Opinion: NFU must remain ‘apolitical’ about Europe vote

NFu sign

© Tim Scrivener

Let me indulge myself by telling you about one of my heroes. His name is Lord Plumb, but he prefers it if you just call him Henry. He is one of the most likeable, avuncular men I have ever met, but like all great men, you revere him in the same measure as you like him.

I bump into him every so often, but as an office holder of the NFU I feel his presence. Given the return of Star Wars mania in our cinemas, it’s tempting to say I’m Luke Skywalker to his Darth Vader, but that would be a bit silly – and would only start me thinking about who fills the Obi-Wan Kenobi or Princess Leia roles at the NFU at the moment.

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Anyway, I digress. The reason I mention Lord Plumb here is by reference to the last time we had a referendum in this country over EU membership. It was 1975, the Bay City Rollers were storming the charts and I was a spotty schoolboy at Clacton Grammar.

While I was sitting at the back of the history class studying, watching the sixth-form girls playing netball ouside, Henry Plumb was making history. I was too young  to vote in 1975, whereas Henry was busy influencing how people voted.

Guy Smith comes from a mixed family farm on the north-east Essex coast, which is officially recognised as the driest farm in the UK. He is also vice-president of the NFU

In 1975, with Henry Plumb as its longstanding president, the NFU was firmly in the pro-membership camp and campaigned as such. Forty years on the NFU is more on the fence. Our surveys show our members are split on this issue – 25% would vote out, 50% would stay in and 25% are undecided.

Just as in a run-up to a general election, we would never try to steer our members to vote for one party or another, so too we are not minded to urge members to put their cross in a particular referendum box. The NFU is strictly apolitical, with a healthy spectrum of political views in our membership which are always respected.

But this emphatically does not mean the NFU should avoid being part of the debate. Far from it. It is imperative the NFU makes the voice of farming heard loud and clear as we discuss how we change our relationship with the EU.

Both sides of the debate need to face questions about what the consequences for agriculture are in both “in” or “out” scenarios. We need the detail and if it’s not forthcoming we should keep on asking until it is.

And if David Cameron wants Britain to get a better deal out of the EU, he could ask himself questions such as why it is that other EU countries get BPS payments to their farmers quickly after the opening of the payment window, while Britain seems to take for ever.

But that is not to say that as farmers we would necessarily vote in this referendum solely in the interests of agriculture. We can see the wider national interest beyond our own concerns. Agriculture is a key part of the EU, but there are other considerations and this leads me back to Lord Plumb.

On 14 November 1940, as a schoolboy, young Henry stood on a hill on the family farm a few miles west of Coventry. From that vantage point he witnessed the sky turn red as the Luftwaffe razed a fine medieval city to rubble. Henry has never explained to me why Britain shouldn’t leave the EU, but he’s told me that story in a way that it leaves me nothing more to ask.