Worst trade union of the year award: a Small Farm Future special

The year, I know, is scarce begun, and yet already I feel able to offer you three strong contenders for this new annual award from the small farm future stable, culled from my recent trip to the Oxford Real Farming Conference.

Now, trade unionism gets a bad press these days, and I have to admit that for all its associations with progressive leftism, the movement has mined a rich historic seam of small-minded conservatism and unenlightened self-interest. Still, you only have to look at what happens in the absence of trade unions to appreciate their importance – for example, in food journalist Felicity Lawrence’s sobering reports about the criminal exploitation of migrant labour in British agriculture. Or, talking of mining as I just was, an example from my own family history: my great grandfather, killed with sixty other men by a methane explosion in a Yorkshire pit during the pre-unionised days of the late 19th century. The mining company stopped his pay at the moment of his death. My grandmother said it was only the Salvation Army that kept her widowed mother from penury.

For all the demonization of the traditional working-class trade unions, it’s the white collar unions – the British Medical Associations and Law Societies of this world – who really put the ‘con’ into trade union conservatism. But perhaps the recent, narrowly-averted strike by junior doctors signals another step along the slow path of middle-class proletarianization being worked even upon the medical profession by the magic of neoliberal capitalism. The really powerful trade unions now left after the eclipse of blue and white collar power are not really ‘trade’ unions at all, but organisations that shore up landownership and the forms of cultural and social capital through which privilege is quietly reproduced. I was grateful to get a window into their world in and around my time at the ORFC.

And so, without further ado, I now present to you my shortlist for the worst trade union in the world award. First up, let’s hear it for the Duchy of Cornwall, as represented at the ORFC by its Secretary, Mr Alastair Martin. If you’re not up on your British constitutional history, the Duchy was founded by Edward III in 1337 to provide an income to his son and heir. And it’s still doing the business 700 years later for the present heir to the throne, Prince Charles, and six other members of his immediate family, in the form of a 135,000 acre portfolio of prime British real estate, mostly west country farmland.

Now I must admit, apparently unlike the majority of my fellow Brits I’ve never had much time for the royal family. Parasites. Feudal relics. All that bowing, scraping and toadying. Please. Still, despite his dodgy letters to the government, I suppose I’ve had a bit of a soft spot for Charles, whose heart seems to be in the right place on various matters and who enjoys something of a reputation as a do-gooder. So it was salutary to be reminded by Mr Martin that the primary purpose of the Duchy is to furnish its incumbent with cold, hard cash.

Well, fair play to the man – as an advocate of agrarian proprietorship I have no problem at all with the idea of furnishing the necessities of life from a piece of land. But, as an egalitarian-minded one, I do have a bit of a problem if those pieces of land are distributed too unevenly. I mean, I don’t want to go overboard – I don’t subscribe to the notion that everybody always has to have exactly the same. So, for the sake of argument, let’s say that a reasonable distribution would allocate no more than nine times more resources to the richest than the poorest. And let’s further assume that – as a result of his obviously superior intelligence, charm and good looks – Charles takes his rightful place in the upper echelons of this hierarchy, with the remainder of these fair isles allocated to its 64 million populace according to a rough bell curve, such that the richest 4% of the population, like Charles, each have a Duchy of Cornwall sized 135,000 acres to play with, whereas the poorest 4% have to scrape by with a measly 15,000 acres each. As pragmatic a compromise between modest egalitarianism and the natural differentiation of the human tribe as one could possibly imagine, don’t you think? And, on that basis, a few simple calculations reveal that the British populace would require something a little shy of 3 trillion square kilometres of land for their lebensraum – or around 21 times more than the entire land surface of the planet.

Get outta here, Charles – you’re a leech on the face of the earth.

Mr Martin made the further point that much of the Duchy’s land was farmed by tenants who could concentrate on the business of farming without the troublesome burden of landownership weighing on their minds – a liberation that he considered made them more efficient. But I’d venture to reframe his point thus: if you have no secure tenure to fall back on you’ll probably try to maximise your short-term income any darned way you can. And that, in a single sentence, pretty much encapsulates the emergence of capitalism, which arguably started right here in merrie England for exactly that reason – converting secure customary tenures into short-term fiscal leases created an upwards ratchet upon agricultural output. The rest, as they say, is history – and not one that ultimately turned out too well for the power of the monarchy and the wider aristocracy. And yet here they still are, the royal duchies and all the rest, owning land all over the place – a trade union of undeserving landowners. Parasites, as I said earlier. Feudal relics.

Next up, the National Farmers’ Union, as represented at the ORFC by Guy Smith, NFU vice-president. I’ve got to tip my hat to Mr Smith for straying from the safety of the Oxford Farming Conference across the road and daring to enter the lion’s den of the Oxford Real Farming Conference where he was given a predictably rough reception. To adopt a cricketing metaphor, when a batsman is facing a hostile attack it’s best to keep it simple, which was perhaps what was on Mr Smith’s mind as he dead batted every question like Faf du Plessis weathering an over of Moeen Ali teasers. Whereas Faf’s defensive measure of choice is a forward prod to silly mid-off, Mr Smith protected his stumps with the heavy bat of consumer demand, arguing that while there may indeed be many things wrong with the food and farming system, there’s nothing that farmers can do about them and there’s no alternative but to give the consumer exactly what s/he wants. Presumably the NFU policy favouring maize silage for anaerobic digestion emerges from this same public clamour. Certainly, the last time I was abroad on my local high street I heard shoppers talk of little else.

‘Consumer demand’ seems to be a clinching gambit for a lot of people these days about the sad reality of the way the world is, regardless of our fondest wishes. It’s not one that I personally find very convincing for several reasons that perhaps I’ll spell out in another post – but more importantly for my present purposes it’s surely not one that any self-respecting trade unionist should find convincing. How would it sound if a trade unionist said “sure, we’d all like safer working conditions in this mine/higher wages in this factory etc. but consumer demand being what it is the market will never bear it”. The whole point of being a trade unionist is that you organise politically in order to change what the market will bear in the direction of your favoured policies. I’m not the first to suggest that supposedly ‘free’ markets are essentially creations of monopoly capital working in concert with the state in support of the former’s interests (as George Monbiot likes to point out, you can tell a lot from the fact that DEFRA is headquartered at 17 Smith Square, and the NFU at 16 Smith Square). Nor am I the first to suggest that the NFU basically represents the interests of larger scale, wealthier farmers. I get the sense of a powerful and exclusive trade union busily organising in its members’ interests not to change the market in order to preserve policies which suit it very well. Helplessness in the face of consumer demand is a veil of economic power.

Some of Mr Smith’s other remarks were equally informative. Against the charge that contemporary farming practices were damaging soil he referenced Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath and the US dustbowl. The extent to which the dustbowl really was a result of farming practices is debatable, but let’s just go with the logic of Mr Smith’s position – farmers have been wrecking soils for at least 80 years, so why should anyone start caring now? Finally, Mr Smith mentioned his pride in the barn owls living on his farm, and reckoned that the government ought to pay him £500,000 for each one. Er, why? I’ve always done my best to counter the crude and unfair stereotype of the farmer as subsidy-junky, but you’re not helping Mr Smith, you’re really not helping…

The third and final contender is Oxford University – well, let’s extend it to Cambridge University too. As I walked among the university’s dreaming spires in the course of the conference, various among the younger generation within my extended family were waiting to hear whether they’d received an offer to study there. The key variable for success, as it proved, was whether they’d received a private education. And it doesn’t just apply to my family – only 7% of people in Britain are privately educated, whereas 44% of Oxford’s students are. It seems an Oxbridge education unlocks the door to the upper echelons of public and private sector power in the UK: only 1% of the UK public is educated there, but its graduates comprise 75% of senior judges, 59% of cabinet ministers, 57% of permanent secretaries, 50% of diplomats, 47% of newspaper columnists, 44% of public body chairs and 33% of BBC executives. Talk about a closed trade union shop…

And the winner is: Hold your horses, hold your horses. In true awards ceremony style I’m going to keep you on tenterhooks by handing out the runner-up prize first. And that prize goes to…Oxford and Cambridge universities. Unquestionably a cancer within British society which narrows the perspective and the representativeness of key institutions and builds an inherent conservatism into them, nevertheless I have to concede that these universities do leave the door of their closed shop oh so very slightly ajar to new blood from the lumpen masses. True, it’s mostly window dressing…but there’s good research being done by good people at these places. And so I’m happy to concede that they’re the best of the bad bunch on show here.

We now come to the gold and silver positions. At first I was minded to award the gold to Mr Smith. After all, Oxbridge and the Duchy of Cornwall are only doing what comes naturally to them – defending inherited privilege, just as they’ve always done. But you, Mr Smith, are a trade unionist. You’re supposed to be representing farmers. Perhaps you’re even supposed to be representing agriculture. Why not offer an enlightened vision of the role it can play in delivering a just and sustainable world, instead of hiding behind the false god of consumer demand in order to promote a self-serving conservative agenda?

But on reflection I’ve decided that Mr Smith only merits silver…probably. Because if there’s one single thing that stands in the way of that just and sustainable agrarian future it’s the structure of landownership in this country, and the near impossibility for most people of owning what the great Dick Gaughan calls one handful of earth. To be fair, aristocratic landownership is only one part of the problem, but it’s emblematic of the pernicious death grip that money and privilege always have over real estate. That grip needs to be loosened before there’s the remotest possibility of achieving the small farm future that I believe is needed to achieve sustainability and social justice, so I hope that the gold medal I hereby award to the Duchy of Cornwall will go some way to helping loosen it. Step forward Mr Martin. Unless…well, I said that the Duchy of Cornwall only probably merits gold because, under questioning by small-scale market gardeners and land rights activists, Mr Martin said that the Duchy might consider making land available for small, alt-ag concerns. So if it donates, let’s say, 120,000 acres freehold to around 6,000 would be farmers, Small Farm Future is prepared to be magnanimous and downgrade the Duchy’s award to silver or bronze.

Before I close, and while I’m in the business of parading this cast of shifty characters across the halls of disrepute, perhaps it’s appropriate that I turn the spotlight a little closer to home. For although I’m scarcely a landowner in Prince Charles’s league, nevertheless I have a stake in property, not least my humble eighteen acres of finest Somersetshire, which most likely puts me in serious kulak territory. And while I refuse to yield to the scantily-mortgaged denizens of multiply-zero valued townhouses as they grumble about access to the countryside, I’m all too aware of what an extraordinarily privileged position I’m in compared to the majority of the world’s labourers and farmworkers. If there were truly effective unions organising the wretched of the earth, I suspect that many of us here in the UK would have a lot of rethinking to do about our expectations of the world.

12 thoughts on “Worst trade union of the year award: a Small Farm Future special

  1. Holding Prince Charles out as one whipping boy among others is not going to roil this kulak from abroad. Hereditary land tenure becomes a touchy subject, but this is not the present issue on my mind. At the moment I’m more puzzled by your choice of reallocating the UK’s landmass according to a bell curve and allowing that the Prince might keep all of the estate (which then does lead to your point of a ridiculous situation). If one approached the notion of redistribution according to some imaginary bell curve as you have, but started at the other end and worked back to what a top 4% individual might still hold at the end of it, you get an interesting view of the weight of the population density as well.

    Fair notice – I am not a Brit, a Scot, or an Irishman (though some Irish blood does ebb and flow about my bones) – so for the argument I will rely on two numbers I’ve hooked from the ether of the internet. First that the size of the UK is just at 60 million acres, and second, that the population of the same was counted in 2013 at 64 million souls. By my non-Oxbridgian maths I’ve reckoned this allows each of the living in the UK a patch of land at something close to one acre. A family of 4 should then be made to live on 4 acres if everything is distributed equally. But this is not the gambit. Let us allocate according to a bell curve as suggested here (and more succinctly, a curve that puts the top 4% at a level 9 times that of the bottom 4% – because consideration of other distributions is just so messy). If one measures the allocation of an urban flat in a tree story walkup as say… 900 square feet (and thus the net footprint of 300 square feet… there being apartments on all three levels) and such an apartment is sufficient for housing 2 citizens, then a minimum of 150 square feet per person might suffice as our lowest allowable bound. Pretty paltry, and no where near sufficient for arable allotment as one would rather quickly starve if forced to dine upon such a spot alone… but lets never mind all that.

    So – at a minimum of 150 sq ft – our minimum translates to roughly 0.0034 acres. Hmmm this approach won’t do either. This leaves the aging Prince with less than an acre and a whole lot of island geography to be divided up still. I don’t suppose the hedgehogs and foxes would complain, however.

    A more pragmatic angle… the minimum allotment to allow provisioning of an adequate diet. I’m going to reach down into the hat here and grab for a number. Say 1 acre per person*. Hmmm – seems the UK does have just such an amount available. But even starting at this plausibly logical point the Poor Prince and his elitist cronies will have to make do with a mere 9 acres. Tough sledding to be sure. The Duke and Duchess of Vallis Veg with their 18 acre estate have now found themselves in very aristocratic company 🙂 Oops, not hereditary peers? Yes, well that’s just shows how ignorant I am of how y’all do these things.

    Sorry for all that. I agree that access to land is a very important issue. I agree that the vast inequality between the haves and have-nots is more than simply dangerous. I do appreciate your pointing out the NFU office just coincidentally sits immediately next to DEFRA (causing one to wonder who occupies 18 Smith Square… I’m guessing its not a peasant union). Much to like. A little to wonder about.

    One acre per person – while still a challenge – does seem to carry a bit of merit in some arguments (so long as its not an acre of pure chalk).

    • Yes, something like an acre per person – or less, I think, if you just look at existing farmland – is a useful figure, and a more straightforward one than the approach I took. But not quite as much fun. And not quite as clear a demonstration of the inequities in landownership. But I plan to write later in the year about how things might look if we were all tending our single acres.

      • I made much the same observation as Clem at the Resilience site. I am somewhat disappointed by your reply to him.

        Why talk about land inequity if there is so little of it to go around in England that it cannot possibly be distributed fairly and still provide a living for people and wildlife?

        Your suggestion of one acre per person cannot be serious.
        Are you really going go show us how a family of four can live on four acres of “average” land? One third would be non-agricultural, one third would be rough pasture and only one third would be arable, and that’s without a place to live and roads to get to each parcel.

        Your division of the Duchy of Cornwall into 20 acre farms is closer to the mark.

        • Joe, as per the comments on Resilience.org it makes no sense to me to argue that land inequality is irrelevant in situations of population pressure on land – historically, the very opposite has been the case. The only reason it’s not much of an issue in Britain currently is because we’re not very economically reliant on agriculture at the moment. I suspect that will change.

          I’ve read your comment “It has been shown over and over that if something can’t be divided fairly, people would rather have no distribution at all rather than a few getting everything.” several times, but I’m afraid I don’t understand it – not as a justification for the status quo of aristocratic landownership at any rate. Apart from anything else, there is no such thing as ‘no distribution’. Perhaps you could clarify this assertion or provide some references? I struggle to see how a 135,000 acre estate as a means of generating an income for one family is ethically justifiable however you cut the cake.

          As I said in response to Clem, the figure of an acre per person is an interesting one to reckon with and I’ll be writing more about it later in the year so of course I’d be interested in your comments when I do address it – a preliminary attempt to do so on my part is here:


          • land inequality is irrelevant in situations of population pressure on land

            Despite your disagreement, this is indeed true, but only in circumstances when the degree of population pressure is so great, as in England now, that it cannot be significantly alleviated by any amount of redistribution. This is why your attempt to shame the beneficiaries of egregious land inequality cannot affect land policy or even arouse much public interest. There is no constituency of any size that can benefit from a reduction in that inequality.

            As to public interest – Why should the huddled masses in London care whether one family owns the Duchy of Cornwall or 6,000 happy families do? London would have either 8.6 million non-farmers or 8.594 million non-farmers. It means the same thing to Londoners either way.

            As to fairness – Imagine that those 8.6 million non-farmers in London decided they wanted to quit their urban existence and become self-reliant small farmers. Which 6,000 get the Duchy of Cornwall? How could such a decision be made fairly? Even if all the large land owners in England chipped in their estates, the task would be no easier.

            Even though most people might be repulsed by a few families owning so much land, they can see the impossibility of a fair redistribution to individual families and think, “Why bother?”. Perhaps a public park or greenbelt, but not privately owned small farms.

            I do think it is critically important to own land; it will soon be a matter of life and death. As such, everyone should do their utmost to get land and learn farming. I recommend it ad nauseum in my blog comments. But that pursuit can only be followed by a tiny number of people. If too many agree, the task becomes physically impossible. In England, “too many” is a tiny fraction of the population. I think it only reasonable to point that out.

          • Joe, you’re not convincing me. For starters, it’s not a matter of London’s 8 million people bidding for a piece of the Duchy of Cornwall’s 135,000 acres. It’s about Britain’s 64 million providing for themselves more equitably and more sustainably, as far as possible from the country’s 42 million acres of farmland or 60 million acres in total. On a pure land productivity basis, if you think it’s impossible for 60 million people to feed themselves off 1 acre plots – on which you could be right, not that it’s something I’ve ever actually advocated – then labour productivity being what it is it’s a given that it’s impossible for 3 million people to feed 60 million from 20 acre plots.

            As I said in the post, the Duchy of Cornwall is emblematic of the problematic nature of landownership in this country, no more than that. Of course you’re right that simply breaking the Duchy up into smallholdings and doing nothing else would have little effect. But that’s not what I’m advocating. There were plenty of aspiring farmers and land activists at the ORFC session who expressed their enthusiasm for the opportunity to work the Duchy’s land. If you’re an advocate of landownership and extending agricultural opportunity then presumably you’d be supportive of their aspirations. I don’t understand why defending the status quo of the Duchy’s landholdings is such a sticking point for you.

            I’ll get more into urban-rural population distributions when I write the cycle of posts on peasant agriculture. But it’s worth bearing in mind that 40% of London’s population was born abroad – I suspect the majority of them have followed economic opportunities there and will most likely follow them somewhere else should those opportunities start declining. The same goes for its 4% of millionaires. More generally, I think a shift in emphasis is required regarding the provisioning of urban areas that have resulted from unsustainable economic globalisation. The onus really needs to be on sustainable agriculture, not urbanisation, as the dependent variable. In policy terms and fairness terms the issue really isn’t about coming up with some kind of theoretically equitable per capita land distribution. It’s about incentivising a move towards more sustainable and smaller scale farming, rather than actively disincentivising it as in the present policy environment. One of the disincentives presently is aristocratic inheritance of large landholdings. It’s not necessarily the most important one, but I think it’s symbolically and politically important enough to highlight, which is really all I intended to do in this post. Nor is it true that land inequality is irrelevant in situations of excessive population pressure on land. In a situation of major economic breakdown, the Duchy’s land claims would disappear in short order unless it could defend them militarily.

            If I only wrote about stuff that had mainstream policy traction currently, then I wouldn’t write about small-scale farming at all. I think major changes are needed in the way we organise ourselves agriculturally, economically and politically, they’re not going to happen overnight, and all I can really do personally is analyse and advocate for them. We may be overwhelmed by huge systemic changes long before we’ve managed any kind of sustainable transition. But your approach basically sounds like a counsel of despair, and I’m not going to join you in it. You say that the population pressure on land is so great that it cannot be significantly alleviated by any amount of redistribution. I think that’s patently false – though it’s not just about redistribution, but would also have to involve a whole series of other agricultural, economic and social re-adjustments of the kind I discuss on this site.

        • Joe – you say:
          ‘your attempt to shame the beneficiaries of egregious land inequality cannot affect land policy or even arouse much public interest.’
          Never mind shaming them, let’s just take the land off them, as they’re starting to do in Scotland. As for arousing public interest – we at http://www.lowimpact.org have 200 topics that we provide information on and blog about regularly. Land distribution is the subject that’s guaranteed to rile people. They really do care – even if they live in a city.
          Not everyone is going to have a smallholding – most people will still live in cities, so the one-acre-per-person thing is a bit of a red herring. The trick is to allow as many people who would like a 5- to 10-acre plot to do so, to provide food, fuel etc. to their local community, so that we don’t have to rely on corporate agriculture.
          You also say:
          ‘Imagine that those 8.6 million non-farmers in London decided they wanted to quit their urban existence and become self-reliant small farmers.’
          Why? That’s not going to happen. Let’s imagine a couple of hundred thousand of them doing it instead, and being able to get some land and build their home via some version of a OPD policy.
          Let’s stop dividing the UK into 64 million plots, and let’s focus on getting a million new smallholders instead. That would be a great step forward.

  2. Hi Chris – introducing myself – Dave from Lowimpact.org. That’s superb stuff.
    Would the Landworkers’ Alliance be the alternative to the NFU for any farmers not leaning towards the fuck-the-environment-show-me-the-money end of the spectrum? Do you have anything I could blog to get people to tell other people they might know that LA is a better alternative? We reach lots of different people, many of whom might be or know smallholders / small farmers / landworkers who don’t know about the Landworkers’ Alliance.

    • Hi Dave, Thanks for your comment. Yes I’d say that the LWA is certainly the best alternative currently in the UK to the ‘fuck-the-environment-show-me-the-money’ perspective as you memorably put it. There’s quite a lot of info about what they’re up to on their website: http://landworkersalliance.org.uk/ – they also have regional groups starting up I think, and a lot of young people who want to get involved in farming active in associated groups like the Groundspring network. Not sure if that was what you’re looking for – let me know if I can help you with anything more specific.

      • Hi Chris,
        I was told that you were involved with the LWA, and I thought you might have a promotional piece I could use. I’ll look on their website.
        Your writing is mouth-wateringly good – surprised I haven’t come across you before, but you’re bookmarked now. Any way I might help spread the word, let me know.
        cheers Chris

        • Thanks for those kind words, Dave – I’m glad you finally found me! Yes I was and still am involved with the LWA, though a little less now than previously. I don’t really have anything specifically for you about them myself, but the Rural Manifesto and Feeding the Future reports that you’ll find on their website give a good idea of the agenda and hopefully something to rally behind. On spreading the word…well, linking to my blog when you can is always appreciated!

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