Michael Gove’s speech this morning on his plan for a ‘Green Brexit’ is one of the first signs of what he is up to in his new role as Defra secretary. It was always a given that he would stir things up, but it remained to be seen whether his Brexit plan would be judged as a good thing or a bad thing by British famers and rural communities. So what did this morning’s speech deliver? Well, when it comes to farming, the answer is far more questions than it did answers.
Of course, this was a speech to various environmental groups at the World Wildlife Fund’s headquarters, so it’s unsurprising that Gove used the opportunity to give a speech that would please his audience. He did touch on farming, though. The main point that many papers jumped on is that farm subsidies will have to be ‘earned’. Gove argues that ‘support [for agriculture] can only be argued for against other competing public goods if the environmental benefits of that spending are clear.’ That means encouraging tree planting and ‘woodland creation’, and support for land owners who ‘cultivate and protect the range of habitats which will encourage diversity’.
How will that work in reality? There’s no clear policy to underpin his ideas – so we’re left on tenterhooks. As Ross Clark points out, if landowners are rewarded simply for planting lots of trees and leaving meadows and marshland to be wild, then surely it is the large landowners – rather than small-scale farmers who actually need the money and don’t have as much space – who will receive the most funding? And that, after all, is Gove’s main issue with CAP – that it gives money to those who need it least, as well as encouraging ‘wasteful’ patterns of land use.
One of the main criticisms of Gove in his role as Education Secretary was that he didn’t listen to teachers or those with more experience than him. In today’s speech, he states that one of his reasons for abolishing CAP is because ‘it is farmers themselves who most want the CAP to change’. Of course, this depends on what replaces it, and whether the new system is better than what existed before.
It was quite clear from his speech today that his emotions are often at the forefront when he forms his opinions – or at least have been so far. In the past, he has been clear that the reason he was so keen to abolish the Common Fisheries Policy was that the policy led to the closure of his father’s company. And lo and behold, one of his first moves at Defra was to ‘take back control’ of British waters. His speech today focused on the romantic too; he spoke of spending ‘weekends in the hills and weekdays with my head in Wordsworth and Hardy’. But despite that, I do think he understands the important role that farming plays in all of this. When it comes to the uplands – which the most devout environmentalists would like to rid of sheep and ‘rewild’ instead – he states that ‘support for farmers in areas like the Lake District, upland Wales or the Scottish borders is critical to keeping our countryside healthy.’
Was this a positive speech for British farming? It’s hard to say but, potentially. Perhaps not for the larger landowners; but it does sound as if Gove is on the side of small farmers and the British farming industry as a whole. At an NFU event in June he made his support for British farming clear, saying ‘there are no group of people dedicated to higher quality produce that British farmers. There’s no group of people dedicated to high environmental standards and high animal welfare standards, than British farmers’. Can we take his word for it? He is a politician, after all. But at least the signs aren’t entirely negative.