Food, the UK and Brexit: an even messier reprise of Corn Laws politics?

We see Liam Fox warming up a US-UK trade deal, while Michael Gove assures consumers that animal welfare and food quality standards are safe in his hands. This doesn’t add up.

Tim Lang
26 July 2017
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A meeting of the Anti-Corn Law League in Exeter Hall in 1846. Wikicommons. Public domain.If Brexit is supposed to improve Britain, then it must do so for food.  In astonishing arrogance or myopia, British politicians collectively ignored food in the run-up to the 2016 Referendum, other than to draw upon decades of pillorying the Common Agricultural Policy to knock the EU and, in the Tories’ case, to promise to continue CAP farm subsidies till 2020 (now extended to 2022). If Brexit is supposed to improve Britain, then it must do so for food. 

Anyone would think farmers feed people! Actually farming is already a small, shrinking but noisy sector of the UK food system. It makes up only 8% of the value added by the whole UK food supply chain. Manufacturing, Retailing and Catering make up over three times more each. But food is what the 65 million Brits eat every day, £203 bn’s worth a year. We get 31% of our food from within the EU, a fact which seemed to elude politicians as they vied for votes. And the food trade gap is massive. We import over £42bn’s worth and export £20bn. In come fresh fruit and veg. – out go soft drinks, (and whisky) and biscuits. Not a great health exchange!

To exit the EU without any food plans or national debate could be an act of monumental stupidity, unless there is a Plan B no-one told us about or the idea was to get food from somewhere else or just leave it to the food industry to sort out. I suspect a mix of these, not least since the Tory Government and Party – like Labour – are fundamentally split about what they want. One faultline is Europeanisation vs McDonalidisation. That’s why we now see Liam Fox warming up a US-UK trade deal (the US mass agri-food industry is salivating) while Michael Gove is assuring consumers that animal welfare and food quality standards are safe in his hands. This doesn’t add up.

As we know, the whole Brexit issue is an argument about Progress and, since it is in power, the Right’s vision for British capitalism. Alas, some of the faultlines now emerging amidst the chaos, divisions and drift have echoes with the past. A failure to consult the public. Dishonesty.  Plus genuine political differences: mercantilism (protected food supplies), neo-imperialism (get others to feed us), nationalism (grow more here), all cut through by the new politics of ecosystems and health. The gods spare us, if the UK seeks to emulate the diet-related ill-health of US citizens on low incomes, where obesity is rampant without the healthcare. The gods spare us if the UK seeks to emulate the diet-related ill-health of US citizens on low incomes, where obesity is rampant without the healthcare.

The bad news about Food Brexit is that this is all coming upon us in pressurised and dramatic ways. The food industry is more worried by a Food Brexit than it has been by anything for years. It is massively reliant on EU migrant labour for ‘British’ food. An entire system of supply, infrastructure, taste, cost, and standards is to be swept away in 19 months’ time, as colleagues and I show in our new report on Food Brexit, the first comprehensive overview of what’s at stake.  

Food is a bellwether of progress. If the supply or the quality of our food is damaged by Brexit, those responsible for those failures will deserve to pay a high price. The most immediate issue is food prices, which have direct impact on consumption, and are already rising in a time of stagnant wages. Some Tories simply want us to source from wherever is cheapest. China? India? Tory MP Jakob Rees-Mogg has even mused about the case for getting our food standards to be closer to India’s. He’ll regret he said that, I suspect. Cheap food, low standards is risky politics.

Corn Laws revisited

The British have become accustomed to cheap food.  This assumption has gradually been hard-wired into British food culture since the early nineteenth century, due to a 30-year political battle over what were known as the Corn Laws. Beginning in 1815, these imposed duties on imported food, thus protecting UK farmers from external competition, and keeping food prices high. They were enacted blatantly to suit the UK landed class.

But the UK was in the process of industrialising and democratising its Parliament. The widening of the voting franchise really began with the Great Reform Act of 1832; became more serious (but still inadequate) with the Second Reform Act of 1867; and was only resolved with full one-person-one-vote rights in the twentieth century.

Compared to that century-long march for political democracy, the 30-year fight over the Corn Laws seems positively speedy, but its consequences are once again resurfacing. The 1846 Repeal of the Corn Laws set the seal on what is known as Britain’s desire for a ‘cheap food policy’. In the early decades of the nineteenth century, Britain’s rural population was leaving the land and becoming the urban working class. For 30 years, culminating in the 1846 Repeal of the Corn Laws, political arguments raged about cheap versus expensive foods, the role of food in setting wage levels, the political risks of what we’d now call ‘food security’. Above all, which class interest would drive British capitalism: old aristocracy or new industrialists? The people were excluded but getting noisy; demands for voting franchise were building up. Which class interest would drive British capitalism: old aristocracy or new industrialists?

Fresh from naval and land victories in the Napoleonic Wars and in the process of massive colonisation and expropriation, the UK Parliament in the end took the momentous decision to repeal the tariffs. A slow process began of abandoning domestic farming, and instead importing food from within the Empire, whichever country offered it most cheaply.

Taking back control

It was not until the two world wars of the twentieth century shook this political complacency that governments again reviewed the UK’s food security policy. And by then there had been a furious battle over legal restrictions on food adulteration and poor quality, not sorted till the 1890s. Reluctantly in World War 1, and then in desperation in World War 2, the UK relearned what other rich countries had not ‘unlearned’ – that it makes sense to retain a sound food production base. That’s why the UK set up its own agricultural policy in 1947, under Labour, a system of farm support which served the same purpose as what the Common Market created a decade later with the Common Agricultural Policy – security for farming to produce food at home.

Negotiating to join the EU in 1967-73 switched subsidy systems but with shared intent. It meant abandoning the relics of Empire which had fed industrialising Britain in the nineteenth century: Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and the looser historical food links such as with Latin America or the Baltic.

Joining the Common Market coincided with a revolution in the food system: more processed foods, supermarketisation, cafés, taste changes, rises in diet-related disease (most recently obesity and diabetes) and thus huge externalised healthcare and environmental costs. Aspects of these changes have been felt everywhere, first in the western rich world and now even in low and middle income countries. This has delivered a situation the proponents of ‘cheap food’ never dreamed of, a flood of what nutritionists now call ‘ultra-processed’ foods, unnecessarily high in fat, salt and sugar – the opposite of the Mediterranean diet.

In a class-divided society such as the UK, we can be saddened but not surprised that British people on low incomes spend proportionately more of their disposable incomes on food than do the rich. The money spent on food in the UK has grown in absolute terms, while in relative terms food expenditure as a proportion of disposable incomes has fallen. This has been the success of both the EU and before that the UK’s 1947 Agriculture Act which in effect repealed the 1846 Repeal of the Corn Laws and committed the UK to taking measures to stabilise food supplies and prices.

Those policy shifts took over a century, two world wars and a recession. Food Brexit today is being rushed upon us in less than two years, without debate, and reigniting old debates about cheapness, quality and sources.  The Corn Laws debate lasted 30 years and split the Tory Party. The UK then had a navy to protect its supply chains. Today, we have just 77 ships, compared with the hundreds in 1939, not that anyone officially anticipates World War 3 when long routes would again be problematic, of course.

Amidst its current concerns, it is essential that the UK Government is held to account. We need a clear and explicit commitment to ensuring a sufficient, sustainable, safe and equitable supply of food, with realistic plans for how this will be achieved when and if the UK is no longer in the EU.

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