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Farmers for Action: hail the new NUM

My great-grandfather was a pig dealer. I revealed this fact to me oldest daughter recently and she instantly replied in what was – I hope – all innocence: ‘Is that like a drugs dealer?’

Generations of Oslers past relied on agriculture for their livings, perhaps for hundreds of years back, as far as I can make out from researching my family tree. Even my dad started working life as a farm labourer before switching to a railway job.

Yet despite this heritage, all I know about the contemporary farming scene is gleaned from regularly waking up at 5.50am and eavesdropping on Farming Today for the last few minutes before the pips herald the start of the Today Programme.

Thanks to Radio Four, I have been aware for some time that dairy farmers are unhappy with the lousy prices they are being paid by milk processors. I have even heard interviews with David Handley, head of a group calling itself Farmers for Action, in which he hinted at dastardly plans to suddenly choke off the nation’s supply of semi-skimmed in pursuit of a price hike.

Mr Handley, who was prominent in the fuel protests of 2000, is known to be somewhat on the right of the political spectrum. Among his reported associates is former Federation of Conservative Students chairman Mark MacGregor, who is nobody’s idea of a cuddly liberal.

But just because FFA is led by a petit bourgeois enragé does not invalidate its cause, and its ability to mobilise thousands of farmers to participate in blockades in Somerset, Shropshire and Worcestershire last weekend points to the depth of feeling this matter is arousing.

So I tend to have sympathy for the campaign, although I would be happy for anybody with more knowledge of the issues than I can claim to put me straight on that point if this is the wrong stance to take.

It’s just that I cannot help remembering another community that resorted to direct action when faced a devastating threat to its livelihood. Around the time Mr MacGregor was so memorably leading the FCS, I was a young lefty heavily involved in supporting the National Union of Mineworkers in its 1984-85 struggle to save Britain’s coal industry.

Based on my experiences of that time, I fully expect that the police will strictly enforce laws governing pickets, limiting FFA to six tractors outside processing depots, and making sure at all costs that milk gets through to the plant.

And of course, the rightwing media are certain to mount a massive propaganda campaign urging Mr Handley to conduct a ballot of all dairy farmers, and deny the legitimacy of his tactics until he does so.

If he does put things to a vote, the milk processors must of course be allowed to challenge the procedure if he gets one or two members’ addresses wrong. If he does not, the state will move to sequestrate the FFA bank account.

I know these things will happen, because anything else would smack of double standards, wouldn’t it?

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