Outrage Farming

What led the Prime Minister to join a protest against his own government’s policies?

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 28th February 2024

Step back a pace to see how weird this is. Last week, the prime minister of the United Kingdom joined a protest against one of the UK’s four governments. Farmers had obstructed a road in Llandudno with their tractors to demonstrate against the Welsh government’s attempts to meet its environmental obligations under UK law. The policies the protesters were attacking are similar to the policies Rishi Sunak’s government has introduced for England. The main difference is that in Wales, the offer for farmers is better – with more consistent payments and a smoother transition from the old system.

Sunak leads a government that has introduced the most draconian anti-protest laws in our democratic history. These laws are deployed exclusively against official enemies: environmental campaigners, republicans, feminists, Muslims. If you belong to one of these groups and you block a road, you might go to prison. If you are a farmer and you block a road, the prime minister might join you.

The protest the prime minister attended displayed the banners of No Farmers, No Food, a group convened by a notorious conspiracy theorist, James Melville. He has promoted many of the usual rightwing fictions: claiming that 15-minute cities create urban prisons; falsely downplaying the impacts of Covid-19; pushing anti-vax messages to the point of absurdity; and evenappearing to fall for a deliberately planted falsehood, designed to trap thoughtless conspiracy theorists.

He inveighs against the measures required to prevent climate breakdown – with one exception. Last December he argued that instead of changing anyone’s lives, we should plant “billions” of trees. As if to show how cynical his new campaign is, No Farmers, No Food promotes attacks on the Welsh government’s efforts to plant more trees.

No Farmers, No Food has also been pushing standard conspiracy fictions. It has become catnip for the global far right, some of whose leading figures have lent their support. Do farmers really want to be represented by this organisation?

Farmers in the UK have genuine grievances. In many cases they receive a tiny share, or none at all, of the profits from the sale of food, which tend to be captured by supermarkets and processors such as flour mills. These buyers also impose absurdly tight standards, which have nothing to do with food quality and everything to do with their own convenience. Farmers are also right to contest the one-sided trade deals with Australia and New Zealand that Liz Truss rushed through at breakneck speed, so she could have something to boast about at the G7 summit in 2021.

But these were not the main focus of Friday’s protest in Llandudno and the much bigger one in Cardiff today. These demonstrations are aimed at the Welsh government’s attempts to green farming. Or, to be more precise, at a fictitious story about its efforts to do so.

Perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of this campaign is that the Welsh government’s consultation paper already proposes to meet all but one of the protesting farmers’ demands. The single exception is the protesters’ insistence that the badger cull is resumed, to stop bovine TB: a policy that has repeatedly been shown to make the problem worse.

The consultation, at great length and with unprecedented care, was co-designed with farmers. It has been shaped around the sector’s demands. Even before the current paper, which has responded to yet more feedback, the government’s proposals enjoyed widespread support among farmers.

The only gap in the plans is the exact amount of money farmers will receive. But this is out of the Welsh government’s hands. It’s waiting on the Westminster spending review. Who controls the spending review? Ah yes, Rishi Sunak, who told the protesters on Friday: “It’s absolutely not right, the impact it will have on your jobs, your livelihoods, your incomes and food production around the country.”

Neither Sunak nor the other protesters show any sign of having read the proposals they’re complaining about. The current protests are uninformed, reactive, misleading and a waste of farmers’ energy and attention. But for culture war entrepreneurs and the far right, they’re paydirt. Real farmers are being played by outrage farmers.

Those of us who have read the consultation can see that the Welsh government isn’t forcing farmers to do anything. It is simply proposing changes to the subsidy system. Instead of subsidising ongoing destruction, as the EU’s terrible policies did (escaping the Common Agricultural Policy is the one genuine benefit of Brexit), it applies a basic principle, also endorsed by the Westminster government: public money should deliver public goods. None of the conditions it proposes to attach to farm subsidies are unreasonable; all can help to improve the viability and resilience of farm businesses.

In fact, the proposed measures have the opposite problem: they are woefully unmatched to the scale of the environmental challenge we face. No Farmers, No Food might deny it, but we are in the midst of a climate emergency. The most prominent figures in the current protest movements are Welsh sheep farmers. I don’t blame them for it but, with the possible exception of scallop dredging, sheep farming in the UK has the highest ratio of destruction to production of any food business in Europe. It produces a very small amount of lamb and mutton, yet, because sheep selectively browse out tree seedlings, it keeps some 4m hectares of our hills deforested. That’s similar to the total area used to grow cropshere. In the uplands, the situation could be summarised as “Lots of Farming, Little Food”.

Sheep farmers I’ve met who have joined these protests talk a lot about “the treeline”. But there is nowhere in Wales too high for trees to grow. Britain’s western hills would, in the absence of sheep, be largely clothed with temperate rainforest, one of the richest and rarest habitats in Europe. This environmental disaster has been created by subsidies: sheep farming otherwise makes a loss. It is taxpayer-funded destruction on an industrial scale. The Welsh government’s proposals do little to address this catastrophe.

We all have a right to be heard on this issue: there should be no taxation without representation. But in setting farm policy, all four governments of the United Kingdom tend to listen almost exclusively to farmers. Even this, the protesters insist, is not enough. Their message to us is, in effect, “give us your money, with no strings attached”.

Joining these protests, Rishi Sunak is yet another opportunist seizing his chance, using fake grievances to distract attention from real injustices. But this one, God help us, is our prime minister.