What Shall the Future Bring Us?

BY JIM WEBSTER

I went down to London the other day. First time for a couple of years, so I was quite intrigued to see what things were like down there. On the train and at the stations, masks were optional. Pretty much the same proportion of people were wearing them as wear them round here. Once in the big city it did feel quiet. Just walking across the city there were fewer people about than I would have expected. On the tube, whilst Transport for London kept announcing the wearing of masks was mandatory, I reckon that about 50% of people were wearing them at the time, and only about half the staff wore one. The only place I was asked to wear a mask was going into a bookshop. His shop, his rules, so I put a mask on. Walking through Whitehall, St John’s Smith Square and Horseferry Road, there were so few civil servants about that if it wasn’t for the security guards it would have been empty. I noticed one block of Whitehall offices being turned into flats. Looks like the government’s plan to cut their central London office estate by 80% is progressing. A lot of civil servants are still working from home and I suspect they’ll not be coming back. Once you get to a certain age and have outgrown ambition it could be nice to drift through working from home into semi-retirement. Coming home, I’ve spent a bit of time over the years, waiting at Euston Station where the concourse can get very crowded. Well this time it wasn’t that crowded, but then they called the Manchester train. Those of us were left just stood there and admired the tumbleweed rolling across. I’ve never known it as empty waiting for the 16:30.

But just watching, it strikes me that whilst there are those who are genuinely worried, and those who are posturing for political reasons (both for and against masks), most people have moved on. Covid is an endemic disease, the people who are vulnerable were vulnerable to flu and in some cases, to colds and similar.

It’s the same with Brexit. It’s not surprising really, the vote was on 23 June 2016. Yes there are people who got over-emotional over it all, but most people are just getting on with life. Yes there’s political arguments with EU members, and disputes with the French but most people have heard so many horror stories they no longer take a lot of notice. We’re no longer in the EU and love it or loathe it, most people are used to it.

And now we’ve got global warming and there are all sorts of predictions. I saw one headline where somebody was claiming that farming in the UK would collapse by 2100AD. I confess I never bothered to read the article, neither I nor the writer were going to be alive then. I cheerfully make predictions about what the world will be like when I’m safely dead. If I’m wrong, you can come and shout imprecations at a small plaque in a country churchyard if it makes you feel better.

But it does seem that with regard to climate change, the population fall as usual into three groups. One is apparently absolutely terrified and believe the worst. One group doesn’t believe in it and will never believe in it. The third group, by far the largest, have just shrugged, would agree that something needs to be done, and assume that the people at both extremes are lying, hysterical, or have careers in the industry.

But just talking to people, they seem resigned to things having to be done, and they assume that it will be them who will pay for it. These strike me as entirely reasonable assumptions. From the point of view of the politicians, they have the luxury of putting forward programmes and not having to face the consequences. So in this country some of the extra costs we’re all currently paying are due to announcements made by Ed Miliband when he was Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change. But to be fair, some of the successes we’ve seen have been due to measures he took. It’s the same with stuff being announced now. Back in spring 2019, Philip Hammond as Chancellor announced that ‘fossil-fuel heating systems’ would not be installed in any domestic new build properties from 2025. He’s been kicked upstairs to the Lords and it’s Boris and his administration who has to deal with the issue. In all probability it’ll be Boris’s successor who will get the flak from the electorate when those particular chickens come home to roost.

But it’s obvious to everybody that the road we’re having to walk is going to be awfully costly for the ordinary taxpayer and consumer. Energy is going to be more expensive, and most things take energy to produce or transport. So pretty much everything is going to be more expensive, and a lot of things we took for granted will no longer be affordable. I’m still waiting for the campaign to put people off flying on holiday. “Jet off early to watch the world burn.”

From an agricultural point of view this isn’t entirely good news. On one hand, given that people are going to be short of money and feeling the squeeze, any UK government of any political persuasion is going to do what they can to make sure prices of staple foodstuffs are kept down. So whoever is in power will make trade deals with places like New Zealand, Australia and South America to not merely guarantee supply but also to ensure that prices stay low. The last thing any UK government wants is people skint, hungry, and angry. Looked at from a historical point of view, government is being longsighted.

Bit of a sod for farmers, but then there are 107 thousand farmers in the UK. We form about 0.16% of the UK population. Politically we’re irrelevant. We’re outnumbered by vegans (admittedly their numbers churn far more quickly than ours,) In fact we’re outnumbered two to one by the 365,000 licenced taxi and private hire drivers. 

Government (and here I’m ignoring political party again) are going to have to balance output (because the smarter ones have realised that we will have to produce stuff here), environmental concerns, and recreation and tourism.

I think we have to be realistic. UK governments have followed a ‘cheap food’ policy since the war if not since the repeal of the Corn Laws and the industrial revolution. This policy is not going to change. Those who survive in farming are going to be the good ones. The efficient who aren’t over-borrowed, those lucky in their location for picking up environmental money, and those which a sharp eye for a chance.

There will be opportunities coming up. In thirty years’ time selling hay to commuters and hauling away horse muck or night soil might be the way to go.

Jim Webster farms at the bottom end of South Cumbria. Jim was encouraged to collect together into a book some blog posts he’d written because of their insight into Cumbrian farming and rural life (rain, sheep, quad-bikes and dogs) It’s available here.