Richard North, 04/10/2021  

Although they are dragging on, the two issues of pigs and petrol seem to be symbols of the divide between the unreconciled remainers and the Johnson version of Brexit.

In the middle are the two distinct groups who are fulfilling the unwilling role of collateral damage: the diminishing number of fuel-starved motorists and the increasing number of pig producers, whose crisis seems only to be starting.

Neither group, as one might expect, is getting any sympathy from Johnson, who cheerily asserted on the Marr Show that the travails of both groups are part of a necessary transition for Britain to emerge from a broken economic model based on low wages.

There is no single representative group to articulate the reactions of the many motorists who have been spending their time over the last week queuing for fuel but, to judge from Alistair Driver's piece in Pig World, he has certainly pissed off the pig producers.

"In an astonishingly arrogant and ignorant interview", writes Driver, "prime minister Boris Johnson dismissed the crisis-torn pig sector's plight, telling Andrew Marr the pigs are going to die anyway".

Thus did Johnson make it clear he had no intention of offering any support to the pig sector, as it faced up to the reality of tens of thousands of pigs potentially having to be slaughtered on farm and incinerated due to staff shortages in processing plants.

The interview, which Driver says has already prompted a furious backlash from the farming community on social media, "will pour further oil onto the fire as the pig sector grows increasingly exasperated with the government's lack of interest in what is happening".

Such is the situation that Driver actually thought Marr was well-briefed (there's a first time for everything), suggesting to Johnson that 120,000 pigs are going to have to be killed and incinerated if there is no answer to the shortage of abattoir and butchery workers in the next ten days. "That", said Marr, "would be the single biggest cull of healthy animals ever to happen in the history of British agriculture", asking: "What are you going to do?"

Driver, in his article, ramps up the outrage. Rather than treat the issue with the gravity a messy mass cull of pigs and the decline of an entire industry deserved, he writes, Johnson saw it as an opportunity for a light-hearted spar with Mr Marr and to reassert his Brexit ideals, heaping all the blame on the industry.

"I hate to break it you Andrew, but our food processing industry does involve the killing of a lot of animals". Johnson told Marr, "That is the reality. Your viewers need to understand that is what happens". He then went on to blame the industry for not providing the pay or conditions to attract enough domestic workers to the job.

"You are talking again about a shortage of a particular type of workforce", Johnson said. "What I think needs to happen… there is a question about the types of job that are being done, the pay that is being offered, the levels of automation, the levels of investment in those jobs".

The "well-briefed" Marr could have dissected those assertions, but he didn't. Instead, he challenged Johnson on his response to "pictures of all those pigs being killed on farms and in incinerated, rather than being sold for food", given that he clearly had no short-term answers.

All Johnson had to offer, though, was the dismissive comment that: "They are also going to be killed". Warming to his theme, he added: "That's what you need to understand. Before you try to obfuscate this point, the fact is, Andrew…".

At this point Marr repeated that the issue was about pigs that should have gone into the food chain, but were getting too big and being culled early and incinerated. "Right", Johnson replied. "If I may say so, the great hecatomb of pigs you describe on farm has not taken place. Let's see what happens. Let's see what happens".

And if things were not already sufficiently surreal, as Driver notes, they lurched into the bizarre when Marr tried to put it to Johnson that that the situation might be his personal responsibility. Johnson answered:
I am not saying it's your fault, Andrew. I wouldn't dream of blaming you. But what I would say is that we can't do in all these sectors is go back to the tired old model, and reach for the lever called uncontrolled immigration, and get people in at low wages.
The prime minister then concluded: "There will be a period of adjustment but that I think is what people need to see". Driver, a stalwart of Farmer's Guardian, then puts his own person imprint on this exchange, writing:
Having covered farming politics for more than 20 years, I have never seen such an appalling, ill-judged and ill-informed interview. It seems astonishing that it came from a man deemed worthy by some of holding the role of Prime Minister.
The industry, he says, "is in depth or arguably its biggest crisis and the backlash on Twitter and in my inbox has been predictably furious. But this is likely to be only the start". He thus relays the views of one trusted and veteran pig farmer, who states: "In all my years of political viewing I have never heard a PM be so poorly briefed that was an embarrassment. He just threw the pig industry under a bus".

In Driver's view, Johnson's comments clearly indicate that he has no intention of facilitating new short-term temporary visas for butchers to ease the backlog – even though his reference to "uncontrolled immigration" is completely at odds with the short-term measures the meat sector is seeking. But even more worrying, Driver continues:
…is the rhetoric, matched by the deafening silence from Defra as the industry spirals into crisis – the Government, from the top down, seems unaware that there is even a crisis or, more worryingly if it is aware, prepared to let animals and the industry suffer, rather than being seen to compromise on its misguided Brexit ideals.
Nobody in the pig industry and wider food chain, he says, is suggesting that all the current problems are about Brexit, or that the government can wave a magic wand and solve the problem. Covid and wider, in some cases, global, industry factors have also contributed to the "perfect storm" we now see. Rest assured, the industry is working hard in its own solutions and urging retailers to play their parts, too.

He then asserts: "But Brexit has – undoubtedly – been a significant factor, not least the loss of access to EU workers in in our plants that has left them short of capacity and unable to process the pigs that are coming through on farms. And this is not about wages or conditions". Driver then concludes with three telling paragraphs:
There is much the government could do to help, starting with a basic acknowledgement and understanding of the true problems the industry is facing through to the immediate issuing of temporary butchers' visas to help ease the backlog.

The Prime Minister's stance is telling and deeply concerning, not just for the short-term future of our pigs and pig farmers, but for the longer-term as new regulation comes down the line and new post-Brexit trading arrangements are negotiated that could, if the government wish, see UK pork replaced with cheaper product from elsewhere produced within vastly different systems.

But if, as appears increasingly likely, the government is prepared to sacrifice the British pig sector in pursuit of wider ideological goals, this proud industry will not take it lying down. It will, as it has done in the past, fight for its future. The government is going to learn more about how the pig industry feels over the next few days.
"Let's see what happens", are Driver's final words.

And there - unusually for me, quoted almost verbatim – is committed, principled journalism from a highly experienced industry specialist. Even though there may be points with which one could disagree, there is no hiding the passion and intensity of Driver's writing.

To an extent, though – as I suggested in my recent piece - the slaughterhouse sector is partly responsible for its own misfortune. And the NFU's response has been dilatory and lacklustre. Much more could have been done, much earlier, to make government aware of the mounting problems, but the NFU has taken a typically emollient line, cosying up to government rather than representing the interests of its members.

And, when it comes slaughterhouse staffing, of course it's not about "wages or conditions". It's about wages and conditions. The fact that industry spokesmen are saying that they've recently increased wages to attract new staff, suggests that the wage levels were set too low. The fact that the industry is still not succeeding in recruiting local staff suggests that it's about conditions as well. These jobs are so awful that people won't do them at any price.

To that extent, as a long-term objective, the industry needs complete restructuring. And, after more than half a century of state interference, its is entirely valid to expect government help in restructuring. That there isn't even a plan on the table, though, illustrates the poverty of thinking, both in the industry and the government.

But it is too late now for any such plan to head off the current crisis. Driver is quite right to suggest that immediate measures must be taken. But to rely on opening up slaughterhouses to immigrants is something of a gamble: there is no direct evidence that potential foreign recruits are ready to rush to Britain's aid.

It may turn out that the situation has gone too far to be recoverable, and a limited cull is the only option. But, even then, the state should have a role. It was quick to intervene in the Foot & Mouth epidemic, and should do so now, mobilising resources and, perhaps, compensating farmers for their losses.

Simply to adopt a laissez faire approach, as Johnson is doing, dismissing well-founded concerns with contemptuous insouciance, is intolerable – and unacceptable.

Farmers themselves may be electorally insignificant, but photographs of piles of slaughtered animals, and graphic video footage, can have a powerful political effect. Johnson may soon be getting an object lesson in quite how powerful this can be.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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