A slightly edited version published in Farmer’s Weekly on September 7, 2016.
It is emblematic that on the day after the EU referendum, Donald Trump (perhaps the next president of the United States) was in Scotland, inaugurating his controversial new golf resort. Oblivious to the country around him which had just voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU, Trump congratulated his audience on their new independence.
Yet, he was not speaking to the common people of Britain (much less to Scotland, trapped, along with Wales, in the Brexit scenario), but those in his audience, the new placeholders of aristocracy – wealthy investors, media moguls, business leaders and others set free from EU barriers to land ownership, property development, tourism and speculation.
The EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) has been the greatest barrier to a collapse in the UK property market. The CAP is concerned with market stability, tariff-free trade in the EU and farmer livelihoods. It consists primarily in a subsidisation of farmer incomes through direct payments. It is well-known that most farmers make a loss on their operations and would not otherwise be able to continue without the subsidy. As the tendency toward losses is primarily due to the downward pressure on prices from supermarket competition and its monopoly on distribution, the farmer’s subsidy is in many ways a backdoor subsidy for the retail and food processing industries.
With the elimination of the CAP, these subsidies will disappear and it is possible that they will either not be replaced or will be phased out in the near term. The CAP has tended to maintain the status quo, not only protecting member states within the single market and in international trade deals, but also preserving the operations of loss-making farms. The IMF, which Angela Merkel brought in to manage the Eurozone, has been pushing its 188 international members to quickly reduce or eliminate farming subsidies, a policy shift at odds with the pace of EU policy. The UK could decide to weather the storm of a radical re-adjustment in the structure of land ownership, especially in agriculture where it would become a corporate affair.
It is very likely that the watch word in the UK under Theresa May will be ‘liberalisation’ and the new policy – like Thatcher’s drive for homeownership – will be spun as a progressive step toward equality and opportunity. Trump’s resort will become a symbol for the democratisation of land. It is not clear if agriculture will remain a devolved matter, but a crash in the property market could be little resisted by Scotland and Wales.
Without subsidies – much less a policy limiting the power of retail corporations – many farmers will quickly lose their holdings, close down operations, and place their land on the market. With a sudden glut of land, much owned by banks, land prices will plummet. Such a neo-liberal jolt will lead to a crash in the property market and disruption in the wider economy. We have already had a taste of this eventuality since the referendum, with the suspension of trading in the UK property market as international subscribers continue to seek an exit from the market. Many will remember the years of negative equity, the product of Thatcher’s own neo-liberal approach to the housing market. EU policy, admittedly conservative in nature, does maintain stability in markets and land values.
The liberalising scenario will see instead a reduction in the amount of land in agriculture, fewer and larger holdings, further intensification of agricultural practise and the introduction of technology at an unprecedented scale. With the end of the CAP, moreover, incentives for environmental conservation will disappear and land shifted from agriculture will become available for fracking and strip mining.
The glut of land will be consumed by the international market at discount. Average citizens will not benefit from the fall in prices due to generalised economic insecurity. Rapid development will begin to occur in the new countryside: luxury suburbs, tourism, retail, low-income suburbs and agri-business. In this scenario, there will be no democratisation of land or progressive shift toward great equality in landownership – indeed the reverse, as a new enclosure movement locks out even more citizens from any access to land.
Former farmers and their children will have little other choice than to work for the new corporate farms or tourist facilities. The physical and cultural landscapes of Britain will likely change beyond recognition, reduced to tourist clichés at golf resorts of a green and pleasant land. The US long ago said goodbye to the family farm and its food production is run on corporate and industrial lines by multi-national firms, including Monsanto. Such a tendency is more pronounced in England, but serious challenges will be faced by Wales and Scotland when the subsidies expire. Entire industries and ways of life may disappear.
Such a scenario is not an unlikely picture of the future development of the United Kingdom –but a neo-liberal shock to the property market and a radical restructuring of agriculture was always unlikely within the context of the EU. Yet, given the predilection of the current government for privatisation and liberalisation, it is very likely that public intervention in agriculture will come to an end.
We must be clear that such a dystopia need not happen. In the first instance, the UK did not have to leave the EU. Nevertheless, given that eventuality, the UK could develop its own supportive agricultural policies, creating a new settlement for farmers and communities. Indeed, a truly progressive programme for the post-Brexit countryside is necessary: land reform, environmental sustainability and a green, diversified and prosperous agriculture. A progressive countryside policy must be the response to ‘liberalisation,’ a confusing word that simply means the corporate control of land and resources.
The daunting prospect of agricultural transformation and land liberalisation draws clear lines in the post-Brexit political landscape. Resistance to the new corporate countryside will become the rallying cry of farmers, conservationists, land reform and labour advocates, housing activists, greens and many others. The central issues remain the democratisation of land, community land ownership, countryside protection, environmental sustainability, and the support of farmers and traditional and regionally significance industries. Those fighting privatisation and attacks on the public realm in other sectors, many in the cities, will take notice of the countryside, standing together with farmers to resist the corporate takeover of rural Britain.