Let them eat … what?

Alan Simpson explores Britain’s implosion of political leadership

Source > Labour Hub

19 May 2022

The 1.5 million households in Britain facing destitution and the 10 million simply in poverty will have wept at the emptiness of the government’s Queen’s Speech programme.

There’s to be no emergency Budget to pay the first £1,000 of spiralling energy costs, no windfall tax on oil and gas profiteering, no restoration of cuts in Universal Credit, no radical plan to support local food supply, no national home insulation programme.

Instead, communities are promised new rights to determine their local street names. I can see us all fighting to get in first – Destitution Row, Food Bank Close(d), Disconnection Drive, Poverty Place… We will all be itching to redefine our place in Boris’ Broken Britain.

In case we get fed up with this, families will also get the right to object to their neighbour’s house improvement plans. This will not, of course, build a single new house or improve and insulate any existing ones. What it will do is shift the locus of social conflict from the catastrophic failure of government to the questionable conduct of our neighbours.

Capitalism loves to set the poor against each other. This avoids the system itself being challenged. The trouble is that it never resolves any of the bigger underlying issues. But what imbecilic and fraudulent leadership Britain is saddled with.

Government promises to criminalise social protest were enough of a bad joke. But when the Minister for ‘Levelling Up’ later resorted to funny voices to wriggle past awkward interview questions it sounded more like an episode from the Muppet Show than a government programme. Even stupidity should have its limits.

A world in confusion

We are in the midst of a post-pandemic global crisis. Someone has to explain this to the government.

Globalisation is imploding behind snarled up supply lines and unsustainable carbon footprints. The climate roller-coaster wreaks havoc from one continent to another. Putin’s disruption of Ukrainian grain exports will precipitate food riots across the globe. And oil corporates plan to cash in on extinction economics unless they are reined in. The crisis calls for leadership that is visionary, not derisory.

OK, Johnson didn’t start the pandemic. He didn’t invade Ukraine. But he is the Prime Minister when Britain needs a war-time plan, not a street name gimmick.

At least Labour recognised that net-zero economics has to be at the heart of it. But with scientists warning there’s a 50/50 chance of exceeding the 1.5°C limit sometime during the next five years there is no point in hiding behind 2050 datelines. The crisis calls for a completely different mindset.

Growth economics is a busted flush unless you’re talking about growth of basic foods, restoring soils or repairing nature. War-time intervention in markets has to elbow deregulation follies out of the game. Eggs are a great example of why.

Britain’s egg production is about to fall off a cliff. Poultry farmers are at their wit’s end because the war in Ukraine (and poor weather in Europe) has sent wheat prices spiralling. But while feed prices have almost doubled, farmers are still locked into supermarket price agreements that would bankrupt them. Many are throwing the towel in, precipitating exactly the price/supply crisis farmers warn of.

You could offer a similar explanation about supply prices in the energy sector. The point is that if you leave it to the market the cost of living crisis spins out of control.

Lessons from history

At the end of World War II, Britain introduced a system of rationing entitlements that ensured the poor had access to the nutritional support needed to rebuild the nation. We need to do the same today, with safe food and clean energy.

This does not mean dumping irradiated foods from Japan into the shopping baskets of the poor. Nor does it mean new oil and gas licenses in the North Sea. It requires different economics of food and energy security: one that is safe, sustainable, affordable and accountable. Pandemics, as well as climate politics, will increasingly localise such policies.

A satellite look across the South China Sea illustrates the pickle we are in. The coastal area around Shanghai is crammed full of container boats going nowhere. It looks more like bacteria under a microscope than a normal seascape. The City has been under complete Covid lockdown for over 3 weeks. As a result, the harbour, the coastline and the sea beyond looks more like a colossal motorway snarl-up. Boats cannot
get in to load or unload and the knock-on consequences for globalised trade are massive. Pandemics are going to do this again and again.

The economics that matters then revolves around more localised supply lines, domestic production and backup storage of the goods you rely on. This brings me back to food.

Strategic reserves

Poultry farmers panicking about the spiralling price of feed aren’t the only ones in a tizz. The disruption of Ukrainian wheat exports will create real shortages and price spikes around the world; accelerating the cost of living crisis. In some countries, it will cause riots.

Egypt is the world’s biggest wheat importer. The availability (and price) of bread is of such political importance that its media issues weekly reports on the state of Egypt’s strategic grain reserves. Bread is what keeps the poor alive. Without it starvation and insurrection would follow. That’s why it matters when their grain stocks fall to around 11 weeks of supply.

Britain used to have its own set of strategic food/grain reserves until Margaret Thatcher decided we no longer needed them. Free trade ideologues argued that deregulated global markets would resolve everything. So today, Britain is lucky if we have more than two to three days of grain stocks. We probably have more stockpiles of unsuitable PPE equipment than we do of grain. Other countries have been less cavalier.

Saudi Arabia stockpiles more than a year’s worth of wheat (over 3 million tonnes). The USA, with its vast acreages of farmland, used to hold some 4 million tonnes in store. China tops the lot, with 650 million tonnes, stored in huge granaries across the country. One way or another, countries with long memories of famine and starvation know the perils of forgetting their own histories.

It is easy for Conservative MPs to deride Britain’s poor as being unable to cook and dismissing food poverty as an issue, but the reality is that when liberalised markets fail, national planning must step in to keep the country alive. This is what the British government doesn’t grasp.

Britain urgently needs a ‘national food plan’. It would begin by keeping Britain’s farmers in business and making food affordable to the poor. The priority would be grain, for people rather than for meat.

And since we currently rely on importing so much of our fruit and vegetables from the EU, it would be wise not to piss Europe off by tearing up the Northern Ireland Protocol. Painfully embarrassing as this may be, Boris should be honest about saying we must either opt back into the Single Market or draw a frontier somewhere where all the goods get taxed and checked.

We can repair and restock our own natural environment. We can meet much of our own food needs and restore our soils in the process. As climate breakdown accelerates the incidence of crises, the circularity of life (and economics) will reassert itself.

No amount of re-named streets or loft-extension disputes will fend off the different approach to sustainable ‘climate’ economics this will lead us into.

And not before time.

Alan Simpson was Labour MP for Nottingham South from 1992 to 2010. This article first appeared on his blog here

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