Magazine article The Spectator

The Cap Doesn't Fit Our Countryside

Magazine article The Spectator

The Cap Doesn't Fit Our Countryside

Article excerpt

I WAS brought up believing that soil was a greyish, dusty colour with lots of little gritty bits in it. That is because our house was one of those tiny terraced back-to-backs in a district of Cardiff with the unlikely name of Splott, and the garden was a little yard where the ashes from the fire and the soot from the chimney were dumped. There was room for a row of runner beans, which grew surprisingly well, and a patch of mint, which grew even better. In fact, it produced a useful income; I sold little bunches door-to-door for threepence a time.

No doubt if I were still pursuing that modest enterprise I'd be able to increase my income by claiming subsidies from the CAP. My neighbours, who grew no beans and mint but only weeds, would probably be able to claim set-aside grants.

Those were the days when CAP was scarcely a gleam in the bureaucrats' eyes, but it seemed a promising infant when Brussels finally gave birth. Here was the answer to Europe's postwar food shortage: guaranteed prices and subsidies to encourage our farmers into ever greater productivity. If we had known then what we know now, we should have strangled the blasted thing with its own umbilical cord.

Certainly, the farmers of Europe produced more food - and how. The aircraft hangars burst their sides with subsidised grain, the wine lakes overflowed and the butter mountains crammed the cold stores. But the CAP also set in train the destruction of great swathes of our once glorious countryside. Perhaps if I had settled for dealing in mint and stayed a city boy, I would have remained happily ignorant of its devastating effect. Instead, bored with the life of a foreign correspondent and the endless nights in lookalike foreign hotels, I bought a farm of my own. I plead guilty to the charge of naivety.

All I can say in my own defence is that it seemed like a good idea at the time. I had enjoyed watching the beans and the mint grow in that minuscule patch of dirt in Cardiff; surely my joy would be multiplied a thousandfold when I had many rolling acres of good, brown soil to grow grass and grain to feed my cows. So it did, for a while at least.

I had no money, of course. You can't pay a manager and a herdsman with the proceeds from 134 steepish acres and turn a profit. Nor did I really expect to. But then the man from the ministry came along and told me I was going wrong. I had to expand: build more buildings; buy more cows; increase the yield. There was, after all, a guaranteed market for all the milk one could produce. So I did just as the man said. And, sure enough, the yield increased and the cheque grew fatter. Then the man from the ministry came back. Things had changed in Brussels. Europe was producing too much milk. Quotas were being introduced. Because my yield had increased only recently, I would have to cut back.

No doubt if I had been a French farmer the man from the ministry would have given me an old-fashioned look and a Gallic shrug and implied that if I broke the rules just a little, well . . . who's to know or care? But this is Britain and we do not break the rules. And the reality is that for most farmers in Britain since we joined the Common Market all those years ago the rules have been good. Good for farmers, but not good for the countryside.

It's odd how it often takes a foreigner to spot what is happening in one's own country; probably because we take for granted our own glories and stop noticing the changes. …

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