There is a great deal of angst amid the farming community in the UK about the contents of a free trade deal between the newly independent United Kingdom and Australia. Lurid pictures are being painted of the UK industry being seriously harmed (farming organisations have used the word “destroyed”) by a flood of cheap and unfair food imports into the country, from the “giant corporates” that run Australian agriculture.
Despite numerous assurances being given by the government, farmers, or at least their representative organisations, are convinced that they are being sold down the river as the UK scrambles to cobble together a deal that will further demonstrate the country’s ability to prosper, without the stifling regulatory umbrella of Brussels.
There is such a thing as “getting your retaliation in first” as the parties are still talking. And it is also a fact that there is understandable nervousness about the industry being cut off from all the financial comforts that flowed from the European agriculture policies and access to European markets. Curiously, there was less concern expressed about the cheap goods that were being produced by Eastern European farmers who were undercutting those domestic producers. So the arguments are probably as much political as practical, leavened with the not unreasonable assertion that “Westminster does not understand rural matters”.
“It was this industry in both nations that had grown over more than a century to serve as Britain’s ‘larder’, but which would henceforth have to re-adjust to the EU’s tariff walls strengthened against them.”
If one is a certain age, you can probably remember very similar arguments, but as it were, reversed, as the UK geared up to join the European Union all those years ago. And it is also worth recalling that as Britain took this drastic and ultimately doomed – some might say treacherous – step, the vast majority of agricultural exports from both Australia and New Zealand were shipped off to the UK. Somehow, despite the journey to take that meat, dairy and fruit to market being some 12,000 miles, producers down under did not regard themselves as suffering any particular unfairness. There were not, as I recall, any sense of grievance among British farmers at the commonwealth imports. It also kept some 120/130 fine British cargo liners in full-time employment.
It was the Australian and New Zealand farmers who were indeed “sold down the river” as Mr Heath’s government in London grovelled to comply with the demands of the negotiators in Brussels over the entry terms to the “Common Market”. It was this industry in both nations that had grown over more than a century to serve as Britain’s “larder”, but which would henceforth have to re-adjust to the EU’s tariff walls strengthened against them. From a situation where there was no doubt as to where what they produced would be consumed, the producers would have to discover and develop new markets elsewhere in the world, as their access to Europe was, rather too speedily, phased out.
The boot, it might be thought, is now on the other foot.
“It spelt the end of those fine fleets of British cargo liners and the sight of the Red Ensign in Australian and New Zealand ports, collateral damage as the UK re-aligned its trade to its nearest neighbours.”
During the late 1970s and 80s, I can remember visiting those charged with finding these new markets in both countries down under and my admiration at their strenuous efforts to sell their products to places where there was no history whatever of market penetration. It was very hard going, and all the while their agricultural producers were suffering terribly. We had farmers in the family in New Zealand, who, over just a short few years, had gone from being very prosperous, to really struggling to make a living. I remember travelling around with one for a day trying to source second-hard truck tyres, as he couldn’t afford to buy new.
I recall talking to someone in Wellington trying to convince the Chinese to eat more lamb, another charged with sourcing a new market from a national wool clip that no longer could be shipped to Yorkshire. There was even somebody whose job was to try and persuade Chinese children to eat an Australian apple every day. In the end, they succeeded and these people can be very proud of what they had done as their business world changed so drastically.
In the long term, people might well say that the change taught farmers down under to “stand on their own feet” and reform their industry. But it was awful for those involved, while it was all happening. And along with containerisation and its phenomenal costs, it spelt the end of those fine fleets of British cargo liners and the sight of the Red Ensign in Australian and New Zealand ports, collateral damage as the UK re-aligned its trade to its nearest neighbours.
I also remembered those conversations about the struggle for new markets, as the New Zealand government was taking a lot of flak for their recent refusal to criticise China for their human rights record. It is worth, I thought, remembering those desperate efforts in New Zealand to cultivate the Chinese market and who exactly had forced them down that road as the UK signed away its freedom and forgot its cousins on the other side of the world.
Maritime industry legend, and former long-term editor of Lloyds List, Michael Grey kicks off each month with topical issues affecting the maritime world at large.