for Lush Times. These are his own views. Follow him on Twitter @Milesking10